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April 06, 1986|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Pat Sajak and Vanna White are terribly terribly famous. Sort of. He is the host and she the hostess of "Wheel of Fortune," a game show that is the biggest, most profitable hit in all of television syndication. Seen by an estimated 42 million people every day, "Wheel" plays pot to producer Merv Griffin's rainbow.

"He spends most of his time at the bank," White, 29, says chucklingly of Merv. "With a glint in her eye, she said that," corrects Sajak, 39. "No no," says White. "I walked into his office one day and told him people were asking about him, and he said, 'Tell 'em I spend most of my time at the bank.' So he said it first."

Griffin recently sold his production company to Coca-Cola for a reported $250 million, but he remains in charge of such smasheroos as "Wheel of Fortune." A spokesman for Griffin in Hollywood was asked about the rumor that Merv is running around waving his $250 million check in the air and joking that he can't find anyone to cash it. Without exactly confirming that tale, the spokesman said, "He'll cash it eventually."

"Wheel of Fortune" is an exceedingly simple game in which three contestants spin the titular wheel and try to guess a mystery name or phrase on a big board. It's so ragingly primitive, it could have been produced exactly the same way on television in 1951. And maybe it was. For some strange reason, it is an all-leveling hit whose victims in various cities have included "MASH" reruns and "Family Feud," which "Wheel" killed.

In Cleveland, the show is a big headache for Dan Rather, whose newscast now airs opposite the mighty "Wheel." Most stations air the program during the hour prior to prime time. In addition, there's a daily daytime version on NBC. Sajak and White have to tape 10 of these babies a week.

"I've done 1,700 shows, I figure, in a little over four years," Sajak says, self-sacrificially. "Every now and then, if you're very quiet in the studio, you can actually hear my brain cells die and hit the ground. But you have to listen carefully."

A low-key, dry-witted and personable fellow, Sajak himself is at a loss to explain the program's phenomenal success. "A lot is puzzling about this show," he notes.

"See, the greed-and-lust angle--which, before I started doing a game show, I would have figured was between 98 and 99 percent of the reason people watch or come on the show--but gee, I don't see a lot of that," Sajak says. "First of all, in the history of game shows, we're not really a big game show. We give away no cash at all."

That's right. For all their work, all that winning contestants can take home is a selection of prizes from the "Wheel" showcase--baubles, trips and junky-looking furniture. And if you lose, all you get are what Sajak refers to on the show as "lovely parting gifts," which sounds like something you take to a funeral. What are these lovely parting gifts, anyway?

"Toilet bowl cleaner and rice," says Sajak.

"And tuna, sometimes," adds White.

"Sometimes $25 worth of Cheerios," says Sajak. He puts the retail value of the lovely parting gifts at 40 bucks.

So people don't watch, or try to become contestants on "Wheel of Fortune" because they think they'll get rich at it. There has to be some other mysterious reason. "It's a fun game," says White, a fun gal. "We all played 'hangman' growing up. And I defy anybody to walk by the TV if there's a puzzle on and not solve it."

Perhaps there's some deep metaphorical resonance here. After all, what is life but . . . A Wheel of Fortune? "There's no dignity to this, so stop searching," Sajak snaps. "I think people just like to play our little game. Game shows are in now because we're a hit. Two seasons hence, they'll be syndicating 'The Cosby Show' and that will be our major competition."

He looks momentarily worried, then says, "But, there's a lot of traffic, and he still has time to get run over." White laughs scoldingly. Sajak says, "That'll look nice in print, don't you think?"

And what about working for the quixotic, the enigmatic, and the very very rich Merv Griffin?

"What am I gonna say, 'He's a jerk?' " says Sajak. "But he is a great guy to work for. Oddly enough, he is involved in this show to the extent that all the puzzles, believe it or not, go through him. He's sitting there in his office going, 'All's well that ends well; that's a good one! Butterfly net; fine!'

"You go to lunch with him, the waiter will say 'May I take your order?' and he'll say, 'May I take your order?! Great puzzle!' "

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