In 1982, Pat Sajak was a quick-witted former local weatherman with a season as a daytime game-show host under his belt, and Vanna White was a beauty pageant winner making her formal TV debut as his letter-turning co-host. Their surprisingly serendipitous pairing would swiftly turn “Wheel of Fortune,” already a 7-year-old daytime network series, into a worldwide syndicated phenomenon that remains a ratings powerhouse today. Now, “Wheel’s” syndicated game show format is celebrating its 35th anniversary season.
And somewhere in the course of those 35 years, the two stars became cultural icons, as well. Their heads, like that colorful wheel, are still spinning.
“It’s still an amazing success story,” says Sajak, when contemplating the 35th anniversary of shepherding contestants through “Hangman on TV” alongside White. “Instead of this popular show, we became part of the popular culture.”
Sajak had already been onboard as “Wheel’s” affable master of ceremonies for a year when White arrived in 1982; he assumed hosting duties on the series created by talk-show host and rising game-show empire-builder Merv Griffin after its original host, Chuck Woolery, departed six seasons into its NBC run.
“Merv fought the network to get me to host this thing,” Sajak recalls. “They didn’t want some weatherman doing a big show of theirs. It didn’t matter what anybody said. It didn’t matter what research showed. It didn’t matter what focus groups said. He said, ‘I like this. It’s going to work.’”
The daytime show had gradually been losing ground in the ratings, and it looked like it had another year or two in it, but then White was added into the mix, a secret ingredient to syndicated success. White, whose prior game-show experience consisted of a stint as a contestant on “The Price Is Right” (she didn’t win), regularly watched “Wheel” and wrote to the show hoping to come on as a player — just as original letter-turner Susan Stafford was moving on. Her timing proved to be perfect.
“They said, ‘If you’re ever in Los Angeles, you can come in and audition,’” White says. “Little did I know I was going to come in and audition for the actual job!”
White says she was the “most nervous” in her life and could barely talk during her audition because she wanted the job so badly. And those jitters almost cost her the dream job. Though she was among the three finalists, Sajak admits he told…