For nearly 40 years, Pat Sajak has been the world’s most famous man of letters. As host of the seemingly indestructible syndicated game show Wheel of Fortune, Sajak might be rivaled only by Alex Trebek in the pantheon of game emcees. Take a look at eight things you might not know about Sajak and his career, from his early days as a DJ in Saigon to the reason why his failed late-night talk show was really a hit. (For him.)
1. HE WORKED FOR A SPANISH RADIO STATION EVEN THOUGH HE SPOKE NO SPANISH.
Preoccupied with broadcasting from an early age—he would pretend a wooden spoon was a microphone and talk into it—Sajak got a job at a Spanish-language radio station in his hometown of Chicago in the 1960s. Sajak spoke no Spanish, but was hired to come on and do an English language news briefing once every hour from midnight until 6 a.m.
2. HE ALSO WORKED AT THE PENTAGON.
Sajak enlisted in the Army in 1968 and was dispatched to Saigon, where he spoke to the troops via armed forces radio for 18 months before being assigned to a military base in Texas. After that, Sajak found himself in the bowels of the Pentagon running slide projectors for military officials. Sajak once said he probably “heard very high-level secrets,” but that most of the talk had to do with the then-pending postal strike.
3. NBC DIDN’T WANT HIM AS HOST OF WHEEL OF FORTUNE.
After his service, Sajak bounced between jobs in radio, as a hotel desk clerk, and as a weatherman for KNBC in Los Angeles before game show giant Merv Griffin approached him in 1981 to replace a departing Chuck Woolery on the daytime series Wheel of Fortune. The game show's then-network, NBC, was not as enthusiastic. Considering him a “local” talent, they refused. It wasn’t until Griffin threatened to shut down the series entirely that the network relented.
4. HE AND VANNA USED TO DRINK BEFORE TAPING THE SHOW.
When he first started on Wheel of Fortune, Sajak and co-host Vanna White had exceptionally long dinner breaks due to producers having to shuffle prizes like cars on and off stage between tapings. While appearing on The Dan Le Batard Show in 2012, Sajak said that he and White would have “two or three or six” drinks before taping the final shows of the day. (Speaking to ABC later, he said he might have exaggerated a bit, and that he and White might have only indulged a total of six or so times.)
5. HE TURNED DOWN THE COVER OF PEOPLE MAGAZINE.
In the 1980s, Sajak was seen by more than 40 million people on Wheel of Fortune every week. That level of notoriety led to his being somewhat reserved and publicity-averse in his down time, Sajak told The New York Times in 1988. When he was offered the cover of People to help promote his then-debuting talk show on CBS, he declined. Sajak said he didn’t want to be “any place where one week it’s me and the next week it’s John Hinckley.”
6. HIS TALK SHOW BOMBED, BUT HE STILL MADE OUT.
Sajak received a certain level of infamy for his attempt to compete with Johnny Carson, the venerable late-night host who remained king of the 11:30 p.m. time slot until his retirement in 1992. The Pat Sajak Show debuted on CBS in 1989 and lasted just 15 months—but Sajak’s deal called for him to be paid for two years, regardless of whether the show made it that far or not. His salary was $60,000 a week.
7. HE WAS IN AIRPLANE II.
Sajak has occasionally tried his hand at acting, including one early ’80s stint on Days of Our Lives. His biggest role came when he had a walk-on in the 1982 film Airplane II: The Sequel, a follow-up to the Zucker brothers comedy hit of 1979.
8. HE WAS ONCE A WHEEL CONTESTANT.
In 1997, as part of an unannounced April Fool’s prank, Sajak swapped hosting gigs with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. Trebek hosted Wheel with Sajak as a contestant; Sajak hosted Jeopardy!, although Trebek did not appear as one of the three vying for game supremacy.