'Jeopardy!' and 'Wheel of Fortune' Boss Opens Up About Stepping Down After 25 Years

Executive producer Harry Friedman reveals how Alex Trebek reacted to the news, shares his favorite contestant in 12,000 episodes and explains why you won't see same-sex couples buying vowels anytime soon.
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Harry Friedman

After 25 years and commandeering almost 12,000 broadcasts, Harry Friedman — the executive producer of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! — has decided to step down at the end of the coming season. He informed the staffs Thursday morning on the Culver City soundstage where the hugely popular syndicated game shows tape.

Friedman, 72, came to Los Angeles in 1971, knowing no one and giving himself a six-month timeline to make things work. On the last day, he scored a gig writing questions for The Hollywood Squares. He worked 11 years at Squares, then joined Wheel as a producer in 1995 and Jeopardy! in 1997. He's been there ever since. Friedman's stamina has paid off with three Guinness World Records, a Peabody Award and 14 Emmys (including two won in a single category in which he tied with himself). 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Friedman about his decision to walk away from the job that made him a legend in the TV industry.

How are you feeling today, Harry?

I have mixed emotions. I’m comfortable with my decision, but it’s hard to face the reality that I’m going into my last season. Especially a show with people that I really love and respect.

Is this a retirement?

I’m going to explore all my options. But no, I’m not retiring. I want to stay active in the business.

So why now?

It’s just a little voice in my head that says this is the right time. My wife and I had a couple of health challenges last year and it made us look at things a little differently. We want the freedom to do other things.

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is also going through his own health challenges. How is he doing?

Alex is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is he’s got an iron will and an unequaled determination to beat this. He underwent several rounds of chemo and that brought his numbers down. They were around 1,000 at one point and now they’re down into the high teens. So he’s responded well to the chemotherapy. His doctors credit not just his positive attitude but the outpouring of love, support and encouragement that he’s received.

I assume you’ve talked to him about your decision. How did he react?

I have. He certainly understands. He was respectful of it and of course we’re going to miss working together, but he was very supportive, as were [Wheel of Fortune hosts] Pat [Sajak] and Vanna [White].

To what do you attribute these hosts’ staying power?

These are uniquely talented people who have a very broad understanding of the shows and of the audience and of their roles. They are exactly who you see on television. They’re not acting the part of hosts — they are hosts. Obviously the audience senses that, because they’ve been welcoming them into their homes for a combined total of 15,000 episodes.

They’re very different shows. Does any of your research let you know anything about the audiences’ politics?

No we don’t look at that.

So how does the demographic differ between the two shows?

They’re remarkably similar. They both have very broad audiences. I think there tends to be more co-viewing with Wheel of Fortune than with Jeopardy!, where kids and parents watch together.

You just had a rare contestant in Jeopardy!'s James Holzhauer. How did that affect the show behind the scenes?

It’s exciting for us to have a contestant like that who just grabs national headlines and brings a lot more excitement to the show than anything else possibly could — to see someone that proficient and gutsy play the game like it’s never been played before.

You must have seen some crazy things on both shows in the past 25 years. Anything jump to mind?

If I had to pick one, we had a blind contestant on Jeopardy! Everyone said, "Well, you can’t do that." But we did. At the top of each round, we gave him a card that had the categories in braille. Other than that we made no accommodation. This was when you could only win five shows and then had to retire — and he won all five shows. His name was Eddie Timanus. Of all things, he’s a sports reporter for USA Today. His marvelous attitude and sense of humor and courage in competing and winning was a highlight.

Wheel has introduced a lot of permutations over the years to keep the game fresh, like “Best Friends” Week. Did you introduce those?

Yes, I did. We’ve gradually introduced more of the team concept, the two-player concept with “Teen Best Friends,” “Girlfriend Getaways,” family weeks where we’ve had couples, we’ve had multigenerational weeks. It’s a good representation of our viewing audience, which is why we do it.

Have you ever had same-sex couples compete on Wheel of Fortune?

We have not.

Is that a decision or it just so happens?

It’s something that’s been discussed and like everything else that we do, we take very measured steps. And we have just not made that decision to do that yet.