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En_ of an E_a: As Pat Sajak Signs Off, a Look Back at ‘Wheel of Fortune’

En_ of an E_a: As Pat Sajak Signs Off, a Look Back at ‘Wheel of Fortune’

Since 1981, Pat Sajak has anchored “Wheel of Fortune” with an affable and even disposition. On Friday, viewers will see him give the big wheel his final spin, capping one of the most impressive runs in television history — and the longest ever for a game show host.

Sajak, 77, announced his retirement last year. In an interview with his daughter, Maggie, that aired Monday on “Good Morning America,” he said he felt “surprisingly OK” going into his final week. The farewell episode was filmed in early April.

“I do know that somewhere along the line, we became more than a popular show, we became part of the popular culture, and more importantly, we became part of people’s lives,” he said. “And that’s been awfully gratifying.”

“Wheel of Fortune,” which debuted in 1975 with Chuck Woolery as its host, became a hallmark of family-friendly programming — a game show where everyone regardless of age or background could watch and play along, with Sajak as its trusted conductor. Perhaps fittingly, Ryan Seacrest, who rose to fame as the good-natured host of “American Idol,” will take the reins from Sajak when the show returns for Season 42 in September.

It remains among the most watched syndicated shows on American TV. As of last year, it was still drawing more than nine million viewers daily, second only to “Jeopardy!” for syndicated shows. In the mid-1980s, more than 40 million viewers tuned in daily.

As Sajak’s era ends, here’s a look back at the show’s legacy, impact and memorable moments.

Vanna White, the show’s famous letter-turner, joined Sajak in 1982, and their relaxed, familiar chemistry has been a key part of the show’s enduring success. When Sajak announced his retirement, White, 67, said on social media that she “couldn’t be happier to have shared the stage” with Sajak. “Who could have imagined we’d still be at it 41 seasons later?”

By some accounts, White has walked well over 2,000 miles on that stage, strolling back and forth to reveal letters. (The first letter she ever turned was the “T” in the puzzle “General Hospital.”) She even stepped in to host “Wheel of Fortune” for a few weeks in 2019, while Sajak was away for an emergency surgery.

Over the decades, White has arguably eclipsed Sajak as a pop culture figure, not only becoming a household name, but also being shouted out in a surprising number of lyrics, particularly in rap songs including Nelly’s hit 2000 track, “Ride Wit Me.”

White, however, is not departing with Sajak, though how much longer she will stick with the show remains to be seen. She agreed to a contract extension through the 2025-2026 season, a deal that reportedly included a notable raise.

“When I heard that Pat was retiring, I thought maybe I should retire, too. But I’m not ready,” she told TV Insider last month. “We’ll see toward the end of those two years how I feel. I thank God after all these years that I still love my job.”

In 1980, before she was famous, White appeared on another game show, “The Price Is Right,” as a contestant. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Get Serious,” she was picked for contestants’ row where she was welcomed by Bob Barker, the third longest-running game show host behind only Sajak and Alex Trebek, who hosted “Jeopardy!” for 37 years.

In a 2012 interview on ESPN2’s “Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable,” Sajak shared some gossip that, given the squeaky clean image of the show, was pretty memorable. According to Sajak, back in those early days, he and White would sometimes have several margaritas at a nearby restaurant while they waited for prizes to be brought onto the show’s set in Burbank, Calif., which usually took a couple of hours.

“Vanna and I would go across and have two or three or six, and then come and do the last shows and have trouble recognizing the alphabet,” Sajak said. “I had a great time,” he added. “I have no idea if the shows were any good, but no one said anything, so I guess I did OK.”

Sajak has been “figurine-like and amiably showbizzy” onscreen, as The New York Times television critic James Poniewozik put it last year, presiding over a show that has long been a 7 o’clock staple in homes across the country.

In recent years, though, Sajak has become more politically outspoken off-air, writing occasional columns expressing his conservatism and more frequently sharing his thoughts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. In 2014, for example, Sajak posted that “global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends.” (He later said he was joking.) In 2022, a photo of Sajak with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Republican from Georgia, was widely circulated, and criticized, online.

Sajak has also served on the board for the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank in California, and is chairman of the board of trustees of Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan, at which Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the 2016 commencement speech.

Sajak hasn’t said whether he will continue with such pursuits, but he is expected to consult on “Wheel of Fortune” for three years.

In the interview with his daughter, Sajak said he was open to working on new projects, but added that he is “perfectly happy if it just means that I’ll continue with my crossword puzzles and play with grandchildren,” adding, to rib his daughter, “hint, hint, hint, no pressure.”

Long before memes, cultural cache was all about catchphrases, and “Wheel of Fortune” had a doozy: “Can I buy a vowel?” — which became a humorous way to convey confusion in general or to request more information of any kind.

Now, “Wheel of Fortune,” which could be considered the original Wordle, gets meme-ified with remarkable frequency on TikTok and Instagram: in puzzle board parodies, which can be generated online, or when contestants fail in hilarious or embarrassing ways.

In 2020, a contestant went viral for guessing “chasing tail” in the bonus round; “kicking back” was the answer. And just a couple of weeks ago, a contestant scanned the puzzle board, clicked his buzzer and yelled out, “Right in the butt!” The incorrect guess has been viewed millions of times as it made its way across social media. The puzzle’s actual answer? “This is the best!”

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