Jim Lange

Jim Lange (1932-2014) -- The original and best-known host of "The Dating Game," with a contestant. (ABC Photo Archives / ABC via Getty Images)

Jim Lange was the original and best-known host of a television show that has come to be identified with the swinging late 1960s and 1970s: "The Dating Game."

"We were really the first reality show," he said in a 2002 Times interview, "paving the way for Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, 'Big Brother.'"

Not that Lange, who graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota, was so proud of those offspring. He spent more than 50 years in radio and television and hoped to one day have a TV talk show. But Lange felt his association with "The Dating Game" stymied loftier ambitions, and he knew it would be his legacy.

"It'll be on my tombstone," he said in a 1991 San Francisco Chronicle interview.

Lange, 81, died Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley. The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter, Romney.

"The Dating Game" first went on the air on the ABC network in late 1965 when Lange was already a popular host on KSFO-AM radio in San Francisco. "He used to do the 6-to-10 morning drive time at the radio station," Romney Lange said, "then three days a week he would get on a plane, fly to L.A., tape five 'Dating Game' shows and fly back."

The upbeat daytime TV show, in which three single men would answer staff-written questions read by an unseen prospective date, was designed to be slightly titillating. "We dealt in innuendo, romance," Lange said in the Times interview. "No swear words or off-color stuff."

Although male contestants were occasionally featured as questioners, in most cases it was a woman who would be doing the asking before picking her date (an expenses-paid, chaperoned outing) based on his answers. Lange said this marked a reversal in the era's norms.

"When 'The Dating Game' came out, women had to wait for a man to call" for a date, Lange said. "Having them make the choices appealed to the female population, the target demographic."

Some contestants later became famous, including Farrah Fawcett, introduced by Lange as "an accomplished artist and sculptress." John Ritter was on a panel as "a college student majoring in drama." Michael Jackson, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck also appeared, as did two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan.

While hosting, Lange was often decked out in fashions of the era, including neon-colored jackets with wide lapels resembling glider wings. Sometimes he sported a pastel-colored tux and a shirt with voluminous ruffles. "That was not my dad's choice," Romney Lange said. "He was never a fan of that."

A nighttime version of the show ran on ABC from 1966 to 1970. The daytime version was on the network until 1973, then in syndication for an additional year. The show was revived in 1978, again in syndication, and ran until 1980. He went on to host other TV game shows, including the "$1,000,000 Chance of a Lifetime" and the "$100,000 Name That Tune." But he was trapped by his "Dating Game" image. "It stigmatized me," he said in the Chronicle interview. "I wouldn't even be considered for commercials because I was so identified with that one image."

James John Lange was born Aug. 15, 1932, in St. Paul, Minn. At age 15 he won an audition to work at a local radio station, as a disc jockey and sports reporter. He studied radio and television speech, with a minor in journalism at the university, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In the mid-1950s he got his first TV hosting job, portraying the title character on the local "Captain 11" show in which he'd introduce science fiction adventures such as "Buck Rogers."

After a stint in the Marines, Lange moved to San Francisco, where he called himself the All-Night Mayor while working the night shift at KGO radio, according to the Bay Area Radio Digest. He moved to KSFO in 1960 and two years later got his break in national television as the announcer on a show staring country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford. "They wanted a young, urbane-type person," Lange told the Chronicle, "to counteract his country image."

Though he gained international fame from "The Dating Game," Lange's true love in the broadcast field was radio. "TV happened kind of by accident," said Romney Lange. "He had a good voice and he was good-looking. But radio is what he grew up on and he always loved it."

In addition to working at stations in San Francisco, where he had shows until 2005, Lange worked at KMPC radio in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and then again in the 1980s.

In addition to his daughter, Lange is survived by his wife, Nancy; sons Gavin and Nicolas; stepdaughter Ingrid; stepson Steig; sister Midge; and four grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com