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It’s most associated with Pat Sajak and Vanna White, but Wheel of Fortune — which debuted Jan. 6, 1975, on NBC and premieres its primetime spinoff, Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, on ABC on Jan. 7— was first hosted by Chuck Woolery. Woolery, then 33, was trying to make it in Nashville as a singer.
After performing on The Merv Griffin Show, Griffin “took me to his office and said, ‘We got this show that we’re doing called Shopper’s Bazaar,’ ” recalls Woolery. That pilot incorporated Hangman-style puzzles and a roulette wheel but was “horrible,” says Woolery, 79. After NBC passed, Griffin retooled it as Wheel of Fortune and got a green light. “Before you knew it, we were number one in the ratings,” says Woolery.
Woolery declined Griffin’s renewal offer and demanded a raise to $500,000 a year — what Peter Marshall was making on Hollywood Squares. NBC agreed to pay it, but Griffin threatened to take the show to CBS if it did. So in 1981, Griffin replaced Woolery with Sajak, who’d been a weatherman in Nashville and Los Angeles. “Merv was so upset with me, they started taping over all the old Wheel of Fortune [masters],” says Woolery.
At first, Sajak was paid $65,000 a year and White got $200 a show. “Then Merv sold everything he owned to Coca-Cola,” says Woolery, who regrets not having signed his contract renewal. “They bumped them all up to multimillion-dollar contracts.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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