- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Game-show guru Merv Griffin hand-picked Pat Sajak to host the fledgling "Wheel of Fortune" in 1981 in part because he thought Mr. Sajak looked like everyone's uncle.

"I didn't know whether to take that as an insult or a compliment," Mr. Sajak jokes.

Nineteen years later, Mr. Sajak is more than just a surrogate uncle to a TV nation. He's an important cog in an American institution.

"We've become part of the culture," he says with the kind of wisdom that tells you he's more surprised than boastful about the achievement. "It's a wonderful spot to be in."

Not bad for a former disc jockey whose sidekick, Vanna White, is a model with a knack for turning letters.

Slender and surprisingly tall, Mr. Sajak was in town last week to film three weeks of "Wheel of Fortune" shows in the District of Columbia. The D.C. episodes, which feature an impressive Capitol building mock-up displayed across the rear of the DAR Constitution Hall stage in Northwest, will air the week of Nov. 6. The other taped shows, for "College Week" and "NFL Players Week," won't bow until the new year.

Mr. Sajak looks older than he appears on TV, but his likable features are so familiar, the years fade as the minutes pass. Those features contort when he is asked for the show's secret to success.

"I don't have a clue as to why," he says. "It's a compelling game, but why it's been this phenomenon, it's a fluke."

Though the recent shoot represented the first foray of "Fortune" into the District, Mr. Sajak is no stranger to the region. He, his wife, Lesly, and their two children call Severna Park, Md. home. His wife hails from Maryland, as does her extended family.

"They're a close-knit Italian family. When I married her, I married everybody," says Mr. Sajak, who lives a bicoastal existence while shooting "Wheel of Fortune" in Los Angeles.

Mr. Sajak, who turns 53 on Thursday, has earned three Emmys, a People's Choice Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His good fortunes have allowed him to give something back to his community. He recently donated $1 million to the Anne Arundel Medical Center's new breast cancer treatment facility, which is under construction.

Unlike many celebrities who adopt a cause, Mr. Sajak has no personal connection to a breast cancer survivor or victim.

"It's something that affects a lot of people" is all he says on the subject. In fact, he says he would have preferred not have the news of his donation disclosed but allowed it at the medical center's behest.

"It's a fine line between charity and promotion," he says.

Mr. Sajak began his career not in television, but in a radio booth in war-torn Vietnam. He majored in broadcasting at Columbia College in his native Chicago before joining the U.S. Army in 1968. He was sent to Vietnam shortly thereafter and landed a stint as an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey in Saigon.

Mr. Sajak found work at a string of radio stations after the war, later shifting to television for talk-show and weather forecasting chores.

These days, Mr. Sajak is leisurely expanding his entertainment empire, which includes ownership of news-radio station WNAV-AM (1430) in Annapolis and a modest production company named P.A.T. Productions. Among its programs is a bowling show for Romanian audiences. "I'm serious," he insists.

His plans don't include a return to hosting a talk show.

"I loved doing it, but I don't think I'd do it again," he says, looking back fondly on his 1989-90 program, which fared better than many of its ilk. "I'm spoiled by my schedule."

As for his impromptu chats with his sidekick at the end of each spin of the wheel, they were begun strictly as filler, he says.

America took them a bit more seriously. Miss White became a celebrity in her own right, while the show became entrenched among the ratings elite.

Miss White says her relationship with her co-host "is the same now as it was in the beginning."

"We have so much in common. We both have a boy and a girl, we drive the same [model] car, we have the same blood type," she says.

She compares their bond to that of a brother and sister except you'll never hear any bickering between these TV siblings.

"We've never had one argument in 18 years," Miss White says. Given her ability to radiate Miss America-style sincerity, you believe her.

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