Americans love “Wheel of Fortune,” a televised game show commonly known as “Wheel.” Thanks to its legacy and popularity, people usually can’t associate the word with another project in the entertainment industry. Pat Sajak and Vanna White are the reason; they hosted the show for 7740 episodes until mid-June 2023 – Pat took over the role in 1981, and Vanna stepped in as the regular hostess the year after, which made “Wheel” the longest-running syndicated game show in the US, and eventually the subject of much praise.
Its renown led the two main production companies, initially Columbia TriStar Television, then Sony Pictures Television from 2002 onwards, to allow the creation of over 40 international adaptations, and two US spin-offs. The first, “Wheel 2000,” aired from 1997 to 1998 and involved child contestants rather than adults, while the second, “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune,” started on 7 January 2021, and featured big names in the entertainment industry playing an adapted version, and donating their winnings to charity.
People’s anticipation and big cash prizes were crucial to the show’s success; during each episode, viewers watched three players fight to guess the 52-letter-long puzzle phrase on-screen, uncovering one letter at a time. The hosts spun the wheel to see whether it would land on a cash reward ranging from $500 to $5,000, or force players to skip a spin or forfeit all prizes or cash from that round, if it landed on a Lose a Turn or Bankrupt wedge.
Pat and Vanna were the show’s hosts for so long that people only recently realized that the show started in 1975, not 1981, and had two different hosts. It took Pat’s retirement announcement ahead of the 42nd season, scheduled to air in late 2024, to remember that Chuck Woolery, whose position Pat took, and Susan Stafford, who quit in 1982, were in those positions. But why did Chuck leave the show that could, in hindsight, have been a stable gig for decades? Did he return to “Wheel” after six years in front of the show’s audience, and where is he now? We answer those questions.
Pat’s departure sparked interest
Chuck continued to work in the entertainment industry after leaving “Wheel of Fortune” in 1981; he hosted TV and radio shows, and also had a reasonably successful career with his singing and guitar-playing skills, recording albums in several genres, mostly pop and country. However, only the show’s earliest or most devoted viewers remember him and Susan. Pat and Vanna spent so many years hosting that people cannot imagine it continuing without either of them.
Many panicked when Pat announced that he would retire after 41 seasons on the air, meaning that the season airing in September 2023 would be his last. However, since his exit was non-negotiable, and he’s leaving due to his age and other obligations, some viewers thought that only the original hosts would live up to Pat’s legacy.
Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen, and Sony Group which produces the show, is looking at younger hosts with a more prominent name to headline for years, potentially decades, to come. Pat even said that bringing Chuck back for one episode would upset the producers, so it was somewhat understandable that he left back in 1981 over not getting the salary that he felt that he deserved. Many viewers don’t know that he wanted to keep going, but the creator and the executive producer refused to double his US$5,000 weekly payment.
OTD: Pat Sajak was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame 25 years ago today!
Chuck was there from the start
As someone who has been with the show from the beginning, Chuck wanted to get a higher salary after over six years of hosting. Merv Griffin, the head of Merv Griffin Enterprises, a unit of Columbia TriStar Television, developed the “Wheel of Fortune” concept in the early 1970s. However, it had a different premise than the one today. Merv’s inspiration from the game of hangman is clear, and the wheel comes from Merv’s desire to add a twist. He loved roulette wheels, which captivated his attention whenever he saw casinos. Thus, he and his company’s president reached out for help to one of the executives of Caesars Palace in Paradise, Nevada, one of the best-known Las Vegas hotels and casinos.
The production company constructed the wheel with the casino executive’s knowledge, which spun vertically and automatically. It also had a Your Own Clue wedge instead of the Bankrupt one that viewers now know, letting the contestants hear a clue using a nearby rotary telephone. Moreover, the scores were brought up on-screen after each round, and shown in the Accounting Department. Perhaps the most distinctive difference was how the game ended; the leading contestant played a 30-second Shopper’s Special round, where they had to point out as many consonants in the solved puzzle as possible.
Moreover, the NBC daytime programming division leader, Lin Bolen, suggested presenting some form of shopping in the show, to entice a female audience. With preparations in place, Merv hired Chuck for the pilot when he officially created it in September 1973, and they named it “Shopper’s Bazaar.”
Chuck returned after two pilots
“Wheel of Fortune” aired in the somewhat recognizable format about two years after the first pilot. In the meantime, its production company drafted two other pilots, both of which got rid of the shopping influence, and carried the now-renowned name; they were hosted by rising actor Edd Byrnes, who would be the show’s star. However, Merv allegedly reinstated Chuck in December 1974, because he caught Edd reciting the five vowels to himself to remember them – if true, that undoubtedly made him a poor choice for a letter and word-based show. Additionally, he struggled with alcoholism and drugs, and had been divorced because of those problems three years before, which Merv may have known.
Interestingly, Mike Lawrence, who was the announcer for the shopping pilot, was frequently credited as the first person to speak in “Wheel of Fortune,” not Edd or Chuck. There’s an argument that an unknown stagehand holding the sign reading ‘Bazaar,’ besides undoubtedly being the first person to appear on-screen in the show, was also the first to speak. That’s up to interpretation, too, as the stagehand may have murmured something, or only opened his mouth to say something.
However, Mike was replaced in 1974 by Charlie O’Donnell, arguably the best-known announcer, who stayed in that role between 1975 and 1980, then from 1988 to 2010, when he died. Mike seemingly worked afterwards on the hospitality arrangements at the network’s offices. He was also credited with working for WNRR radio, later WOHF, based in Ohio in 1973, and left NBC by 1976.
Chuck had a wage conflict
Chuck was a reliable, entertaining, and skilled host, and the audience loved seeing and hearing him for six years, until he announced that the episode aired on 25 December 1981 would be his last. In a 2007 interview, he said that he loved hosting the show, and wanted to stay with the network. Still, Merv, who was the production company executive and the creator, and thus the decision-maker, refused to increase his salary from about $5,000 to $10,000 per week, or roughly $500,000 per year, for the 1982 season; that would have boosted his weekly pay from $16,700 to $33,450 as of June 2023. He explained his demand through the show’s analytics, which was drawing a 44 share, a media rating term that indicated the show’s popularity. Chuck stated that the updated salary would match other TV hosts’ salaries – he gave the example of Bob Barker, who led “Family Feud,” and Richard Dawson who was at the forefront of “The Price is Right”.
Chuck Woolery Left 'Wheel of Fortune' Over a Salary Dispute With Merv Griffin https://t.co/KE0ijLnqAB
— Distractify (@Distractify) June 13, 2023
NBC initially accepted his demands
However, the entire truth is slightly different; Merv’s petty behavior caused Chuck’s departure, in a way. He responded to Chuck’s offer and agreed to boost his salary, but only to $7,500 a week, or $25,100 today. NBC, who owned Merv’s production company, threw in the rest to keep Chuck happy. Unfortunately, as soon as Merv heard about it, he threatened to move “Wheel of Fortune” to a rival network, CBS. In such a challenging position, NBC had to go for the more profitable and logical option, and withdrew the offer, virtually forcing Chuck to leave. Pat Sajak stepped into the role only three days after Chuck’s last episode on 28 December.
Two people may have affected him
Although his divorce happened a year or two before he left the show, some people in the know could argue that it affected Chuck’s decision. Some viewers may know that he married Margaret Hayes in 1961, and divorced her 10 years later. On 21 December 1972, he married fellow actor Jo Ann Pflug, and they had a daughter, Melissa Kelly, born on 13 August 1975, but divorced in 1980. Although he had time to recover and continued working without significant indications that his private life suffered, it was also a troublesome time for the show.
At the time, Fred Silverman, an NBC executive and leading producer, wanted to cancel “Wheel of Fortune” in April 1980. However, the network cut three other shows, “Chain Reaction,” “High Rollers,” and “The Hollywood Squares,” so Chuck was safe. His second attempt, in May, was more successful, and Chuck and Susan filmed what they called ‘a series finale’ scheduled to air on 1 August of that year. Charlie O’Donnell also left the announcer role then.
While Fred retracted his cancellation order on 16 July, the show’s hosts understood that the end could happen at short notice. Fred left NBC the following year, so at least they didn’t have to fear his judgment during the next season.
He wanted to be a musician
One of the main reasons Chuck left without much fanfare was that he always wanted to be a musician and singer. In 1968, his psychedelic pop band, The Avant-Garde, which he founded with Elkin “Bubba” Fowler the year before, found fame with their hit “Naturally Stoned.” He was also part of a trio group, The Bordermen, in which he played double bass and sang; in 1968 they released an long-play (LP) album, “New Directions,” with 10 songs.
Chuck released several solo songs for Columbia Records in 1970, and RCA in 1972, before he landed the vocal role of one of the costumed characters, Mr. Dingle, in the first season of the children’s TV show “New Zoo Revue” in 1972. Towards the decade’s end, he released two notable songs, “The Greatest Love Affair” and “Painted Lady,” which landed on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and charted low with singles recorded under Warner Bros. Records and Epic Records labels.
Chuck proved that he wanted to be a successful country singer and musician when he declined NBC two or three times when the company wanted him to return to the updated “Wheel of Fortune” game show after the third pilot. It is now apparent that Merv Griffin eventually convinced him, and he appeared in the first episode on 6 January 1975. Notably, Merv Griffin wanted him as the host in the first pilot because he heard him singing during an episode of the talk show “The Tonight Show,” then hosted by Johnny Carson.
Chuck hosted other TV shows
Another reason that Chuck found it somewhat easy to transition from the show were his other acting and hosting opportunities. About a year later, he was cast in an unsold pilot entitled “Let’s Get Personal”; in it, the host and the contestants with the help of a psychologist, answer personality questions as if they possess a particular personality trait. When that failed, he became the original host of “Love Connection,” a dating TV show, between 1983 and 1994, and also hosted shows similar to his old one, such as “The Big Spin” in 1985, “Scrabble” between 1984 and 1990, and during a short revival in 1993.
Chuck also had “The Chuck Woolery Show,” in which he interviewed several celebrities in 65 episodes throughout 1991. He and his family also showed their lives during a six-episode docu-reality TV show, “Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned,” in 2003.
“Wheel” didn’t appreciate his contribution
Chuck’s hosting style and unique mannerisms were ideal in the show, and made him memorable. He did a play-by-play as the wheel drew to a stop and encouraged the director to leave his mistakes in to keep things authentic. However, NBC barely discussed his involvement after he departed; mainly, the hosts Pat and Vanna brought up his name while joking around. In contrast, Chuck mentioned his time in the show whenever the topic arose in “Scrabble” and other game shows.
Chuck explained that leaving the show was his biggest mistake, but he understood why he was shunned. He got the impression that he’d offended Merv, but knew that Merv also tried to take advantage of him. He said, ‘While Merv was alive, I never went to war with him on the salary increase demand. I just kinda sucked it up. I think Merv was very hurt over that. When I say hurt, I’m not sure that’s the right word, that I hurt his feelings, so to speak.’ He added that he never spoke to the executive after his exit, and lost that chance when Merv died in 2007.
Because Chuck is 82 in 2023, and hostess Susan left the industry and only released a memoir, “Stop the Wheel, I Want to Get Off!” in October 2010, there’s no chance of his comeback to “Wheel of Fortune.” A guest appearance is more likely, but not expected. Pat once said that he would want Chuck to host the April Fools Day special episode, when he switches positions with another TV show host. He wanted to let him host unintroduced, allowing the audience to realize who he was. Pat thought that the producers would disagree at the time, but since he will retire in a year, he could pull some strings and invite Chuck for his last season as a favor.
Await the outcome, but don’t hold your breath!