Jeopardy creator opens up about Hollywood, life in Fluvanna

Julann wasn’t dissuaded. “So come up with a show where you give them the answers – and admit it – and make them come up with the questions,” she said she responded.

“Like what?” Merv asked.

Sitting in Cuppa Joe sipping plain coffee, Julann, who is now 87, smiled at the memory. “So I said, ‘The answer is 5,280.’ And he said, ‘The question is how many feet are in a mile,’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘The answer is 52 Wistful Vista.’ And he said, ‘What was the address of Fibber McGee and Molly?’ – it was a radio show. And I said, ‘The answer is Kathy Fiscus,’ and he said, “What’s the name of the little girl who fell in the well in the 1940s?’ And by the time we got off the airplane we had a game.”

As soon as they got home, Merv called the folks at his office and they got to work. “I helped with the sets,” said Julann. “I’d make them in my dining room.” Julann said her sister, Maureen Roberts, who is now 83 and lives in Keswick, created a lot of the content. “We really had to work hard to get the guys at NBC to like the game because they said it was too hard,” Julann said. “So we had to dumb it down for them. But once we sold the show we brought it back up.”

Jeopardy was a wild success. “President Nixon used to stop everything at the White House and play the game” on TV, Julann said. “It was a huge hit, and it still is.”

Though Julann isn’t connected with the show anymore, she said she isn’t sorry about the lack of royalties. “Merv sold the show after we divorced,” she said. “But I’m not worried about that.” After all, if she had made boatloads of money from Jeopardy, she “might have ended up in France as a drunk – who knows?” she said. “I know people with lots and lots and they just don’t seem that happy. And I’m having a ball.”


Born in 1929 as Julann Wright, Julann grew up in Ironwood, now a small city on the northern peninsula of Michigan. In her senior year of high school, Julann gave such a touching performance in a play that she says moved some of the audience members to tears. “My older sister told me I ought to go to New York, that I was a wonderful actress,” said Julann. “But I had no idea how to go about getting there.”

A tip from the man who pulled the curtain at the Ironwood theater launched Julann onto a stint doing summer stock theater around the country. Eventually she made it to New York City, working “hundreds” of jobs and trying to make it as an actress.

“Some of my jobs aren’t even around anymore,” said Julann. “I was an addressograph operator. It’s a machine that inks itself and addresses envelopes.”

Then Julann worked for a company that traced people and stock they owned. “They’d bring me in to talk to people on the phone, trying to pretend I was a friend of theirs, while they would trace the call. That was fun,” she said.

But around 1950 Julann got the job that she said changed her life.

“There was a show on CBS called the Robert Q. Lewis show,” Julann said. “I worked for Robert in his office as a secretary. But one time I brought him a cup of coffee in front of a live audience. I was in high heels and was a nervous wreck so I spilled it all over.”

So Lewis sent her to the microphone and asked her, in front of the audience, “Julann, what’s wrong with you?”

“I lost two pounds last night,” Julann said, trying to explain why her balance in her heels was off.

When Lewis asked her how she lost two pounds in one night, Julann said, “Well, I wanted to lose it. And I knew if my body temperature went down I’d lose it, so I slept naked with the window open and the snow coming in.”

The audience roared, Julann said, and after that Lewis gave her a spot on his show.

“He was a good foil for me and brought out the worst of me, and we always got laughs,” Julann said. “We adlibbed for years.”

On the show Julann met all sorts of famous people. “I used to take care of the stars, make sure they had their coffee – and here they were just regular people. I couldn’t get over it,” she said. “One woman got so nervous that I took her to the bathroom and she threw up. And here she was a big star in the movies.”

Once Julann met Dick Haymes, the star of a movie called State Fair. “I had a big crush on him,” she admitted. “He had a crown on his tooth that came off, and I had some clear nail polish in my purse and I stuck it back on.”

Julann laughed. “I thought, here I am – my heart would flutter when I saw this guy and now I’m putting his crown back in.”

Then along came a singer with “a gorgeous voice,” said Julann. Merv Griffin was a guest on the Robert Q. Lewis show, and he and Julann hit it off. “He laughed at everything I said, so we became good friends,” she said.

Merv eventually stole Julann away from Lewis, she said, when she went to work on Merv’s show instead. “But I wasn’t as good on Merv’s show because he knew me too well,” she said. “Robert was furious. He hated Merv. It was a competition – and Merv was sassy with him.”

Merv and Julann married in 1959. “We were married for 17 years,” said Julann, till they divorced in 1976. “We had a lot of fun. He was a lot of fun then. As time went on and he got busier and more well-known it wasn’t as much fun. But he loved my family and I loved his, so we’d have a lot of family get-togethers. He’d take us all on trips. And he loved to play games. Which I didn’t. Still don’t.”

Julann laughed away incredulity that she dislikes games given that she’s spent years creating them and now owns a game company, Jam and Candy, with her sister and her niece, Candisse Reynolds. “It’s like being a chef,” she said. “You like to cook but you want to give it to somebody else to eat.”

Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks, his wife, Anne Bancroft, Julann and Carol DeLuise, Dom’s wife.


Julann lived a Hollywood life for many years. She and Merv had a son, Tony Griffin, and spent time jetting around on their plane. “It was a waste of gas,” she joked. “No it wasn’t. It was wonderful. But we didn’t need it.” Merv always wanted a yacht, she said, so after the divorce he bought one and invited her to come along for a ride. “It was kind of nice to go on a yacht, but I’d rather have someone else take the barnacles off it,” she said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love luxury,” Julann continued. “When we were invited to Monaco to Princess Grace’s lunch, it was wonderful being waited on by all these footmen. But then I thought if I were the mistress of the house I’d have to be in charge of them and make sure they did it right. Luxury should be luxury, not every day.”

Merv and Julann remained friends until his death in 2007. “He used to invite me out there and I’d visit him,” she said. “It was a wonderful marriage while it lasted, but when it’s over, it’s over.”

But Julann shook her head when asked if she has any photographs of her life in Hollywood, saying Merv got them in the divorce.


After her divorce, Julann discovered something “very distressing,” she said. “Being my age you can imagine I’ve been pushed around because I’m a woman. The day after I got my divorce I went to the bank to get the credit card put in my own name and I couldn’t, because I was a woman.”

The next day Julann got a call from a woman who told her “some women” were starting a bank, and asking if Julann was interested in becoming involved. “I said I’d be right down,” Julann said. And just like that she helped to start the First Women’s Bank of California.

“I was on the board and I got all my friends to put money into it,” Julann said. Wikipedia says that Julann “was instrumental in convincing celebrities to buy stock in the bank and open accounts.” The thrust of the bank, according to Wikipedia, was “helping women manage their money, especially after divorce…[because] the bank’s board of directors believed that many women did not have enough experience with personal finance or the same access to credit as men.”

The bank’s popularity spread fast. “We had people from all over the world come to see us – women from Japan and Africa who wanted to start their own women’s banks,” said Julann.

Remembering that time, Julann started grinning. “I was all gung-ho about women, but then I went and got this farm,” she said, referencing her plantation in Palmyra. “And I realized the roosters push the hens around. And the rams push the ewes around. And I wondered – why don’t they say something? What is this?” She sat back in her seat. “So it took the edge off me a little bit.”


During Julann’s years doing summer stock theater, she met a man named Jerry Silberman, who later changed his name to Gene Wilder. “He did all the Mel Brooks movies, and he did a couple movies that I was in,” said Julann. She had roles in The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986), but said she never thought of herself as a very good actress. “I was too self-conscious,” she said.

After her divorce Julann put a tennis court in her house in Los Angeles. “My son was young and I wanted him to bring his friends home,” she said. “It was a hard time for him.” She hosted an open house and several stars attended. When Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft saw the tennis court, they asked if they could use it for lessons. “I said sure,” said Julann.

Before she knew it, Julann had a tennis group that ended up meeting at her court every Sunday for 15 years. Wilder came too, and brought his wife Gilda Radnor, who Julann said became a close friend. “They were all funny people. We laughed and laughed. They were the cream of the crop as far as comedians were concerned. We laughed our guts out the whole time,” she said. “And they didn’t gossip – and this is Hollywood we’re talking about. I’m still connected with the ones who are living. It was a wonderful experience – and here I did this for my son.”

But Julann was getting restless. “Los Angeles was getting boring to me. It was time to move,” she said. “Los Angeles is like a hospital – you go there when you need it, and then you can stay too long. I hated to leave my friends. But there’s no change of seasons there so you don’t know you’re getting old.”

Julann had wanted to live on a farm when she “got old,” she said, and stumbled upon an ad for a farm in Virginia. She found her 1,000-acre spot in Fluvanna, which she described as “a very old simple plantation” with a house built over 200 years ago. She bought the plantation in 1985 and moved to Fluvanna in 1988.

She loved having a farm and especially enjoyed her animals, though she expressed surprise that they didn’t die under her care in a couple years. “I had sheep and a cow. I used to have her milked and made cheese,” Julann said. “Then a friend of mine gave me a little pig. She was just adorable. Merv gave me a horse. It was a beautiful horse that won a lot of prizes, though I didn’t ride her. The horse, cow and pig used to sleep together. In the afternoon every day the pig used to get milk off the cow.”

Julann brought her mother, who was in her 90s, to live with her on the farm. “I spent my time with her and didn’t get around Fluvanna that much,” she said. “She lived till she was 96.”

Not everything went swimmingly on the plantation. Julann started a fish farm and raised hybrid striped bass to sell to Keswick Hall and the Boar’s Head Inn. “But then some of my neighbors stole them,” she said. “It takes three years to bring a fish to plate size, and they had just gotten to be plate-sized, and I had thousands of them.” Julann shook her head regretfully. “I was raising them in cages and they came and took them all in one weekend.”

The thieves were never prosecuted, Julann said. “The fish were all gone. They were eaten,” she said. “That’s when I decided to start a business.”


In 1992 game shows were starting to lose their luster, said Julann, and since that was her line of work – she would bring interactive games back and forth between New York and California for TV – she realized she needed a new idea. “I read in the paper that people were going to start playing games on PCs,” or personal computers, Julann said. “So I called up my sister and said, ‘Maureen, do you want to start making games for PCs?’”

“What’s a PC?” Julann said her sister asked.

“I’ll call you back when I find out,” Julann told her.

So in 1995 Julann and Roberts launched their company, getting their games, which were all content-driven like Jeopardy, in with America Online (AOL). But in 2000 the tech bubble burst, the company went bankrupt, and the sisters lost all the rights to their games.

“Ah, it’s show business,” Julann laughed, shrugging off the loss. “It taught us a lesson.”

Undaunted, Julann and her sister kept working, and now Jam and Candy is launching four new games – Kissin Kuzzins, Move Your Vowels, Move Your Vowels Español, and Comprende U – on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon.

“I create the games mostly and my sister does the content,” Julann said. “I say, ‘Maureen, I have an idea for a game, this is how it works,’ and she sits down with a pad and pen and writes page after page. She’s incredible.” Reynolds, who Julann said is “completely self-taught,” puts together the technical aspects of the games.

“We hope at our age the games start to pay,” said Julann wryly. “We haven’t made any money on them yet. We’d like to start hiring people.”


Julann spoke fondly of her son, who she said writes films in California, and his wife Tricia Griffin, who used to model for athletic magazines. “They are better parents than I was. I notice that the new generation has more permission to be better parents,” she said. “We didn’t have that permission – we only had permission to be strict. Now everyone says ‘I love you.’ We never said ‘I love you.’ The leading man would say that to the leading lady in a movie – you just don’t say that to everyone.”

Julann has two “very special” grandchildren – Farah Griffin, who attends Northeastern University, and Donovan Griffin, who is about to graduate from high school. Farah is a gifted singer studying make up, costumes, and hair, and Donovan is a lifeguard who “gets honors everywhere he goes for being the nicest guy,” Julann said.

Julann keeps in touch with her Hollywood friends. In fact, Fluvanna residents may be surprised at the names of the folks who have been quietly visiting Julann at her Palmyra home. Julann’s guests have included Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Alan Alda and his wife Arlene, Dick Van Patten and his wife Pat, Dom DeLuise and his wife Carol, and Kate Jackson. The Aldas’ most recent visit was just a couple of years ago, Julann said.

Julann is glad to bring them to Fluvanna. “I love the beauty of the nature around here,” she said. “I like the people, especially now – they’re even better than when I first came. Then they were divided into two classes, it seemed to me, and now it’s a little bit of everything.”

But Julann demurred when asked about the best part of her life. “That’s too hard to answer,” she said. “I liked my waitress job because of what it did for me. People say that when you serve others you’re serving yourself, and it’s true. I loved my marriage, my son, my family. I’m glad I got the farm. I think it was great that I put in a tennis court – that changed my whole life.”

Julann stopped and thought for a moment. “It’s almost like when I was born I was put in a magic chariot and went through life like an idiot being blessed with all these opportunities,” she said. “My life has been unbelievable.”

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