‘Wheel of Fortune’ Turns 40, But Do You Remember the Other Versions?

TV Shows

Vanna White celebrated the 40th anniversary of her Wheel of Fortune debut in December 2022, and now the syndicated version game show is hitting its 40th. But by the time the current, nighttime Wheel incarnation premiered — on September 19, 1983 — daytime versions of the show had been spinning for years. Read on for a chronology, Fortune fans.

NBC introduced Wheel of Fortune as a daytime game show on January 6, 1975, with Chuck Woolery hosting and actor Susan Stafford turning the letters.

Woolery, who’d go on to host the game shows Love Connection and Scrabble, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2021 that game-show mastermind Merv Griffin approached him to host a pilot called Shopper’s Bazaar, a proto-Wheel that also featured a roulette wheel and Hangman-like puzzles.

NBC passed on that “horrible” pilot, Woolery explained, but when Griffin reconfigured the format and renamed it Wheel of Fortune, the network put in on the daytime schedule. “Before you knew it, we were number one in the ratings,” the TV personality added.

Woolery’s time on Wheel, however, came to an end amid a contract dispute with Griffin — he wanted the $500,000 per year that Peter Marshall was getting for Hollywood Squares — and Griffin replaced him with Pat Sajak, then a KNBC-TV weatherman, in 1981.

“When you’re working in local TV in L.A., in a way you’re auditioning every night because the producers are at home, watching TV like everybody else,” Sajak told NPR in 2013. “And happily, one of those guys was Merv Griffin.”

Fred Silverman, the president and CEO of NBC at the time, didn’t think Sajak was up to snuff, but Griffin called off Wheel of Fortune tapings until Sajak was given the job, according to the host’s Hollywood Walk of Fame bio.

Another shakeup came in 1982, when Stafford left the game show. She told The Messenger earlier this year that she exited Wheel of Fortune because she wanted to “do more than just turn letters” and wanted to “engage [her] mind.”

The letter-turning job then went to White, a model from South Carolina. White told TIME in 2014 that she was “probably the most nervous of all the girls they interviewed”… and that the other finalist was a friend of hers.

As for Sajak, he hosted the daytime version of Wheel until 1989, when he left the NBC production for a short-lived late-night talk show, appropriately titled The Pat Sajak Show, on CBS.

That’s when the Wheel hosting job went to former San Diego Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke, who beat 400 other applicants, including the more than 30 finalists who taped auditions with White, as the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. “The producers really liked the open and sincere quality that he exhibited while playing the game,” a Merv Griffin Enterprises producer’s assistant told the Times. “He seemed to be very enthusiastic about the show, and he looked very good with Vanna, and Vanna likes him.”

Unfortunately, Wheel of Fortune’s ratings dropped 25 percent with Benirschke as host, and NBC canceled the show just months later. Reflecting on the experience earlier this year, the ex-NFL star told TODAY.com he had no regrets. “I was going to live life and learn and be curious and try new things,” he said. “I was willing to kind of learn something new. And I’m glad I did it. It made me understand a little more about Hollywood, that whole life.”

Wheel of Fortune’s daytime version got a reprieve later in 1989, though, when CBS gave the game show a spin, with former sportscaster Bob Goen (who’d later co-host Entertainment Tonight) as emcee. The daytime Wheel aired on CBS until 1991, then transferred back to NBC, and got the axe for a second time later that year.

“Since we were on during the day, and under a network TV budget, we were the poor step-sister to the nighttime syndicated version with Pat and Vanna,” Goen explained to game-show blogger Greg Palmer in 2011. “They were making millions and giving away BMWs, while we were stuck with $50 spaces on the wheel and giving away Geo Metros. It was a bit of an embarrassment, and I think, the ultimate demise of my version of the show.”

With the daytime version kaput, the syndicated Wheel of Fortune remained the only version of the game show on American airwaves for several years, until Wheel 2000 came about. That daytime series, which aired on CBS and GSN from 1997 to 1998, was a children’s spinoff of the original, with actor David Sidoni hosting and Tanika Ray (who’d later co-host Extra) voicing a CGI sidekick.

Now the syndicated Wheel of Fortune is airing its 41st season — Sajak’s final go-round as host — and Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, an ABC primetime spinoff, is heading into its fourth. And with Ryan Seacrest tapped to join White at the Wheel of Fortune puzzle board next season, this format isn’t going “bankrupt” anytime soon.

Wheel of Fortune, Weekdays, check your local listings

Celebrity Wheel of Fortune, Season 4 Premiere, Wednesday, September 27, 9/8c, ABC

Articles You May Like

‘Feud’: Youth Knocks on Truman’s Front Door as Stars Address Writer’s Wake-up Call
’90 Day Fiance’ recap: Justin dumps Nikki via text, three couples get married, Sam and Citra finally get intimate
Olivia Plath Shocks With Whole New Physical Transformation
‘American Idol’: Emmy Russell Shows She Has Her Own Voice
Will Trent Season 2 Episode 2 Review: It’s the Work I Signed Up For