RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
American culture is a complex tapestry of art, music, literature and television. But not just any television - game shows, and not just any game show...
AUDIENCE: (In unison) "Wheel of Fortune."
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE")
MARTIN: "Wheel of Fortune" first hit TV screens in 1975. The original host was Chuck Woolery.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE")
JACK CLARK: Just look at this studio filled with beautiful and imaginative gifts, which can be purchased today on "Wheel of Fortune."
CLARK: Total retail value of all these prizes - more than $31,000. Now, let's meet the host of "Wheel of Fortune," Chuck Woolery!
MARTIN: In 1983, the show was syndicated with host Pat Sajak, who has been deftly guiding millions of Americans through word puzzles for more than 30 years. As the show celebrates its milestone anniversary this season, we thought it was a good chance to get to know the man behind the wheel. We started off talking about how he made the leap from local weather guy to America's favorite game show host. It all started with a phone call from a very important Hollywood name.
PAT SAJAK: Merv Griffin, who owned the show at the time, called me and said, hey, you want to do a game show?
SAJAK: Chuck's leaving. And it's Merv Griffin on the phone. What am I going to say? I was so excited to hear from him.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAME SHOW, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE")
SAJAK: Please do not adjust your sets at home, Chuck Woolery has not shrunk. A lot of people are playing with their vertical hold right now. As Jack mentioned, my name is Pat Sajak, and I've been fortunate enough to wander onto the set of a very successful program; has been for a long time...
Honestly, I didn't see myself as a game show host. And I don't even know what I mean by that but - nothing against it...
SAJAK: ...but if I were to make a list of the 50 things I thought I'd end up doing in broadcasting, you know, game show host would have been 47th, or something. So - and I said to Merv, I said, look, this is wonderful but I'm not, you know, back then especially, there was sort of a stereotypical idea of a game show host - the guy, smiley, hey, you won $10,000! You know.
SAJAK: And I don't really do that - although I did that pretty well just now, didn't I?
MARTIN: You did. It was really good.
SAJAK: And I said, Merv, I - I don't know if it's my style. And he was great. He said, you know, I like the way you do your local stuff that I see you doing. And that's the way I want you to do it, and don't worry about it. And come do it however you want to do it.
MARTIN: Was Vanna White always with you?
SAJAK: No, there was a woman named Susan Stafford, who worked with Chuck for those seven years. And she stayed for another year after I joined, and then she left. And then happily, we found Vanna, who's been great to work with because she's - we share a certain sensibility. And that is, we take our jobs seriously but we don't take ourselves too seriously. It's lightning in a bottle. If you ask Vanna what she does for a living, she doesn't go, well, one day I'm going to direct.
She says, hey, I touch letters - you know.
SAJAK: I mean, she gets it. She gets the sort of fluky nature of television, and she has fun with it. And she's been great to work with.
MARTIN: I'd like to take a big step back, if you don't mind...
MARTIN: ...to your roots. You were born and raised in Chicago. Is that right?
SAJAK: I was, indeed, sort of an industrial part of the city. My dad worked on a truck dock, unloading trucks eight hours a day in cold Chicago winters and hot Chicago summers. I always laugh when people say, how do you keep it fresh after 30 years? I say, how did my father keep it fresh?
SAJAK: But yeah, I grew up and left there when I was about 20 years old.
MARTIN: I read that you worked for a Spanish radio station.
MARTIN: Do you speak Spanish?
SAJAK: Let me answer in Spanish: No.
SAJAK: You know, it's a funny thing. I was going to school in Chicago, and a friend of mine - it was an instructor who actually worked in Chicago radio, said listen, I know this guy, runs a little station; and they're looking for a guy to do a kind of a rip-and-read newscast from midnight to 6 a.m. Every five minutes, you go in and rip the wire thing off, and read the top stories. And I go in and talk to him. He said - he had me read a couple of things for him and he said, you can start tonight. I said, great!
I show up at midnight. There's not a light in the neighborhood to be found. There's not a light in the studio. There's no one home. I'm banging on the door. A car pulls up and an Hispanic gentleman gets out and says something to me in Spanish, which I don't understand. He takes a key and opens the - it turns out he's the disc jockey. It turns out he does a Spanish radio show from midnight to 6 a.m. And it turns out he plays Spanish music, does Spanish commercials; and once an hour, I would do the news in English.
SAJAK: To this day - and the only time I knew it was time, he'd go da, da, da, no, jis a da-da Pat Sajak. And I'd hear my name, and I'd start reading.
SAJAK: So that was my auspicious debut in radio.
MARTIN: And then you went on - you joined the Army in 1968.
SAJAK: I did, I left. I was in college and not doing great, and not particularly enjoying it; and kind of wanting to get on with my life and career and all that. So instead, I joined the Army. And there was a little thing going on in Vietnam at the time, and I was told by recruiters that if I were to join, that might help my chances of say, getting into broadcasting and not going to Vietnam - which I wasn't especially anxious to do. But it didn't quite work out that way, and that's where I was sent. And...
MARTIN: You were in Saigon - or where were you?
SAJAK: The Army works in strange ways. I took basic training as a clerk typist. Then they made me a finance clerk and sent me to Vietnam. And finally, I managed to get transferred - after several attempts - to Saigon, where I became the "Good Morning Vietnam" guy. And I did that for about a year and a half.
MARTIN: So you actually were like Adrian Kronauer.
SAJAK: I was in that I yelled that - you know, the thing at 6 o'clock every morning - which is dangerous to do in an enemy war zone, by the way.
SAJAK: We tried to make it sound like a stateside radio station. So we - it was very un-military. We played, you know, whatever the rock 'n' roll music was, at the time. And it was great training for me. And I used to say, this would be a wonderful job except for all the barbed wire and tanks outside.
MARTIN: So I realize we're going to skip over a lot of years now, but how did you get yourself out to Hollywood? And what were your expectations when you landed there the first time?
SAJAK: As a lot of people did, when they started in radio, I kind of jumped around from market to market. I worked with - from Saigon, I went to a little place called Murray, Ky. And then I went to the nearest big city. I said, my career is going terribly; I've got to do something. And I went to - and that was Nashville. And I...
MARTIN: How old were you, at the time?
SAJAK: I was 23, I guess. And I was banging on all the doors at the radio, television stations in Nashville. And finally, someone got sick of my banging and hired me to be a staff announcer in Nashville. And I was there for several years. And they need a weatherman out in Los Angeles - and suddenly found myself as the weatherman in Los Angeles for about five years, which immediately led to "Wheel" because when you're working in local TV in L.A., in a way you're auditioning every night because the producers are at home, watching TV like everybody else. And happily, one of those guys was Merv Griffin. And he took a shine to me, as they say, and next came "Wheel."
MARTIN: Did you grow up watching game shows?
SAJAK: I wouldn't call myself a game show groupie, but I liked the panel shows. There used to be a class of celebrity - and I don't exactly know who they were - people like Orson Bean and Peggy Cass; and people on shows like "What's My Line." They were sort of actors. They were sort of conversationalists. I don't exact - they weren't comics. You know, they were not performers in that sense. But they were smart. They were funny. You felt like you were at a dinner party with these people. So I liked those kinds of shows.
I was not a - I didn't have game shows on from dawn to dusk. But I liked some of the guys who did the show - so many shows, for so many years; guys like Bob Barker, and guys like Bill Cullen. I admired them as broadcasters. I thought they were terrific.
MARTIN: I guess I wonder, though, it's the same thing every time. It's three contestants; they get, you know, 10 seconds to tell you their life story. You play the game. What are the moments in that formula - it is a formula for a show - that you still find exciting?
SAJAK: You know, therein lies the challenge and what makes it exciting, for me. How do I take show number 5,286 and three more housewives from Teaneck, N.J. - nice people who have a little story to tell, and have two kids, they want you to know about them - and they're going to play hangman. I think I treat each entity, each show as an important piece of television. And I don't think that - I don't treat it as show number 5,280. I treat it as my job, for that moment.
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SAJAK: Matt Cox, Bowie, Md.
MATT COX: Yes, sir.
SAJAK: What do you do there?
COX: Systems engineer.
SAJAK: Mm-hmm. An engaged fellow, huh?
COX: I am, be married soon to a wonderful woman...
SAJAK: I treat everyone, I think, with respect. And I try to have fun. I try to put them at ease. And I really care what happens to them. I mean, look, I don't care who wins. I just want everyone to leave with a good experience, and I really work at that. And if there's anything I bring to the show, I think it's that.
MARTIN: Another 30 years, then, for you.
SAJAK: Um - sure.
SAJAK: If that's what you want. You may have to come adjust my drool cup, but that'll be fine.
MARTIN: Pat Sajak, celebrating 30 years as host of "Wheel of Fortune" - better known as "Wheel" to those who watch often. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Mr. Sajak, thank you so much for talking with us.
SAJAK: Thank you, Rachel, great fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE")
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.