A couple of nights ago, while biding my time until weeknight baseball comes back around (opening day: April 2), I found myself clicking through my 140 TV channels only to end up back at my usual seven p.m. default—The Wheel of Fortune, or simply “Wheel”, to which it is referred by its more avid followers. This simple game show, which draws heavily on the word-puzzle crowd (myself included—I do at least two crosswords most days, especially when there’s no baseball on TV), is one of the masterful creations of Merv Griffin, who also gave us Jeopardy. The show premiered in 1964 with Chuck Woolery and Susan Stafford as the original hosts and Pat Sajak and Vanna White taking over the controls in 1983.
Sajak, born Patrick Leonard Sajdak in 1946, is the son of a Polish-American factory worker in Chicago. He attended Columbia College in that city, during which time he won a contest on WLS radio’s Dick Biondi Show to be a teen guest DJ. He went on to a short run at Chicago’s WEDC radio as a local newsman on the night shift (midnight to six a.m.) and, in 1968, joined the U. S. Army, where he served in Viet Nam as a disk jockey on the Armed Forces Radio.
Sajak moved from broadcast radio to the small screen in the mid-1970s as a voice-over artist and anchor for five-minute newscasts during NBC’s Today Show. He soon moved up to a spot as weekend and substitute weatherman for the show and then, in 1977, was picked up by KNBC-TV in Los Angeles as a full-time weatherman. In 1981, he was discovered by Merv Griffin, who offered him the job of hosting Wheel.
Sajak has had a long career in radio and television, including a short-lived late-night talk show in 1989 and frequent guest host appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live and Live with Regis and Kelly. His foray into acting has been limited to a small role in the 1982 comedy film Airplane II: The Sequel, and a part in Days of Our Lives in 1983. But his forte is clearly that of hosting games shows, which, over the years, have included Super Password, Password Plus, Just Men! and Dream House.
Vanna White was born Vanna Marie Angel in 1957 in Conway, South Carolina. Her father abandoned her family when she was a child and she eventually took the name of her stepfather, Herbert S. White, Jr. Her first appearance in a game show was in a 1980 episode of The Price is Right. She was selected in 1982 as one of three candidates to replace Susan Stafford as co-host of Wheel.
In addition to her career as a letter-turner, White has made numerous cameo appearances on various television programs and starred in the television film Goddess of Love, but to little acclaim. The film was widely panned by critics with TV Guide joking that White’s acting was “wheely” bad. In 1992, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized her as “Television’s most frequent clapper” (she reportedly claps more than 28,000 times each season, but who’s counting) and Vanna has worn more than 6,000 outfits on the show. In any event, in 2006 she was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame.
Some people have suggested that the marketable skills of these two might be limited. But, in keeping with the program’s title, it should be noted that in 1964 Chuck Woolery had an annual salary of $65,000, which, in 2015 dollars (adjusted for inflation) would have been about $500,000: Sajak is pulling down $12 million. And Vanna? $8 million. So, guess who gets the last clap on that?