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Film & TV

Jerry Springer, son of Jewish refugees and star of TV’s most controversial show, dies at 79

The former mayor of Cincinnati was known for hosting bizarre guests

Jerry Springer, the ex-mayor of Cincinnati who gained a national profile with his eponymous, fight-filled TV talk show, has died at 79 after a “brief illness,” according to TMZ

Springer was born in the underground Highgate train station in London, then a makeshift bomb shelter, on Feb. 13, 1944. His parents were German Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazis with the help of World Jewish Relief. At the organization’s 2017 business dinner, he told his family’s story before quipping, “This is a general rule that I always follow: If somebody saves my life, I’ll always show up at their dinner.”

Springer learned more about the fate of his family on a 2008 episode of the British edition of Who Do You Think You Are? Both of his grandmothers died in the Holocaust, his paternal grandmother, Selma Springer, in the Theresienstadt ghetto hospital and his maternal grandmother, Marie Kallman at the Chelmno extermination camp.

When he was 4, Springer relocated with his family to Kew Gardens, Queens. After graduating from Tulane University and Northwestern Law, Springer worked as an aide to Robert Kennedy and as a lawyer in Democratic politics.

Springer said his family history “made me profoundly liberal,” adding, “it was instinctive for me to be involved with civil liberties. You don’t have to be lectured about tolerance when your family has been through the Holocaust.”

After a run for Congress, he served in Cincinnati’s City Council (he resigned after admitting to soliciting a sex worker), served one year as the city’s mayor, from 1977 to 1978 and later anchored the news for the local NBC affiliate. (A run for governor of Ohio in 1981 was unsuccessful — his campaign ads featured him admitting to writing a personal check to a sex worker.)

It wasn’t until 1991 that Jerry’s name became the stuff of live studio audience chants. That year, Springer launched Jerry Springer. Early guests, when the show was still taped in Chicago, included disgraced Reagan aide Oliver North and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who came on to discuss serious issues. That format wouldn’t last, and the show soon became notorious for a revolving door of curiosities that often devolved into fisticuffs. 

Jerry Springer would gain syndication, and a devoted audience over 27 seasons with guests like “The Kung-Fu Hillbilly” and people with strange love lives (a man married to a horse; incestuous families). In 2002 the show, known for sideshow trashiness and necessary security guards, was ranked by TV Guide as the “worst TV show of all time.”

But Springer, famous for equanimity amid the bizarre parade of humanity, was undeterred and the show became a phenomenon, even inspiring an opera.

Springer’s show ended in 2018, leaving room for Springer to appear on The Masked Singer (he previously sang on Broadway in Chicago and danced on Dancing with the Stars) and, in a return to his legal roots, a courtroom show called Judge Jerry.

In 2022, Springer said he regretted his self-titled show’s legacy. 

On the Behind the Velvet Rope podcast, the longtime host said, “I’ve ruined the culture,” adding, as a joke, “I just hope hell isn’t that hot, because I burn real easy. I’m very light-complected.”

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