What You Don't Know About Pat Sajak

When Pat Sajak announced in June 2023 that he was stepping down as the host of "Wheel of Fortune," it didn't mark the end of a presenter's distinct catchphrase or visual sign-off. It didn't even mark the immediate end of Sajak's tenure as host; his announcement came with the caveat that he would stay on through the 41st season. But it did signal the beginning of the end for an era of American television. In 2019, Sajak became the longest-serving network game show host to stay with the same program, 35 years and 198 days at the time, according to the Guinness World Records.

Sajak hasn't been with "Wheel of Fortune" quite from the beginning — Chuck Woolery launched the show in 1975 — but he has become tightly bound to it, along with co-host Vanna White. The format of the game, a word puzzle with cash and prizes determined by a spin of the wheel, is a simple one, and Sajak even joked in announcing his retirement that "Wheel of Fortune" had gone on far longer than most TV shows are generally tolerated. His interaction with guests has seen him occasionally go viral in the age of social media — as has his tendency to take some rather right-wing conservative views. But Sajak has had a few less publicized moments in his life and career.

He was a disc jockey in Vietnam

Pat Sajak was born in Chicago on October 26, 1946, and remained there through his college years. It was in Chicago that he first became interested in broadcasting, getting his first taste when he was chosen as a teen DJ on a Saturday show for WLS Radio. From there, he got a job as a graveyard shift radio newsman with WEDC to help with college.

Broadcasting opportunities opened for Sajak even when he went into the military in 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War. He served most of his time behind the host's desk for the AFVN morning show, where he played music and shouted out the signature line, "Good morning, Vietnam." He was also responsible for managing broadcasts to the troops, which led to an embarrassing mistake with President Richard Nixon's Christmas message in 1969. Sajak mistook a pause in Nixon's speech for its finish and switched back over to the playlist. He kept the music going even after he realized Nixon wasn't done, which meant that the president's direct acknowledgment of the troops went unheard that year.

In his year and a half in Saigon, Sajak was never near combat. He joked to ESPN that Vietnam "was actually fun, if you can call a war fun." But he's also spoken about guilt for the comparative ease of his service compared to those on the front lines.

He has a background in news and meteorology

Given his earliest forays into broadcasting, Pat Sajak might have been expected to spend most of his career as a news anchor or meteorologist rather than a game show host. His first media job was as the newsman for a local Chicago station, WEDC, though he only read the news rather than gathering it. He was disc jockey and morning host to the troops for part of the Vietnam War. His career was cut short after he left the army; with no ready opportunities in the Washington, D.C. area, Sajak turned to clerical work to get by. But a tip from a friend led him to Murray, Kentucky, and a return to the airwaves, in 1971 (per his own Pat Sajak Games).

That job put Sajak back in the disc jockey role, but he wanted to move on. After a frustrating job search, during which time he made ends meet through a desk job at a motel, he broke into local television, the NBC affiliate WSM based in Nashville. He spent five years with the station, eventually garnering notice for his stints presenting the daily forecast. Among those watching were recruiters for another NBC affiliate in Los Angeles, who brought Sajak out west to be their weatherman for morning and evening broadcasts. He split his time between predicting the Los Angeles weather and a Sunday talk show when Merv Griffin came calling with the offer to take over "Wheel of Fortune" at CBS.

He briefly went against Johnny Carson with his own talk show

When Pat Sajak became host of "Wheel of Fortune" in 1981, he assumed the show was on its last legs and that he'd be on to other things soon. Instead, the game show got a second lease on life, and Sajak's star rose with it. He was seen as a friendly and reliable presence, popular enough that he might headline his own talk show. In those days, when "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" was the undisputed ratings king of late night, rival networks were desperate to compete, and CBS thought that "The Pat Sajak Show" might do the trick.

The series premiered in 1989. Sajak entered the role of talk show host with some reservations; one of the things he liked about his "Wheel of Fortune" gig was that the game was the primary focus, as per The New York Times. It wasn't necessary for him to have a well-honed public persona. Sajak, a private man, knew that he would have to be at least slightly more revealing of himself as host of "The Pat Sajak Show." On the other hand, it was an opportunity to be less guarded in his humor; celebrity guests are usually more prepared for barbs at their expense than game show contestants.

Sajak later said that "The Pat Sajak Show" was a career highlight. But CBS's hopes of challenging Carson and NBC weren't to be; "The Pat Sajak" show only lasted 18 months.

Pat Sajak would sometimes get tipsy at work

As host of a popular game show, Pat Sajak regularly works with members of the general public unused to television. Nerves can run high, and it's generally not that appealing to see a host get too aggressive or acidic when kidding contestants about verbal gaffes or gameplay mistakes. After a few harsh incidents early on in his tenure, Sajak learned to temper his comments and project a more genial manner while running "Wheel of Fortune." But one imagines that maintaining such a demeanor, and the routine of a standardized game show, could get a little tiring at times — and that a host might look for ways to relieve the monotony.

Sajak confessed to looking for such a release early in his tenure to ESPN. In those days, "Wheel of Fortune" didn't give out cash to the winners; it gave out tacky prizes. Taping was often a bore, and the time it took to turn around the set was immense. Left with hours-long meal breaks, Sajak and his co-host Vanna White took to frequenting a restaurant across the street from the studio that made mean margaritas. "We would have two or three or six," said Sajak, making the last taping of the day a little difficult to manage.

His conservative writing career runs deep

For the casual television viewer, Pat Sajak has long been the affable host of "Wheel of Fortune." For the perpetually online, he's gathered another reputation, that of a flippant and unsavory Twitter crank with a penchant for ignoring the facts of climate science. But Sajak's weighing in on political matters isn't confined to social media. He's been writing for conservative outlets for years.

His first published article on political matters was with the National Review in 2010. Sajak opined that public employees, having a larger stake in certain elections, should potentially face limits on their participation in those elections. While he didn't call for taking away federal workers' voting rights wholesale, he did suggest that they should be excluded from voting on certain ballot initiatives that would directly impact their jobs and benefits. The op-ed inspired an immediate counterargument in the pages of New York Magazine, which noted the slippery slope nature of Sajak's proposal. It ended by turning a piece of Sajak's show against him: "We'd like to buy a vowel: 'O.' For 'Oh God, what an outrageously bad idea.'"

Sajak went on to contribute short opinion pieces to the conservative outlets Ricochet and Human Events. Some are innocuous and nuanced, like a frank assessment of unhealthy online habits he's fallen into. Others amount to unmasked contempt for the American left wing that trade on old accusations of socialism.

He's the chair of a private conservative college

Pat Sajak's involvement in conservative politics hasn't been limited to op-eds or Twitter posts. Since 2004, he's been tied to Hillsdale College, a private Christian institution. Per The New York Times, the Michigan-based school was founded by abolitionists in 1844, kept a more open admissions policy than other colleges, and maintains a liberal arts curriculum centered around Western philosophy with only a modest focus on its Baptist roots. Students and observers have found classes engaging and not an uncritical parroting of conservative groupthink. But Hillsdale has become a committed advocate of limited government and to that end has refused any public funding. A side effect of that is the school's exemption from Title IX regulations. Its track record for admitting LGBTQ+ students and, in recent years, people of color has been criticized. And worrisome comments have been made by faculty concerning gay rights and the election of Donald Trump.

Sajak, who did not study at Hillsdale, spent 15 years as vice chairman of its board of trustees. In 2019, he stepped up to the role of chairman after the longtime incumbent, William Brodbeck, retired. Sajak's own announced retirement from "Wheel of Fortune" briefly inspired questions about his work for Hillsdale, but it was soon confirmed that he was not retiring from the board. As chairman, Sajak has committed to expanding Hillsdale's outreach beyond alumni.

He came near death when he underwent surgery

In early November 2019, Pat Sajak seemed in fine form when he participated in the Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony for producer Harry Friedman. But days later, a taping of "Wheel of Fortune" was abruptly canceled when Sajak was rushed to the hospital. Cohost Vanna White temporarily took over the show as Sajak recovered from intestinal surgery.

In describing the episode to ABC News, Sajak said, "My daughter Maggie and I, we took a walk in the morning ... and I came home ready to get ready to go to work and suddenly, I had this horrific pain in my stomach." His intestines, for unknown reasons, had become entangled and started putting pressure on each other. Unless addressed quickly, such a condition can be fatal. Sajak was in surgery within two hours of his first symptoms, but his blood pressure was so low that his surgeon needed to wait for it to elevate to begin the operation. Sajak's family and doctors were unsure if he would make it, and while under the influence of painkillers, Sajak experienced the sensation of impending death. Fortunately for him, the surgery was a complete success, and Sajak was able to return to work and daily life without complications or modifications.

His climate change denial is pretty extreme

Of all Pat Sajak's forays into political commentary, his remarks on climate change may be his most extreme and divorced from the facts on the ground. He denies the reality of manmade climate change and has taken to Twitter on multiple occasions to say so. While there, he's also had plenty to say about climate scientists and activists. In 2014, he shared a particularly scathing tweet (via The Washington Post): "I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends. Good night." Ann Coulter later took that sentiment and ran with it.

Sajak later walked back his tweet as deliberate hyperbole. And sometime later, he scrubbed his Twitter of the accusation of racism, a comparison of climate change to the Tooth Fairy, and a facetious prediction of a movement for "Plants Rights." But the internet can have a long memory, and the long-deleted tweets continue to be brought against Sajak in critical commentary.

Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek were friends (who didn't socialize)

Until his death in 2020, Alex Trebek stood alongside Pat Sajak as one of the longest-serving and most memorable game show hosts. And over the years, their respective shows took advantage of the hosts' parallel careers for various stunts. In 1997, both "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune" sprung April Fools' surprises on viewers. Trebek assumed hosting duties for "Wheel of Fortune" while Sajak and Vanna White acted as contestants playing for charity (Sajak's wife took over for White as cohost). Meanwhile, Sajak was the guest host of a "Jeopardy" episode that featured several categories inspired by his own show.

While attending the Daytime Emmy Awards in 2011, Sajak and Trebek gave a joint interview to We Love Soaps TV. Asked if they were friends away from the cameras, the hosts confirmed that they were. But Trebek added a caveat to that answer: "People ask if we socialize. We don't. Pat spends half of his time living on the East Coast and I live [in Los Angeles]. And we're friends, but we do not socialize." It was rare, he said, for active game show hosts to mingle in their private lives. But they had enough nonwork encounters for Sajak to get to know Trebek's family, and after Trebek's death from pancreatic cancer, Sajak provided a warm tribute, praising his professionalism, and his wife and children.

He once owned a baseball league

Away from "Wheel of Fortune," Pat Sajak has written for conservative outlets, served on the board of a college, and developed his own line of puzzle games. He's also indulged his love of baseball. A Chicago native, he grew up watching the Cubs and the White Sox, two teams he still supports without picking a favorite. He's also added the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Baltimore Orioles to his list as he's moved around the country. "I'm politically correct [on sports teams] if nothing else," he told Sports Illustrated, adding that he also supported the Los Angeles Angels.

Never skilled at the game himself, Sajak has at times sought greater involvement in the baseball world. He hosted a relatively short-lived weekly talk show on MLB Radio, "The Pat Sajak Baseball Hour," which put him in contact with people from every corner of the league. Before that, he went as far as buying a league of his own, the independent Golden Baseball League. Only 10 teams strong, the league didn't quite make it to a full decade of playing, but by Sajak's estimation, over 100 of its players went on to the majors.

His daughter has worked for Wheel of Fortune

In 2021, "Wheel of Fortune" became a family affair for Pat Sajak (though only briefly, given his announced retirement two years later). His daughter Maggie Sajak became the host of the show's online arm, conducting backstage interviews with contestants and crew and guiding viewers through the show's inner workings. Born in 1995, Maggie was a frequent visitor to the "Wheel of Fortune" set growing up. She briefly dabbled in country music and earned a law degree before joining her dad on the set. Her role on the show after her father's retirement has, as of July 2023, not been announced.

Maggie's older brother Patrick Sajak, born in 1990, did not go into the family business, but he came up on "Wheel of Fortune" anyway. On a May 2021 episode, Pat Sajak announced that Patrick had completed medical school. "The only troubling part is, he insists that I call him Dr. Sajak," he quipped. The elder Sajak also joked that he wanted Patrick to go into geriatrics, but Patrick chose not to.