Pat Sajak

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''In 1981, I was working as a weatherman on a local station, KNBC-TV, in Los Angeles when (the late) Merv Griffin called me out of the blue one day and asked if I would be interested in running a game show,'' recalled Pat Sajak, the host of ''Wheel of Fortune'' who somehow retains his boyish charm at the age of 60.

"I don't know what it was, but somehow Merv took a shine to me and thought I was amusing, interesting or something. Anyway, I went to his office, talked to him for a bit - and here we are a quarter of a century later," said Sajak, laughing. "On a financial level, it has been extraordinarily valuable to me. And to have a successful career with a minimum of effort has been a great luxury."

Veteran game show host Chuck Woolery and his letter-turning sidekick Susan Stafford headed up the network daytime version of "Wheel of Fortune" from 1975 to 1982, when Sajak and Vanna White went on the air with it until 1989 - when the genial ringmaster pulled out to try his hand at "The Pat Sajak Show," a late-night gab program.



It didn't fly and Sajak never gave up his day job as the host of the nation's No. 1 syndicated show, "Wheel of Fortune," which has made him a millionaire many times over. Griffin - who created "Wheel" and "Jeopardy!" - sold both to Coca-Cola/Columbia Pictures for $250 million years ago.

"Today, starting our 25th anniversary, Sony owns us and I work for some guy in Japan I'll never meet," said Sajak, not particularly perturbed by the situation. "And I'm winding down my career - I'm closer to the end than the beginning. Whether that is three years or five years down the road, it won't be much longer.

"As much as I admire him, I don't want to do a (Bob) Barker into my 80s," he continued. "When I do leave, it's not because I'm sick of the show and hate it. There just comes a time when it is right to step aside and let someone else take over because 'Wheel' could be around for a very long time. Watch Barker audition, get it and win an Emmy Award for it."

When Sajak steps aside, it definitely won't be due to physical exhaustion.

"'Wheel of Fortune' is a well-oiled machine that rarely breaks down," he explained, stifling a yawn. "We tape about 35 days a year, spread over a nine-month period from July to April. We go in two or three times a month between noon and 5:30-6 p.m. to tape six 30-minute shows - which takes about 35 minutes for each segment.

"It comes out to 195 shows per year; when I also hosted the daytime version of 'Wheel' for seven years, we did another 250 shows a year," Sajak continued. "I don't know how many thousands of shows that comes out to, but it is a lot. When you do a half-dozen of them per day, your head becomes a giant blender.

"Everything becomes a blur when you barely have time to run to your dressing room to change clothes between taping segments. Things get so hectic that I have no recollection of what happened that day until we show highlight reels every 1,000 shows or so. Also nice is that Vanna and I never get sick of each other, probably because we go home after a day of work and don't see each other for another two weeks. I consider her a dear friend though we don't do much socializing."

More than 47 million viewers catch "Wheel of Fortune" (which has all kinds of anniversary surprises worth up to $25,000 each) on more than 200 stations scattered all over the country every week as Sajak makes it all look very easy.

"There are lots of things going on at the same time and it is my job to make it look like we're just playing a game," he explained. "And on a relative scale, it is easy.

"I'm not defusing bombs or mining coal," he continued. "Spinning a giant multicolored wheel and giving away cars means we're not exactly helping with the progress of mankind here - we're just entertaining. My father did all the hard work in my family, loading and unloading trucks back home in Chicago for 30 years. They send a limo for me to and from work. It also means that my wife, Lesly, and 16-year-old son (Michael) and 12-year-old daughter (Maggie) see me around the house more often than they'd like."

Growing up, Sajak's big hero was Jack Paar - the emotional man who preceded Johnny Carson on the "Tonight" show.

"I'd watch the variety shows with my grandmother and all of it appealed to me - it seemed to be a fun and easy way to make a living. My first job in Chicago, while attending Columbia College, was reading the news in English on a Spanish-language program from midnight until 6 in the morning on a 250-watt radio station. I still don't know why."

But Uncle Sam knew how to use his newly acquired skills as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Vietnam Network in what was then Saigon.

"It was a surreal experience in a huge market, about 500,000 American GIs, where your drive time involved tanks and Jeeps," he mused. "I never saw Robin Williams' movie, 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' because I starred in my own version of it - so I didn't need to see his. I took very few prisoners there and never lost a record."
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