updated 06/03/2012 AT 10:50 AM ET
•originally published 06/03/2012 AT 11:25 AM ET
Richard Dawson, the English actor-turned-game show host who seldom shied away from giving his kiss of approval to female contestants on Family Feud, has died. He was 79.
Dawson died Saturday night at Los Angeles’s Ronald Reagan Memorial hospital due to complications related to his esophageal cancer, according to his son Gary, the Associated Press reports.
Gary also posted the information on his Facebook page, writing, “He was surrounded by his family. He was an amazing talent, a loving husband, a great dad, and a doting grandfather. He will be missed but always remembered.”
Born in Gosport, Hampshire, England, in 1932 (birth name: Colin Lionel Emm), his comedy career took off in 1965 when he was cast as pick-pocketing prisoner-of-war Corporal Peter Newkirk in Hogan’s Heroes, a role he played until 1971.
Five years later, his television career took a turn when he began playing host on kin-against-kin competition Family Feud, in which contestants, everyday folks, try to gauge the most popular answers to poll questions. His trademark? Dawson’s ever-friendly approach to his female contestants resulted “somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000” kisses, executive producer Howard Felsher estimated when the show’s initial run ended in 1985. Years before, he won a daytime Emmy Award in 1978 for best TV game show host.
“I’m generally on the side of the contestant, and I don’t mind being blatant about it,” he told PEOPLE in 1994 when he returned to the game show for one season. “People think I’m being a smart-ass, a cynic, but I’ve always rooted for the underdog.”
Aside from his entertainment career, which also included appearances on the ’70s Match Game and in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man, Dawson was a family man, who met wife Gretchen Johnson while she was a Feud contestant.
The couple had one daughter together, Shannon, and he also had two sons, Mark and Gary, from his first marriage to actress Diana Dors.
His death comes exactly 16 years to the day after Ray Combs, his Feud successor, died.