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13 Little-Known Facts About Former Wheel Of Fortune Host Pat Sajak

In June 2024, "Wheel of Fortune" legend Pat Sajak announced — to the disappointment of fans all over the world — that he'd be retiring after more than 40 years behind the "wheel." Over the years, we've learned a lot about Sajak's time as host of the classic game show — he's even talked about being highly intoxicated when filming early episodes — but there's still a lot you probably don't know about him, even if you've been tuning in to watch him sell letters for years.

Born in Chicago, Sajak is lifelong a lover of games. He has even authored a PC puzzle game called "Lucky Letters." "Wheel of Fortune" isn't his first game show, because he hosted "Puzzlers," a pilot for a new show in 1980 that never went to series. He even tried his hand at late night, hosting "The Pat Sajack Show" in 1989. The show ended in 1990. But if you think those facts are surprising, wait until you read the little-known facts we've dug up about Pat Sajak as we celebrate his career on "Wheel of Fortune."

Even as a child, he was obsessed with being on television

Many children grow up aspiring to be famous actors, musicians, or artists, but few are able to actually achieve that dream. Well, Pat Sajak is one of the rare few who did. When looking back at his youth, though, it's interesting to see how specific his dreams of stardom were. He didn't just want to be an actor or entertainer, he wanted to be a TV presenter like his idol, Jack Parr, host of the game show "Bank on the Stars" and the second-ever host of "The Tonight Show." 

In 1988, The New York Times published article on the life and career Sajak, including an interview with the man himself. In the piece we learned that Sajak didn't just want to be a TV host — he even practiced for the job as a child growing up in Chicago, often using wooden spoons as makeshift microphones. He'd even flout his bedtime to stay up and sneak out of his room to watch Parr in his late-night timeslots. Though we can't recommend defying your parents, the mischievous young Sajak later turned his make-believe playtime into reality as the host of "Wheel of Fortune."

A contest gave him his first chance at stardom

Pat Sajak's life in Chicago was a good one, and not just because he got away with staying up well past his bedtime. He graduated high school in 1964 before attending Columbia College Chicago, and though it wasn't TV work, he had a job working the front desk at the historic Palmer House Hotel.  Around the same time, though, Sajak entered and won a contest on Dick Biondi's WLS radio show. His prize got him the chance to serve as a disc jockey for the station.

"I learned I liked it, and I learned I had a facility for it," Sajak said of his brief contest-winning stint as a local DJ in a 2007 interview with the Television Academy. "I wasn't very good, but I wasn't horrible. And I wasn't nervous about it. And that's one trait that's always followed me along. I'm very comfortable with it. And I was from day one."

Not long after, while attending Columbia, Sajak gained a mentor in the form of iconic radio man Al Parker, who worked in the school's broadcasting department. "He sort of took me under his wing and actually clued me into my first job," Sajak said.

He served as a disc jockey in Saigon during the Vietnam War

As his time in college came to an end, the Vietnam War was raging and the draft looming. Pat Sajak knew there was a good chance that, at his age, he'd be selected to go overseas to fight for his country, so he decided to be proactive and enlist voluntarily. "I was under the impression that if you joined, you had a better chance of getting in the area you wanted to get in, and mine was Armed Forces Radio," he told his daughter in an interview on the "Wheel of Fortune" YouTube channel. Unfortunately, that's not the way it went. "They made me a finance clerk and sent me to Vietnam," he said. He eventually got his wish to work in radio, just not in the manner he imagined.

"The Army works in strange ways," Sajak told NPR in 2013. "I took basic training as a clerk typist." After several requests for a transfer, though, Sajak was shipped off to Saigon to become one of the successors to Adrian Cronauer, the man who inspired the film "Good Morning Vietnam." "I was two or three guys later [after Cronauer]," Sajak told his daughter. He even used Cronauer's infamous sunrise greeting. Oddly enough, though, he'd convinced the Army to hire him for the job by exaggerating his resume. "I had never actually been a D.J.,” he told The New York Times in 1988. "But I made it sound to the Army guys like I had. I think I lied, actually.” Finally, though, he had the actual experience he'd told his commanders he already had.

He had a bizarre first day working at a Spanish radio station in Chicago

While Pat Sajak claims he'd lied to the U.S. military about his lack of radio experience, he'd actually had a gig prior in his native Chicago. It was at WDEC, which much to Sajak's surprise, was a Spanish-speaking station — and he couldn't speak a lick of the language. A friend had gotten him the job as a favor, but his first day was nothing if not memorable — and somewhat perplexing.

"I show up at midnight," Sajak once told NPR about his experience at the Spanish-only station. "There's not a light in the studio. There's no one home. I'm banging on the door. A car pulls up and an Hispanic gentleman gets out and says something to me in Spanish, which I don't understand." As it happens, that gentleman was the resident DJ for the station's overnight shift, from midnight to 6 a.m., where he played nothing but Spanish music and commercials. Yet somehow, Sajak was hired to do the news — once an hour — which he delivered in English. "To this day I do not know why," he told The New York Times.

As luck would have it, though, Sajak found himself doing more than just the news, as the house DJ would often leave early. "So from then on, I would play records," he said. "I don't know what they were.”

Secret Agent Sajak? Pat worked at the Pentagon ...

During his time serving as a radio host in Vietnam, Pat Sajak learned a lot about what it took to be an entertaining on-air personality. But when his tour came to an end, he was sent back to America, where he had to essentially start over. Still serving his country, Sajak took a job at a surprising place: the Pentagon, home of the Central Intelligence Agency. No, he wasn't an undercover operative helping to organize a foreign coup, nor was he even a Jack Ryan-like desk analyst — but he still had an important role to play, and he got to work underground while doing it.

As chronicled in The New York Times, Sajak's job at the Pentagon was a simple one, operating the slide projector for high-ranking generals during operational briefings. ”It was a very high-clearance job,” he told the paper. ”And I suppose I heard very high-level secrets." There were also some quirks that he seemed to find humor in. "When we flashed up maps of Vietnam, I saw them backwards. It always looked like we were retreating.”

He was facing a quarter-life crisis before his big break

Following his stint at the Pentagon, aspiring TV-man Pat Sajak looked for more radio work in the surrounding area of Washington, DC, but wound up working at the Madison Hotel. When he heard about a small radio station owned by the friend of a friend in Kentucky, though, he took off, packing his life up into a U-Haul with no plan other than some hopes and a prayer.

”Finally I said to myself, 'I'm 25 and I'm not exactly doing well,'" he told The New York Times. Though he did manage to work as a DJ at the 250-watt station he'd heard about, it wasn't the life he'd dreamt for himself. So Sajak took off again in a U-Haul and headed for nearby Nashville in hopes of a better life. He found it when he got a job at station WSM where he was a staff announcer, though from the sounds of it, it wasn't his favorite gig.

"On Saturday nights, after we did the news and weather, he would be the booth announcer," said Sajak's then-colleague, former WSMV4 sports director Rudy Kalis. "During the commercial breaks, they would come back to him. ... He would sit in his seat and [slump] further and further and further," Kalis said via WSMV4. "He said the reason he did that was just to see if management was watching."

His first career was as a local weather man

You might be wondering what Pat Sajak really did before his "Wheel of Fortune" gig. In 1977, Sajak was done with WSM, but bigger things awaited him in Los Angeles. It was there that Sajak finally found his first real career — as a local weatherman. It seems that an NBC affiliate there, KNBC-TV, had seen his work in Nashville — including his frequent weather updates — and thought he showed promise for a bigger market.

As it turns out, the arrival of Pat Sajak to KNBC was a pretty big deal — at least big enough that the station actually took out a full-page newspaper ad to announce his first day on the job. In it, the station kindly asked audiences to receive him with a warm welcome as their new weatherman, accompanied by a pair images of Sajak — one in a raincoat holding an umbrella, and the other adorned in swim trunks and flippers while holding a surfboard and beach ball.

The tone of the ad suggests that the powers that be liked his fun-loving attitude and wanted more of it. There, his charismatic personality shined through with full fervor, as he delivered the weather reports at both 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

He wasn't the original host of Wheel of Fortune

As long as most of us have been alive, Pat Sajak has been the host of "Wheel of Fortune." But it might surprise you to learn that he's not the man who was hosting the show when it first hit the airwaves. In fact, the original "Wheel of Fortune" host was nearly as famous as Sajak was in the '80s: It was "Love Connection" legend Chuck Woolery.

When "Wheel of Fortune" began in 1975, Woolery was the inaugural host. He presented the show for its first seven years, leaving at the end of 1981. Contract negotiations had kicked off a feud with media mogul man Merv Griffin, who'd created the series. At the time, Woolery said of the failed negotiations that he'd wanted a raise from $65,000 a year to $500,000 — a similar salary to other hosts at the time — while Griffin would only commit to $400,000 and wasn't budging. In response, the network offered to cover the difference just to get the white-hot series back on the air. But Griffin was so miffed that he threatened to take the series to a rival network, and thus, Woolery was sent packing, moving on to "Love Connection" a few years later, leaving a vacant spot on a national game show for Sajak to fill.

Wheel of Fortune producers didn't want him to host the show

With Chuck Woolery out, the network and Merv Griffin knew it would be a tall order to fill his shoes. They deeded someone just as charming, likable, and funny — and Griffin knew just who he wanted: local weatherman Pat Sajak. Convincing his network bosses that Sajak was the right man for the job, however, wasn't an easy task despite his impressive track record picking hosts.

In his book, "Merv: Making the Good Life Last," Griffin talked about how he'd had his eye on Sajak for a while, enjoying his odd sense of humor when delivering the news. But the network balked when they met with Griffin and were told that Sajak was the pick to replace outgoing host Chuck Woolery. "The new vice president of daytime programming ... said, 'You've got to be kidding. He's a weatherman, for Christ sake. And not even a network weatherman. He's local." But Griffin stuck to his guns, insisting that he ended the meeting by threatening to stop taping the show until they hired Sajak. And the rest is history.

Believe it or not, he once hosted Jeopardy ... and was a contestant on Wheel of Fortune

It probably goes without saying that Pat Sajak is as synonymous with "Wheel of Fortune" as the Sun is with daytime. And the same can be said for the late Alex Trebek's relationship with "Jeopardy!," also produced by Merv Griffin. But what you probably don't remember is that in 1997 — for one episode only — Sajak was a fill-in host for Trebeck on the answer-and-question game.

Though he'd already appeared on the show as a celebrity contestant in 1993, it was for the network's April Fool's Day event programming that audiences were surprised by Sajak behind the "Jeopardy!" podium on April 1, 1997. If you think Sajak pulled double duty that night, think again, because the proper host of "Jeopardy!" didn't exactly get the day off: Trebek was the host of "Wheel of Fortune" that night as the two TV icons swapped shows, with Pat's wife Leslie filling in for Vanna White. While Trebek was presiding over the "Wheel," Sajak and co-presenter Vanna White served as that night's only contestants, playing for charity: the Boy Scouts of America and the American Cancer Society.

He has his own Sesame Street muppet named Pat Playjacks

The mark of a true cultural icon is receiving spoofs by other cultural icons, whether it's being lampooned as a "Garbage Pail Kid" or a musician being parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic. Well, Pat Sajak is one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of receiving his own Muppet character on the landmark children's show "Sesame Street." 

The show, which already had an effervescent TV host character in Guy Smiley, debuted the character of Pat Playjacks in a 1987 episode that also featured Patti LaBelle and another game show parody, "The Trash Is Right," with Oscar the Grouch. Playjacks, meanwhile, appears as the host of "Squeal of Fortune," with his co-host Velma Blank. He's the spitting image of Sajak, too, with a perfectly unkempt wig, a big smile, tightly placed eyes, and a dapper grey suit. The biggest honor, though? Pat Playjacks is voiced by none other than Muppet creator Jim Henson.

He has a lengthy list of TV cameos ... and not always as himself

For the past 45-plus years, Pat Sajak has had his face all over television, first locally on stations in Los Angeles and later as host of "Wheel of Fortune" for four decades. But that's not the only place you could catch Sajak's smiling mug on screen, because in addition to hosting one of America's biggest game shows he also made cameos in a number of hit TV series over the years.

Often, those cameos saw Sajak playing himself, usually when a character was on an episode of "Wheel of Fortune," such as in episodes of "Fresh Off the Boat" in 2017, "The King of Queens" in 2001, and even an episode of "Gimme a Break!" way back in 1984. He also played himself in episodes of "The A-Team," "The Larry Sanders Show," and "Santa Barbara," while lending his voice to an animated version of himself in an episode of "Rugrats" in 1994. 

But Sajak doesn't always play himself. He returned to his old job on the radio — at least fictionally — playing a radio presenter named Kevin Hathaway in an episode of "Days of Our Lives" and later played a pop psychologist with his own radio show in an episode of "The Commish" almost a decade later. Of course, his acting debut came in the 1982 comedy "Airplane II: The Sequel" where he played a TV anchorman.

He needed life-saving surgery in 2019

By his own admission, Pat Sajak has lived a lucky and privileged life. At times, the world-famous game show host has even seemed almost embarrassed by the life of luxury he's lived, but that might be because he knows that fame and fortune aren't the most important things in life. And Sajak got a stark and scary reminder of that fact in 2019 when he underwent emergency surgery that saved his life.

In November 2019, Sajak was rushed under the knife after experiencing excruciating pain from what was later revealed to be a blocked intestine. "I was [in] the fetal position, lying on the bed," Sajak recounted to CNN shortly after the ordeal. "They try to give you various drugs for the pain. And none of it — none — was working." In a fog of physical anguish, surrounded by family, Sajak feared the worst. "I remember thinking, not in a morbid way, 'I think this must be death. This must be what death is like.'"

Perhaps surprisingly, Sajak underwent the procedure to fix the obstruction and was back on his feet hosting "Wheel" quickly, much to Sajak's delight — especially after watching fill-in host Vanna White. "I did find she does like hosting and I'm a little nervous," he remarked.