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Jerry Springer, Cincinnati politician turned daytime 'ringmaster,' dies at 79

The "Jerry Springer" show remains on some television stations today even though it was canceled in 2018
Courtesy Jerry Springer show

The host of the "worst show in TV history" said he had "a great life, it's a life of no regrets."

Jerry Springer, the former Cincinnati mayor and news anchor whose salacious daytime talk show set a new low for television, died at his suburban Chicago home Thursday morning after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

Springer's syndicated daytime Jerry Springer talk show — with lovers' fighting, shows about self-immolation and promiscuity, and with such titles as "You Slept With 55 Girls!" "Mom Will You Marry Me?" "Lesbian Hot Tub Party," "Threesomes with Grandma" and "I Married A Horse" – was No. 1 on TV Guide's list of the "Worst Shows In The History Of Television" in 2002. Four years earlier Jerry Springer became the first talk show to knock Oprah Winfrey out of the top of the daytime ratings.

Canceled in 2018, Jerry Springer still remains on the air in some cities, including WKRC-TV's Channel 12.2 CW affiliate in Cincinnati, the city where Springer got his start as a politician in the early 1970s; worked as a news anchor and commentator (1982-93); and premiered his TV talk show (1991).

"I thank God every day that my life has taken this incredible turn because of this silly show," Springer told me in 2011 on the 20th anniversary of his show.

That "silly little show" propelled Springer into international stardom — hosting NBC's America's Got Talent, the Game Show Network's Baggage and TV series in London and South Africa; starring in a film version of his Ringmaster autobiography; inspiring an opera; competing briefly on Dancing with the Stars; appearing on Roseanne, The Simpsons, Married … with Children, The X Files, The Wayans Bros. and other shows; and making him the punch line for countless jokes by comedians.

Jerry Springer Show
Publicity photo for "Jerry Springer" for fall 1999 after the show beat "Oprah Winfrey" in the ratings.

When he retired a year ago, after NBCUniversal canceled his Judge Jerry court show after two seasons, Springer told me he had no regrets.

"I'm very, very, very lucky and I realize I am, to have 40, 50 years of doing this. It's been a great life. It's a life of no regrets."

However, for most of his TV career, Springer yearned to return to his roots as a serious liberal thinker while he used some of his TV millions to promote progressive issues and Democratic candidates. He hosted a national radio talk show on the short lived Air America network in 2005; tried to do a serious nightly commentary on Chicago's WMAQ-TV in 1997; did a weekly podcast with longtime friend Jene Galvin from here; and periodically authorized polling in Ohio about possibly running for a U.S. Senate seat or governor.

But he realized that he couldn't return to politics as long as he was "Jer-ree! Jer-ree!" on daytime TV.

It was his seven-week stint on Dancing with the Stars in 2006 in which America saw the loveable, self-deprecating man Cincinnati voters fell in love with during his 1970s campaigns for City Council. ABC's primetime dance competition made it "clear I wasn't a crazy person, I just had a crazy show," Springer later told me.

Courtesy Jerry Springer show
After complaints by Chicago leaders, producers agree to curb violence on the show in 1999.

Born Gerald Norman Springer into a Jewish family in London on Feb. 13, 1944, he was raised in New York City and earned a law degree in 1968 from Northwestern University. He organized college students in Midwest states for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968, and was among the Vietnam War protesters in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention. After passing the Ohio bar exam, he joined Cincinnati's Frost & Jacobs law firm, where he had clerked in 1967.

The charismatic liberal connected with Cincinnati's largely German Catholic population, which elected him to council in 1971 and again in 1973. And the city was very forgiving after he resigned as vice mayor after writing a check to a prostitute in 1974, by electing him back on council in 1975, 1977 and 1979. He was named mayor for a year after receiving the largest plurality for city council in history in 1977. His first broadcasting experience was doing regular "Springer Memorandum" essays for rock station WEBN-FM.

The Democrat left council to run for Ohio governor in 1982. Campaigning in Cleveland, Springer once promised that, if elected, he would turn the state around. "Then you'll be next to Kentucky!" he added with a big smile.

Courtesy WLWT-TV
Co-anchors Norma Rashid and Jerry Springer appeared in this advertisement wishing the Reds good luck in the 1990 World Series.

After losing to eventual governor Richard Celeste in 1982, he started doing a nightly 11 p.m. commentary on NBC affiliate WLWT-TV, which would earn him several regional Emmys. He was elevated to main news co-anchor with Norma Rashid in 1984, and they became the No. 1 team three years later. He drove a Bentley and sang with the Beach Boys when they came to town.

At the peak of his popularity on the news the Jerry Springer daytime talk show was launched in 1991 by Multimedia Entertainment, which owned the station and the Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael daytime talk shows.

When his daytime show was announced on June 11, 1991, Springer vowed: "I will not be dancing with The Chippendales. I can tell you that because I've been promised that I would not have to do that. I would object to that." But within a year, with the show struggling to capture a daytime TV audience, Springer pulled bikini briefs over his trousers and presented what his show publicists called "the steamiest male stripper competition you've ever seen."

Jerry Springer Show
Promotion for the 1993 fall TV season.

After Multimedia moved the show to Chicago in fall of 1992 — and Springer stopped commuting daily to anchor the Cincinnati evening news and read a commentary in January 1993 — the show turned into a TV circus with sleazy topics and chair-throwing guests. It was a radical departure for Springer, who had ended his WLWT-TV newscasts telling viewers to "Take care of yourself, and each other."

Springer never apologized for the show's outrageous content. He once explained to me he was contractually obligated to do shows "outside the social norm" for NBC Universal. "We are not allowed to do warm, uplifting topics," he said.

He repeatedly justified his show by saying: "I don't think anyone takes the show seriously. I've always said the show had no redeeming social value. I can't give a serious argument why it's good. It isn't I'm not looking for excuses. I could always walk away, and haven't. People who want to criticize me for doing the show, that is fair and legitimate," Springer said in 2011.

TV's ringmaster was hugely popular with young viewers and often drew huge crowds at colleges. Jene Galvin, who met Springer when he started his law and politics career in Cincinnati, was amazed at Springer's ability to relate to people of all ages.

"He had this connectivity at a very elite level. There was something he exuded in his persona. People would approach him, and they just knew they could go up to him and B.S. with him and get a selfie," said Galvin, a retired Cincinnati high school teacher. "He was always there when I needed him, with money for a cause or to make a personal appearance."

Springer frequently returned to Cincinnati while maintaining homes in suburban Chicago and Sarasota, Fla. He last visited Cincinnati n February to participate in a roast honoring Simon Leis — the former Hamilton County judge, prosecutor and sheriff — and to visit WLWT-TV, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

A few months ago, Springer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Galvin said. Ironically, Springer had told me a year ago, after Judge Jerry was cancelled that he was retiring while he was in good health.

"I'm 78 and have been in front of the camera now for 40 years, plus 10 years in politics … I want to try out retirement while I'm still healthy," he said by phone from Sarasota.

Courtesy NBCUniversal
"Judge Jerry" aired two season (2020-2022) in syndication.

Springer died at 4 a.m. Thursday. The news came as a shock to many because "Jerry and the family wanted to keep it quiet," Galvin said.

The family released this statement Thursday through Galvin:

"Jerry Springer, 79, died peacefully today at his home in suburban Chicago, Illinois after a brief illness, surrounded by his family. Jerry, born Gerald Norman Springer in London, England on February 13, 1944, immigrated to Queens, New York at the age of four along with his parents and older sister. He graduated from Tulane University and Northwestern University Law School, served in the United States Army Reserves and had a long career in law, politics, journalism and broadcasting.

"He was known for the Jerry Springer Show, the Judge Jerry Show, the Springer on the Radio Show, Baggage, the Jerry Springer Podcast and until recently even his own '60s folk music radio show in Cincinnati. He also wrote an autobiography and once starred in a movie. But he captured the emotions of the country in 2006 with a shockingly long and humorous run on the popular Dancing With the Stars Show.

"He was mayor of Cincinnati (1977-78), a Cincinnati city council member (1971-74, 1975-1982), an unsuccessful candidate in the Democratic Party primary for governor of Ohio (1982) and an entertainment and broadcasting icon."

"Jerry's ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word," Galvin said. “He’s irreplaceable and his loss hurts immensely, but memories of his intellect, heart and humor will live on."

Funeral services and a memorial gathering are currently being developed. To remember Jerry, the family asks that in lieu of flowers you consider following his spirit and make a donation or commit to an act of kindness to someone in need or a worthy advocacy organization. As he always said, "Take care of yourself, and each other."

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.