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Phil Donahue was born in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of a furniture salesman and a shoe seller, Donahue graduated from St Edward’s High School in Lakewood, Ohio, and attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.
After college, Donahue worked as an announcer at KYW radio in Cleveland and then became a newscaster at WHIO in Dayton, Ohio, where he also hosted his first talk show on radio, Conversation Piece.
The Phil Donahue Show first went to air in 1967 as a local talk show in Dayton. The show went national in 1970 and had its final hour in 1996 when ratings fell with the influx of many talk shows that covered similar subject matters.
Controversial guests within the first few years of the show included actress Jane Fonda defending her visit to North Vietnam, segregation advocate Governor George Wallace of Alabama, and representatives of then-rarely-seen groups such as prostitutes and homosexuals.
Newsweek reported that radical activist Jerry Rubin gave Donahue a difficult time in 1970, calling the host “Mr Plastic Man” and asking him, “You got an anal problem?” Talk like that was radical for daytime television, and at first the show had rough going in syndication (just 16 markets in 1971), but through perseverance, critical acclaim, and a move to Chicago in 1974, Donahue gradually gained strength, with a big breakthrough coming when the all-important New York City market took the show in 1977.
One thing that might have limited his appeal was Donahue’s unabashedly liberal views on many of the topics discussed, which he felt free to share and which not all viewers wanted to hear.
Controversies did abound on Donahue’s shows. There was the 1976 flap where an appearance by the Reverend Richard Ginder – who condoned premarital sex and masturbation and claimed that a third of all Catholic priests were gay – prompted a demand for equal time to respond by Father Leo McKenzie, head of the Delaware Valley Catholic Office for Radio and Television.
Then there was a 1977 segment on natural childbirth which at least four stations rejected. In 1981 the Coalition for Better Television issued a press release stating that two out of every week’s Donahue shows dealt with sex, but the Reverend Donald Wildmon, president of the Coalition, later apologised, although he refused to back down totally, adding that he believed that the show did have a “flagrant use of some areas of sex.”
The show’s popularity grew in the late 1970s, and Donahue began branching out into nighttime specials on NBC. In January 1985 the show moved to New York and began airing live daily via satellite feed from 9.00 am on the East Coast.
In February 1987, Donahue became the first American talk show host to tape shows in Russia. Oddly, the show which caused the most controversy was one in 1988, in which he wore a skirt during a discussion on fashion.
When his show hit its 25th year on the air, Donahue mounted a two-hour nighttime anniversary special on NBC on 16 November 1992, recounting favourite moments and guests over the years. Many of his rival talk show hosts appeared to salute him, including Oprah Winfrey, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Joan Rivers.
Given that and his well-received interviews with the 1992 presidential candidates, it looked as if his show would run until the day Phil died. But as he continued his thoughtful presentation of issues, tackier, trashier entries like Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones began to pass him in the ratings, and in 1995 the show suffered a near-fatal blow: New York City, where he still did the show, dropped him.
It thus came as no surprise when he announced a few months later that he was ending his reign. Donahue taped his last show in May 1996 with his production staff as guests.
During his tenure on TV, Donahue won an impressive nine daytime Emmys as Outstanding Talk Show Host and a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1996.
Except for occasional cameo guest appearances on such shows as Ellen and Frasier, Donahue retired from the television spotlight, except to promote various worthwhile causes with his wife, actress Marlo Thomas (former star of That Girl).