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Jim Lange, of ‘Dating Game,’ dies at 81

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Jim Lange was the original and best-known host of a television show that has come to be identified with the swinging late 1960s and 1970s: “The Dating Game.”

“We were really the first reality show,” he said in a 2002 Los Angeles Times interview, “paving the way for Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, ‘Big Brother.’ ”

Jim Lange, left, congratulates Connie and Steve Rutenbar after they won $1 million on "The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime." Lange, the first host of "The Dating Game," died at 81. (Associated Press File)

Jim Lange, left, congratulates Connie and Steve Rutenbar after they won $1 million on “The $1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime.” Lange, the first host of “The Dating Game,” died at 81. (Associated Press File)

Not that Lange, who graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota, was so proud of those offspring. He spent more than 50 years in radio and television and hoped to one day have a TV talk show. But Lange felt his association with “The Dating Game” stymied loftier ambitions, and he knew it would be his legacy.

“It’ll be on my tombstone,” he said in a 1991 San Francisco Chronicle interview.

Lange, 81, died Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter, Romney.

“The Dating Game” first went on the air on the ABC network in late 1965 when Lange was already a popular host on KSFO-AM radio in San Francisco. “He used to do the 6-to-10 morning drive time at the radio station,” Romney Lange said, “then three days a week he would get on a plane, fly to L.A., tape five ‘Dating Game’ shows and fly back.”

The upbeat daytime TV show, in which three single men would answer staff-written questions read by an unseen prospective date, was designed to be slightly titillating. “We dealt in innuendo, romance,” Lange said in the Times interview. “No swear words or off-color stuff.”

Although male contestants were occasionally featured as questioners, in most cases it was a woman who would be doing the asking before picking her date (an expenses-paid, chaperoned outing) based on his answers. Lange said this marked a reversal in the era’s norms.

“When ‘The Dating Game’ came out, women had to wait for a man to call” for a date, Lange said. “Having them make the choices appealed to the female population, the target demographic.”

Some contestants later became famous, including Farrah Fawcett, introduced by Lange as “an accomplished artist and sculptress.” John Ritter was on a panel as “a college student majoring in drama.” Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck also appeared, as did two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan.

While hosting, Lange was often decked out in fashions of the era, including neon-colored jackets with wide lapels resembling glider wings. Sometimes he sported a pastel-colored tux and a shirt with voluminous ruffles. “That was not my dad’s choice,” Romney Lange said. “He was never a fan of that.”

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