Phil Donahue Biography

Talk Show Host(1935–)
The longtime host of 'Donahue,' Phil Donahue established the modern daytime talk show format with his focus on audience participation and hot-button social issues.

Synopsis

Born in 1935 in Ohio, Phil Donahue went into broadcasting after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1957. Ten years later he began hosting The Phil Donahue Show, which established a new mold for daytime talk programs with its audience participation and exploration of controversial issues. Donahue won numerous Emmy Awards, but called it quits in 1996 after years of declining ratings. He resurfaced in 2002 with a short-lived show on MSNBC, and also directed the 2007 documentary Body of War.

Early Life

Talk show host Phillip John Donahue was born on December 21, 1935, in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, Phillip, was a furniture salesman, and his mother, Catherine, worked as a shoe clerk. 

Donahue enjoyed a wide range of activities as a child, including baseball and dance lessons. A member of the first graduating class of St. Edward High School in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, he played for the school band and drew cartoons for its newspaper. Despite mediocre grades, he was admitted to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, earning his bachelor's in business administration in 1957.

Early Career

Upon graduation, Donahue got a job as a summer replacement announcer at KYW-AM and KYW-TV in Cleveland. He returned to KYW the following summer, and finally made headway in the industry that fall by joining WABJ radio in Adrian, Michigan.

Donahue then became a newscaster for WHIO radio and television in Dayton, Ohio, where he interviewed union leader Jimmy Hoffa. In 1963 he began hosting Conversation Piece, a radio phone-in talk show with a primarily female audience. Rising in the ranks at WHIO, Donahue reached a point where he was co-anchoring the nightly news and hosting other daily programs, until he left the station in June 1967.

'The Phil Donahue Show'

Following a brief stint as a salesman, Donahue returned to television with Dayton's WLWD-TV in November 1967 as the host of The Phil Donahue Show. Although the program initially adhered to the standard host-guest interaction, Donahue soon hit upon a winning formula of soliciting the studio audience for questions.

The program quickly gained a following as a forum for hot-button social issues of the day, and by the fall of 1971 it had expanded to more than 40 stations. A big step came when production was moved to WGN-TV in Chicago in 1974, with the show's title shortened to Donahue.

Donahue went on to have numerous high-profile guests over the years, including Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela and Jane Fonda. However, he remained most popular for his devotion to controversial issues, touching on matters of women's rights, homosexuality and misdeeds of the Catholic Church. He won his first Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Host in 1977, and by 1979 the show was enjoying syndication in more than 200 markets.

Following a move to WNBC-TV in New York City in 1985, Donahue made history by pairing with Soviet radio and TV personality Vladimir Pozner for the first live discussion between an American and a Soviet audience. In 1987, Donahue became the first U.S. talk show to be filmed in the Soviet Union.

Phil Donahue's format paved the way for subsequent successful talk show hosts such as Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael and Oprah Winfrey—the latter, having also started her broadcast talk show in Chicago, paid homage specifically to the pioneering talk show host, saying "if there hadn't been a Phil, there wouldn't have been a me."

Unfortunately, the same talk show hosts he inspired were the ones that brought about his downfall, as Donahue began losing viewers to Winfrey and Raphael, and later to more controversial talk programs like The Jerry Springer Show. In 1996, after years of declining ratings, Donahue's show ended its run on the air. This was also the year that he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Emmy.

Later Years

In July 2002, MSNBC coaxed the silver-haired host out of retirement to helm the much-hyped return of Donahue. However, just eight months later, the ratings-challenged cable network dropped the ax. Despite improving numbers, Donahue never seriously challenged the popular programs of its time slot, and its host also felt he was singled out for his anti-war views.

Donahue remained out of the spotlight until 2007, when he produced and directed the documentary Body of War. Three years later, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show alongside other popular hosts such as Rivera, Raphael, Montel Williams and Ricki Lake.

With his intelligent, informative daytime talk show style, Donahue's influence is more noticeable with every bold talk show that hits the airwaves. His way of asking the probing questions, limitless curiosity and trademark enthusiastic bounding up and down the aisles of his studio to get as many audience comments as possible, is legendary.

Personal

Donahue has five children with first wife Margaret Cooney: four sons, Michael, Kevin, Daniel and Jim, and daughter Mary Rose. He met his second wife, actress Marlo Thomas, when she was a guest on his show; they married in 1980.

The famed TV host published his autobiography, Donahue: My Own Story, in 1979. He also authored the 1985 book The Human Animal, to accompany a five-part series about human behavior that aired the following year.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!