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Keeping the 'Wheel' Turning

July 05, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pat Sajak jokes that he knows the alphabet "by heart. It's amazing."

As the affable host of television's top-rated syndicated series, "Wheel of Fortune," Sajak, 51, has won three Emmys and a People's Choice Award. On average, more than 16 million viewers tune in nightly to see Sajak and his glamorous co-host, Vanna White, guide three contestants through the high-tech version of Hangman.

That would make "Wheel" a Top 20 show if it was on in prime time.

Sajak, a onetime deejay, was a weatherman at KNBC-TV Channel 4 when he was tapped by "Wheel" creator and executive producer Merv Griffin in 1981 to take the hosting reins of "Wheel," then an NBC daytime show, from Chuck Woolery. It moved into syndication in the fall of 1983.

In 1989 and 1990, Sajak also hosted "The Pat Sajak Show," a late-night talk series for CBS. Currently, his production company has a deal at Sony and he has found success with his music publishing company, Sajak Music.

Sajak, the father of two young children, chatted about "Wheel" and his other business ventures, over the phone from Maryland, where he was vacationing with his family.

Question: Is it true you only work 39 days a year on "Wheel of Fortune"?

Answer: We only tape our show 39 days a year. The rest of the time I pretend like I'm in show business.

It's a very sporadic schedule. The only time we can count on not really taping is the time we are in now--usually June and July. The other 10 months, it is nothing more than four or five days a month. Typically, we will tape two days in a row and we'll tape 10 shows. My children don't know I have a job! I get to be a full-time father and sort of pretend to hold down a full-time job. It's a good deal. People always ask, "Are you burned out?" How can you be burned out?

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Q: Hasn't the game itself changed a bit since you began it in 1981?

A: A little bit. When it first started it was a shopping show. You won money with which you could buy cheesy, overpriced products. Then we went basically to cash some years ago. They have spiffed up the set a little bit, and Vanna doesn't turn the letters any more [she touches them]. Eventually, she'll just think of the letters and they'll light up.

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Q: How many times to you travel to cities to tape the show?

A: Usually, three or sometimes four times a year. During the [ratings] sweeps we usually go some place or another. Most of the cities we go to aren't accustomed to having television tape in their area. They go a little bonkers. We have college-age kids, [even] people who have graduated from college, who have no memory of there not being a "Wheel of Fortune."

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Q: It's still the No. 1 syndicated show. . . .

A: It went on the air in syndication in September of '83 with just a few stations. By May of '84, it was No 1. It has been No. 1 in syndication every sweeps period since 1984.

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Q: Have you been able to put your finger on the reason for its enormous appeal?

A: I wish the heck I knew. One of the things about this wonderful, wacky business is that you don't know the answer to that question on any show. Who knows? It is a good game. If you think about it, the object of our game is not to solve the puzzle immediately. It is to solve the puzzle and amass money. It is not a lightning-fast game. If you are at home, you are ahead of the players. So there is that sort of superiority feeling. If you pass a television set and a puzzle is showing, I defy you not to play along.

Then somewhere along the line, and I don't know exactly where, we became more than a popular game show. We sort of crossed over and became part of pop culture. If you go to a comedy club and a comic makes a joke about "Wheel of Fortune," even if you haven't seen the show you understand the reference.

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Q: Is it hard dealing with the celebrity of being on the No. 1 syndicated series?

A: Vanna has handled her career a little differently. I think she is more open to the celebrity aspect. She likes to do endorsements and covers. For me, it's fairly low-key. When people see me, they are very comfortable with me--it is not like Paul Newman walked in the room. It is more like my old pal Pat. I get recognized a lot and people talk to me a lot. I can go to the grocery store and people will say, "Hi," but don't knock over my basket to see what I bought.

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Q: What's the scoop on your production company and your music publishing business?

A: We have a little production deal with Sony, which owns "Wheel" now. We are actually doing two game show pilots for Sony this summer, which I won't be hosting, but I'll be producing. We are co-producing an independent film with another company. We are doing a series of live-action children's films based on children's books for a company called Weston Woods, which is a part of Scholastic.

I have six gold records hanging on my wall with Sajak Music. We have had three Trisha Yearwood million-sellers and the title song on Johnny Cash's last album.

You never know what's going to be down the road, so you try to diversify.

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Q: Would you ever attempt another talk show?

A: I don't have much talk-show desire. It's kind of a "been there, done that" kind of feeling. It lasted a year and a half, which is not a bad run these days. I had a great time. But there are just so many of them now. I joke that in 10 years, I've gone from one of the few people in America with their own talk show to one of the few people in America without his own talk show.

"Wheel of Fortune" airs Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. on KABC-TV Channel 7.

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