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Things You Didn't Know About Pat Sajak

The Chicago native born in 1946 as Patrick Sajdak has been a reliable presence on TV screens every night for more than 30 years. We know him as Pat Sajak, host of the ever-popular game show Wheel of Fortune, but there's much more to his story than telling contestants how many Cs are in a puzzle or facilitating the purchase of vowels. Here's a look at Sajak's interesting life outside the Wheel.

He started out in radio

Sajak studied broadcasting at Columbia College Chicago in the late 1960s, and before he even graduated, he got a job at a small Chicago station called WEDC. It operated out of a Cadillac showroom...and he didn't know until he reported for work that it was a Spanish-language station, because it broadcast with such low wattage that he'd never heard it on the air. Fortunately, he wasn't hired for his Spanish—he worked as an English-language newsreader, reporting on the day's events for a few minutes every hour between midnight and 6 a.m.

He was an Armed Forces Radio DJ…and made a gigantic mistake

Sajak joined the army voluntarily in 1968, hoping to avoid a dangerous combat position in Vietnam. He was trained as a clerk typist, but was eventually stationed in Saigon to utilize his radio skills as a disc jockey for Armed Services Radio. (Like many morning DJs who worked at the station in the years after famed AFVN jockey Adrian Cronauer, he started his broadcasts by shouting "good morning, Vietnam!") His tenure went smoothly until Christmas 1969. He was in his studio supervising the feed of President Richard Nixon's Christmas address to the nation. After what sounded like concluding remarks, Nixon went silent. Sajak thought the address was over, turned off the feed, and started playing a record—"1,2,3 Red Light" by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. But then, to his horror, he heard Nixon start talking again, now delivering an address directly to the troops serving in Vietnam. It was too late to cut back to the feed, so none of Sajak's fellow soldiers heard Nixon's message. "Very belatedly," he wrote years later, "I want you all to know that Richard M. Nixon wishes you a very merry Christmas."

He was a wacky weatherman

After his discharge, Sajak returned to radio and got a job as a DJ on a Nashville pop station, which led to a job at Nashville NBC affiliate WSM, where he did voiceovers and anchored five-minute local newscasts that aired in the middle of The Today Show. Viewers liked him so much that he was promoted to weatherman on local news broadcasts. An executive from KNBC, a powerful Los Angeles station, caught Sajak on TV while in Nashville and hired him to be a weatherman in Los Angeles. Since he was a weatherman—not a trained, legitimate meteorologist—he filled his broadcast segments with comedy bits, pranks, and stunts such as predicting snowstorms. Sajak's future boss Merv Griffin recalled seeing him wore a bandage over one eye, cut to commercial, and switched eyes during a commercial break—and he never mention why he'd been wearing the bandage in the first place.

An executive really didn't want him to host Wheel of Fortune

While Sajak was doing his schtick on the air in Los Angeles in 1981, game show producer Merv Griffin spotted him in action. Griffin needed a new host for his Hangman-inspired game show Wheel of Fortune, which had been airing on NBC daytime since 1975. Due to a contract dispute, host Chuck Woolery was leaving the show, and Griffin approached Sajak. But NBC president Fred Silverman reportedly opposed Griffin's choice, thinking the weatherman was too green for the job. Griffin so strongly believed he had the right man for the job that he threatened to halt production unless Sajak got the gig.

"I wasn't aware of it at the time, and I'm not really sure if the resistance came from Silverman or another executive," Sajak told the Daily Caller in 2014. "But there was no halt in taping prior to the issue being resolved, though he may have threatened it. In any event, it was very gratifying to learn of Merv's tough stand. When he believed in someone or something, that's the way he was."

Wheel of Fortune wasn't his first game show

It's a little humorous that Silverman thought Sajak wasn't ready to host, because by the time he signed on for Wheel of Fortune, he'd already had several other game show gigs—they all just happened to be pilot episodes that were never developed into a regular series. Among them were a show called Puzzlers and an early, unsuccessful take on Press Your Luck.

He was drunk during some early episodes

Today, Wheel of Fortune contestants win money. In the early '80s, they took the money won in games and "bought" prizes with it, which were displayed on gigantic rotating turntables. It took a long time to set up and reset those moving showrooms, which left plenty of downtime for Sajak and longtime Wheel letter-turner Vanna White. So what did they do to kill time? During a 2012 appearance on the ESPN2 show Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable, Sajak said they'd sneak over to a Mexican restaurant across the street from the studio and have "two or three or six" margaritas. He quipped that by the end of the day they'd "have trouble recognizing the alphabet."

He hosted one of the biggest talk show flops of all time

Sajak is affable and funny on air and well known to millions, so it's logical that he'd at least be considered to host a talk show. In 1989, CBS tapped him to host a late night series to directly compete against the undisputed king of late night, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The network spent $4 million to build a new studio for The Pat Sajak Show, paid the host $60,000 a week, and heavily promoted it in the weeks leading up to its January 1989 debut. But Carson simply could not be touched—and Sajak also had to compete with the newer, edgier The Arsenio Hall Show. Ratings for The Pat Sajak Show were usually about half of The Tonight Show's. After briefly removing Sajak in favor of a rotating group of guest hosts (but continuing to call it The Pat Sajak Show), CBS pulled the plug entirely in April 1990. Sajak was at least well compensated: His contract was for two years, so he got paid to host The Pat Sajak Show until early 1991, nearly a year after it went off the air.

He was once a contestant on Wheel of Fortune

On a 1997 episode of Wheel of Fortune, appropriately broadcast on April Fool's Day, Sajak didn't come out to host at the top of the show. Instead, Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! came out in Sajak's stead—and then the contestants were introduced: Sajak and Vanna White, playing for charity. (Subbing in for Vanna White on letter-turning duties: Lesly Sajak, Pat's wife.) Sajak returned the favor by hosting the April 1, 1997 episode of Jeopardy!

He really likes word games

Wheel of Fortune has a very collaborative environment. The show requires so many different word puzzles each day that everyone on staff is encouraged to contribute, and Vanna White and Pat Sajak have both come up with plenty of puzzles during their tenure on the show. Sajak must genuinely enjoy the work, because he's also the creator of a newspaper and digital game called "Lucky Letters."