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Comedian Ray Combs Died 20 Years Ago Today

Former "Family Feud" host Ray Combs – arguably the funniest person  to come from Hamilton -- died on this day 20 years ago.

Tragically, it was a suicide. But I choose to remember Ray for all the fun and laughs he gave us in his 40 years -- not how he died.

Combs struck comedy gold on his "Tonight Show" debut on Oct. 23, 1986, when Johnny Carson's TV audience sang TV theme songs with him. He had first performed the routine four years earlier, at Sharonville's old Red Dog Saloon.

The 1974 Hamilton Garfield High School grad started dabbling in comedy in 1978, after serving two years as a Mormon missionary in Arizona and selling furniture in Indianapolis. He sought career guidance from Indianapolis native David Letterman, who helped him get established in Los Angeles when he moved there in 1982 after success at the Red Dog and other Cincinnati comedy clubs.

Credit Family Channel
Combs' last show was "Family Challenge" in 1995.

On the "Tonight" show, he started singing the "Gilligan's Island" theme, and within seconds everyone joined in.

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a  tale of a fateful trip,

That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship."

Then he began singing "The Addams Family" TV theme: "They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're all together ooky…"

Same thing happened. At the end of his routine, they gave him a standing ovation. Carson asked him to come back a few weeks later.

"For a long time, I was embarrassed to tell other comedians that I could fill time by doing it. It never fails," he told me.

Combs knew something about filling time. In the 1980s, he was a popular "warm-up comedian" who entertained Hollywood studio audiences at sitcom tapings. He did warm-ups for "The Golden Girls" (earning a brief guest shot on the hit show), and Sherman Hemsley's "Amen" (produced by Carson's company). See video of his warm-ups and Carson appearance here on a Wink Martindale YouTube feature

Within a year of his "Tonight" show debut, Combs was signed by CBS to host a revival of "Family Feud." Six years (1988-94) making high six figures on CBS' daytime lineup gave him money to open two comedy clubs in Cincinnati, CaddyCombs on Second Street and the Cincinnati Comedy Connection in Carew Tower, and provide for his wife and their six kids. He also was nominated for a Daytime Emmy as best game show host in 1993.

His fortunes changed in 1994.

"Family Feud" told him before the TV season ended that original host Richard Dawson would replace him that fall. In July 1994, he suffered temporary paralysis of his arms and legs in an auto accident on the Los Angeles Freeway. That took a toll on his health, career, marriage and finances.

After steroid injections to relieve pressure on his swollen spinal column, he eventually got back on his feet and started working in 1995 on a new show, "Family Challenge." It wasn't easy. He continued to have problems moving his fingers and hands -- not a good thing for a game show host who needed to hold a microphone and note cards.

It got worse in 1996. His marriage was ending to Debbie, his Hamilton childhood sweetheart. He defaulted on his two Hamilton homes, which were sold at a Butler County Sheriff's auction. His five-bedroom home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale was facing a $467,675 foreclosure, Debbie said.

He was only 40 when he committed suicide. He hung himself with a bed sheet at Glendale Adventist Medical Center while under suicide watch. Glendale police said Combs had tried to kill himself repeatedly the previous week by "by banging his head against the walls" around his house.

John Kiesewetter archives
Ray Combs in late 1980s

I choose to remember the last time we spoke, during his "Family Challenge" comeback in 1995 – 15 months after his freeway collision, and seven months before he died:

"To fight my way back, and come back to do this show – I don't call it a miracle, but I do see things differently. Every day, I feel a little bit better. I can't complain. I've been very blessed."

I like to recall Combs phoning from LA after his "Tonight" show debut to talk about watching  Carson's show growing up in Hamilton.

"I couldn't go to bed at night. I'd stay up late watching Johnny Carson, dreaming that I'd be on his show," he told me.

I can hear his excitement talking about the "Family Feud" revival days before the 1988 premiere, which paid him a reported $800,000 a year:

"I've prepared my whole life for what is going to happen. It's my dream and I'm living it…It's amazing you can make this kind of money without throwing a football or risking breaking a leg. It's great to have the money to do whatever you want to do with your family for just being yourself and having fun."

That's the Ray Combs I remember.

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.