Jim Lange, Genial Host of ‘Dating Game,’ Dies at 81
Jim Lange, the original host of “The Dating Game,” the hit TV show that distilled the Swinging Sixties into a potent blend of on-screen matchmaking, jovial innuendo and unstinting Mod aesthetics, died on Tuesday a his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 81.
The apparent cause was a heart attack, his wife, Nancy, said.
Long before “The Bachelor” and its ilk became reality-television staples, there was “The Dating Game.” Created by Chuck Barris and broadcast on ABC, the show made its debut in 1965 and ran, in various incarnations, on and off for decades.
Mr. Lange, known for his voluminous hair, velvet tuxedos and boyish affability, was its host into the 1980s, by which time it had been retitled “The New Dating Game.”
The show’s premise was simple: a contestant, usually a young woman, read scripted questions, awash in gentle double entendres, to three men. (Q. “If you were a holiday, how would you like to be celebrated?” A. “I would love to be Arbor Day, and be potted.”)
The men, known as Bachelors Nos. 1, 2 and 3, were seated behind a screen, visible to the audience but not to the contestant. (“And h-e-e-r-e they are!,” Mr. Lange ritually intoned on introducing them to viewers.)
Based on their answers, the contestant chose one of them to be her date on a romantic getaway, furnished by the show. In a nod to the mores of the times — or, more accurately, to those of a somewhat earlier time — the trips were chaperoned, sometimes by Mr. Lange, sometimes by Mr. Barris.
On some episodes, the roles were reversed, with a male contestant interrogating three bachelorettes. On others, celebrities — among them a juvenile Michael Jackson and a youthful, heavily muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger — took the contestant’s chair.
In an era in which a woman was expected to wait for a man to ask her out, “The Dating Game” billed itself as a blow for progress.
“It was a magic formula, because here you have a woman picking from three guys,” Mr. Lange told the “Today” show in 2005. “The fact that women were making choices was a total different thing for dating.”
Yet at the same time, the show’s eminently recognizable set (a backdrop of huge psychedelic daisies) and equally recognizable theme music (a bouncy, brassy Herb Alpert number) made it seem campily retrograde, even for its day.
“The Dating Game” lives on in popular culture, parodied in TV comedy sketches and lately reincarnated for interactive play on social-media sites like Facebook.
On movie screens, Mr. Lange appeared as a talking head in the 2002 film “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” The film is an adaptation of Mr. Barris’s 1984 memoir of that name, in which he said he moonlighted as an assassin for the Central Intelligence Agency while chaperoning couples from “The Dating Game.”
“That’s possible, too, because you are not with the couple constantly,” a 2003 article in The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Mr. Lange as having said. “You would have some free time, though I don’t know how much time it takes to kill somebody.”
James John Lange was born in St. Paul on Aug. 15, 1932. At 15, on winning a competition, he became a broadcaster on a local radio station. In the late 1950s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Minnesota and serving in the Marine Corps, he took a job as a D.J. at KGO in San Francisco. He later moved to KSFO there.
Mr. Lange came to national attention shortly afterward, when he was hired as an announcer and sidekick on “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show,” broadcast on national television from San Francisco. Mr. Barris, seeing the show, hired him for “The Dating Game.”
After leaving “The Dating Game,” Mr. Lange was a host of “The New Newlywed Game,” “$100,000 Name That Tune” and other shows. He was later a D.J. for several California stations, including KABL in San Francisco.
Mr. Lange’s first marriage, to Fay Madigan, ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife, the former Nancy Fleming, the 1961 Miss America, whom he married in 1978; two sons, Nicolas and Gavin, and a daughter, Romney Lange, all from his first marriage; two stepchildren, Ingrid Carbone and Steig Johnson; a sister, Midge Lange; and four grandchildren.
Though “The Dating Game” made Mr. Lange’s reputation, it was a reputation of which he soon tired.
“It stigmatized me,” he told The Chronicle in 1991. “I wouldn’t even be considered for commercials because I was so identified with that one image.”
In the end, however, he appeared reconciled to his legacy.
“It’ll be on my tombstone,” Mr. Lange told The Chronicle in 1991: “And h-e-e-r-e he is! With an arrow pointing down.”