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Jerry Springer, talk show host and former Cincinnati mayor, dies at 79

Talk show host and former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer died Thursday. He's pictured above in New York in 2010.
Richard Drew
Talk show host and former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer died Thursday. He's pictured above in New York in 2010.

Updated April 27, 2023 at 4:09 PM ET

Jerry Springer, a broadcaster, author, politician, journalist, actor, lawyer and host of a daytime show so outrageous he once apologized by saying it "ruined the culture," died today at age 79 in his suburban Chicago home after a brief illness, according to a statement from his family.

Though he had a lot of high-profile jobs over his lifetime – including mayor of Cincinnati – Springer was best known as host of The Jerry Springer Show, a syndicated TV program which lasted for 27 years, featuring provocatively sensational topics and confrontations among the guests, sometimes degenerating into fistfights.

Springer started his talk show in 1991 as a more conventional affair. Dressed in a suit and tie with glasses, he looked like a younger version of talk-TV titan Phil Donahue, and questioned guests while roaming the crowd with a wireless microphone in the same way.

But over time, Springer began to feature more outrageous guests and subjects, with cheating spouses, open racists, and button-pushing, explicit issues guaranteed to spark arguments.

Success in a televised circus

The show's success became one of the pillars of the tabloid talk show movement which included hosts like Maury Povich, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, Montel Williams and Morton Downey Jr. Springer, a likable, charismatic guy with a conventional look and just-asking-questions manner, always came across as a more buttoned-down counterpoint to his outrageous guests.

Jerry Springer appears on his show in December 1998.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
Jerry Springer appears on his show in December 1998.

When I first met Springer as a critic working for the St. Petersburg Times newspaper back in 1997 — at a taping in Florida centered on the case of a white man sentenced to jail for using threats and racial slurs to drive away his African American neighbors – he insisted his show was about sparking dialogue.

When TV is at its best, it's like a mirror. If this does nothing more than get people to sit around the dinner table and discuss this, it's done some good.

"When TV is at its best, it's like a mirror,"he told me. "If this does nothing more than get people to sit around the dinner table and discuss this, it's done some good."

Unfortunately, the show also ginned up scandalous arguments to build viewership and ratings, with Springer as the genial, criticism-deflecting ringmaster.

An early career in politics and law

Born Gerald Norman Springer in London England, he emigrated to Queens, N.Y., at age 4 with his family, eventually graduating from Tulane University and Northwest University Law School by the late 1960s.

He practiced law in Cincinnati, eventually getting elected to the city council in 1971; by 1974 he had to resign, admitting he'd paid a sex worker by check, but was re-elected in 1975. And in 1977, he served for a yearas mayor of Cincinnati.

Jerry Springer greets supporters at a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio in June 1982.
Ed Reinke / AP
Jerry Springer greets supporters at a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, in June 1982.

But his emergence as a TV personality came in the 1980s, when Cincinnati NBC affiliate WLWT hired him as a political reporter and commentator, eventually promoting him to primary news anchor and managing editor.

When The Jerry Springer Show originally launched he was still working as a news anchor, commuting from Cincinnati to Chicago, according to an interview Springer gave with WLWT.

The success of Jerry Springer opened up lots of doors for the host, who played a version of himself in the 1998 film Ringmaster, briefly replaced Regis Philbin as host of the variety show America's Got Talent, appeared on Dancing with the Stars and hosted a courtroom show called Judge Jerry which ended last year. Even his security guard, Steve Wilkos, got his own talk show, which remains on the air.

But the show's circus-like atmosphere – in which participants sometimes seemed to step onstage knowing they were expected to be disruptive and fight – could have serious consequences. The show was sued in 2002 by the son of a former guest who was killed by her ex-husbandafter the episode she appeared on was broadcast. And the program was also sued in 2019 by the family ofa man who killed himselfafter appearing on an episode where his fiancée admitted cheating on him.

In an interview last year with the Behind the Velvet Rope podcast, Springer apologized for the impact of the show, saying, " What have I done? I've ruined the culture...I just hope hell isn't that hot, because I burn real easy."

But the host's brash good humor could also deflect critics. When I interviewed him again in 2012 for the Tampa Bay Times, I asked about normalizing violent behavior for viewers. He had a ready response:

"Our show, every day is a morality play where the good guys win and the bad guys lose... I would argue, when you have shows or movies with violent behavior and all the people are really beautiful and sexy looking, that could inspire a kid. There's never been a human being who watches our show and says, 'Boy, I wanna be just like that when I grow up.'"

In their statement, Springer's family asked fans to "make a donation or commit and act of kindness to someone in need" in his memory, noting "as he always said, 'Take care of yourself, and each other.' "

Rose Friedman and Ciera Crawford contributed to earlier versions of this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.

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