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The Short Life and Tragic Death of Comedian Ray Combs

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

Long before Steve Harvey was on the Family Feud scene, comedian Ray Combs was the man in charge. Tragically, Ray Combs would take his own life shortly after his tenure on Family Feud host drew to a close. He was only 40 years old when he died.

A promising early career

Dionne Warwick, Ray Combs, and Vanessa Williams filming Family Feud in 1989

From left to right- Dionne Warwick, Ray Combs, Vanessa L. Williams during Taping of “Grammy Family Feud” at CBS TV City in Hollywood, California, United States, circa 1989. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella/ Getty Images)

Raymond Neil Combs Jr. was born on April 3, 1956, in Hamilton, Ohio. Combs already had a knack for the performing arts when he graduated high school in 1974, as he was very interested in acting. After high school, Combs turned down a nomination to West Point Military Academy. Instead, he decided to serve for two years as a missionary with the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Ray Combs’s comedy career started at Cincinnati’s Red Dog Saloon, where he developed his best-known schtick of sing-alongs of popular sitcom theme songs. In 1982, he left Ohio for California in hopes of making it big on the comedy scene there.

Talk show host Johnny Carson 1964

Johnny Carson, star of NBC’s ‘Tonight Show,’ circa December 1964. (Photo Credit: Keystone Features/ Getty Images)

Once in California, Ray Combs quickly started doing warm-ups for hit shows, including The Golden GirlsAmen, and Facts of Life. He became so popular that other sitcoms changed their production schedules to ensure that Combs could warm up their audiences.

In 1986, Johnny Carson heard the audience’s laughter and invited him to perform on The Tonight Show. After performing his standup routine on The Tonight Show in October of that same year, Combs received a standing ovation from the audience.

Ray Combs’s tenure as Family Feud host

Mickey Rooney, Jennifer O'Neill, and Ray Combs

Mickey Rooney, Jennifer O’Neill and Ray Combs during 1989 Miss Hollywood Party at Chasen’s in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

By the late 1980s, Ray Combs was landing minor acting roles in The Golden Girls and The Facts of Life. In 1987, he appeared in Hollywood Squares as a celebrity panelist. In 1989, Combs got his big break when he was offered a seven-year contract for a rebooted version of Family Feud on CBS.

Combs toured extensively around the country to promote the new version of Family Feud. He also made guest appearances on other game shows, including The Price Is Right and Card Sharks, to discuss his rebooted game show.

In June 1992, CBS expanded the daytime show from half an hour to a full hour. CBS also included several segments, including a new “Bullseye” round. During the 1992-1993 season, Ray Combs was one of the most-seen hosts on television, with 90 minutes of Family Feud airing five days a week.

Family Feud Host Richard Dawson in 1978

Host Richard Dawson speaks to the cast of the television series, ‘Eight Is Enough’ as they compete on the game show, ‘Family Feud,’ April 1978. (Photo Credit: Fotos International/ Getty Images)

Despite Combs’s initial success, Family Feud’s ratings began plummeting halfway through the 1992-93 season. CBS decided to cancel the daytime version of Family Feud in early 1993. The last new episode aired on March 26, 1993, but reruns continued into September.

It was decided that the original Family Feud host, Richard Dawson, would replace Ray Combs in the hopes that this throwback would help improve ratings. It was clear that Combs was very hurt by this decision. After filming his final episode, Ray Combs walked off stage to go into his dressing room to get changed without celebrating with any of the contestants on stage. He then left the CBS facility without saying goodbye to anyone and went home.

Life after Family Feud

Ray Combs circa 1989

Game show host Ray Combs backstage at the Taping of ‘Family Feud’ – Grammy Week Special Edition on March 6, 1989 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, California. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

Although upset about being let go from Family Feud, Ray Combs continued to try his luck with other career opportunities. He served as a guest commentator for the World Wrestling Federation and the Survivor Series. He also appeared in celebrity Family Feud episodes and landed small roles on 227 and In Living Color.

Combs continued to attempt to resurrect his television career. He taped a pilot for a talk show called The Ray Combs Show that was never picked up. From 1995 to 1996, Combs hosted Family Challenge on the Family Channel, which was Family Feud’s rival gameshow. Sadly, that hosting gig didn’t last long, as Combs left Family Challenge after only one season.

Ray Combs and singer Luther Vandross in 1989

Singer Luther Vandross and game show host Ray Combs backstage at the Taping of ‘Family Feud,’ circa 1989. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

Ray Combs continued to face setbacks as he tried to revive his career. In July 1994, Combs was in a serious car accident that left one of his spinal discs shattered. The injury left him paralyzed for a period of time. Though he would eventually walk again, he was always in constant and severe pain.

Combs was also in major financial trouble once he was let go from Family Feud. His two comedy clubs (Caddy Combs and the Cincinnati Comedy Connection) and his home in Hamilton, Ohio, all went into foreclosure after Combs failed to pay his mortgage.

The physical and financial stress Ray Combs was under began to take its toll. In 1995, Combs’s wife of 18 years filed for divorce. The pair had six children together.

A tragic end

Ray Combs strikes a pose

Game show host Ray Combs backstage at the Taping of ‘Family Feud’ (Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

In June 1996, police were called to Combs’s home in Glendale where they found the ex-television host repeatedly banging his head against the walls hard enough to draw blood. He had also smashed up all of his furniture. When Combs’s wife arrived, she informed the police that he had just been released from a psychiatric hospital after trying to end his life with an overdose.

Ray Combs was then taken by police to Glendale Adventist Medical Center where he was put on a 72-hour psychiatric observation hold. Tragically, on June 2, 1996, Ray Combs hanged himself in the closet of his room. He was only 40-years-old when he died.

Gladys Knight, Ray Combs, and Vanessa Williams backstage at the taping of Family Feud

Singer Gladys Knight, game show host Ray Combs and singer Vanessa Williams backstage at the Taping of ‘Family Feud’ – Grammy Week Special Edition on March 6, 1989 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, California. (Photo Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./ Getty Images)

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After his death, Ray Combs’s wife discovered how much financial trouble he had been in. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and back taxes with absolutely no assets to help pay these loans off. Combs’s wife was forced to sell his possessions to cover some of the debt.

The tragic death of Ray Combs should be a reminder to us all that sometimes the happiest and funniest individuals are the people suffering the most.

Madeline Hiltz

Maddy Hiltz is someone who loves all things history. She received her Bachelors of Arts in history and her Master’s of Arts degree in history both from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis examined menstrual education in Victorian England. She is passionate about Princess Diana, the Titanic, the Romanovs, and Egypt amongst other things.

In her spare time, Maddy loves playing volleyball, running, walking, and biking, although when she wants to be lazy she loves to read a good thriller. She loves spending quality time with her friends, family, and puppy Luna!

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