The Richard Dawson Family Feud Scandal That Was Kept A Secret

"Family Feud" first aired on ABC in 1976. Since then, thousands of episodes have been broadcast, and it has appeared in numerous incarnations with several much-loved hosts. However, for many of the show's fans, it is impossible to hear the name of the show or its earworm of a theme tune without conjuring the image of its most iconic star: Richard Dawson. Dawson fronted the show at its peak between 1976 and 1985, during which it became the top daytime TV show in the United States (per The Globe and Mail). However, despite his popularity, Dawson had one habit that was initially controversial.

Dawson's charm was legendary. The host came to prominence as an actor on "Hogan's Heroes" before proving his improvisational abilities as a regular panelist on the game show "Match Game," effortlessly jousting with contestants and putting them at ease as they answered questions for big money prizes. Famously, Dawson had a proclivity for kissing women on "Family Feud," often full on the mouth — a habit that gained him the monicker "the Kissing Bandit," BayToday reported.

The idea that a gameshow host would kiss every female contestant on the lips would be abhorrent to audiences in this day and age, though Dawson's defenders would likely write off his kissing guests as playful and a product of the time in which the show aired. But to say that the actor's stint as the "Kissing Bandit" was condoned by all viewers of "Family Feud" would be false, and indeed those who made the show had their reservations. They even acted on concerns from the public that rampant kissing could spread STIs.

Kissing concerns

Speaking to the Television Academy in 2010, Richard Dawson said he began the habit of kissing female contestants on "Family Feud" early in the run after one woman struggled with nerves and couldn't think of an answer. Dawson — who has said he kissed them for "luck," as his mother did to him, per CNN — decided that a peck on the cheek would help calm the woman down. He claimed that in the next moment she was able to pluck the correct answer from the air. From here on out, kissing became Dawson's signature. Some viewers reportedly found the habit a bit gross, and sponsors were uncomfortable with the host kissing so many women and encouraged him to stop (per Entertainment Weekly). However, Dawson reportedly invited viewers to vote on whether they liked him kissing contestants — the results overwhelming said that they did, and a survey of the contestants themselves suggested that they also approved, per "Hogan's Heroes: The Unofficial Companion" (via KSBW).

The 2023 book "Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars" by Kliph Nesteroff highlights that some viewers, particularly those in the medical field, believed Dawson's behavior constituted a health risk. "The diseases that could be transmitted by promiscuous kissing are too long and too loathsome to recount here," one purported physician wrote in a letter to the Philadelphia Daily News. "Does Dawson or the producers take any caution to prevent infection? Are none of them informed?" But as Nesteroff also reveals, the show did take precautions — precautions that would frankly be unthinkable today.

Contestants reportedly took herpes tests

It turns out that the breakout star of "Family Feud" might have also had some reservations about his onscreen kissing habit. As revealed in "Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars," Richard Dawson's team was reportedly concerned that kissing hundreds of pairs of strangers' lips each year posed a significant risk of his contracting facial herpes, the disease that causes cold sores. Though facial herpes is not usually severe, it is easily transmittable through kissing and can spread to both the mouth and nostrils. There is currently no known cure. 

Kliph Nesteroff alleges that as a result of such concerns, contestants were systematically given herpes tests by members of the production crew. According to his book — for which he interviewed former contestants of the show who appeared during Dawson's tenure — the staff would call contestants together backstage before shooting. Then, a medical professional would examine their lips with magnifying glasses and swab their mouths to minimize the chances that the star of the show might be infected by one of his countless kissing partners. 

Whether the precautions were ultimately successful has not been reported. However, Dawson continued to defend his signature smooches in interviews later in life. According to CBC, executive producer Howard Felsher suggested that Dawson had kissed around 20,000 women during his career.