‘Wheel of Fortune’: Vanna White Only Had 1 Rehearsal Before Filling in for Pat Sajak
Since 1982, Vanna White has been gracing television screens with her dazzling smile and sparkling gowns — a new one for every episode with not so much as one repeat, ever — as the “letter turner” on Wheel of Fortune. While White is certainly the star of the show, she isn’t a one-woman act and notably, she never has been. She and Pat Sajak have co-hosted the show ever since its syndication in 1983. Together, the pair have taped over 7,000 episodes, making Wheel one of the longest-running shows in history.
You might assume that White filled in for Sajak occasionally over the course of those 7,000-plus episodes, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It wasn’t until November 2019, nearly 38 years into her career, that White took the wheel — literally.
TV’s leading lady
Vanna White was preparing to step into the Hollywood spotlight long before she actually did. She began modeling during college and even competed in the 1978 Miss Georgia USA pageant, where she finished as the fourth runner-up.
In 1979, White moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. She had a handful of bit parts before landing the job on Wheel of Fortune in 1982, beating out 200 women that included a good friend. Wheel of Fortune creator Merv Griffin reportedly liked how White turned the letters on the board. While that may sound a bit funny, it’s totally serious — the puzzle board wasn’t computerized until 1997, so prior to that each letter had to be turned manually.
The perfect pair
The other half of the dynamic Wheel of Fortune duo, Sajak, was a weatherman in Los Angeles before the show. Much like with White, Merv Griffin saw something in Sajak that he was drawn to and he “fought the network” to get him the host role, according to Variety. The sibling-like chemistry between White and Sajak was immediate, with the two even coordinating outfits, and viewers couldn’t (and still can’t) get enough.
In November 2019, Sajak was getting ready for a day of taping when debilitating pain washed over him. Just over two hours later, he was in emergency surgery to correct a blocked intestine, according to USA Today. Doctors never determined what caused the blockage, but Sajak is otherwise healthy and after a few weeks of rest at home, he was back to his hosting duties.
Becoming Pat Sajak
While Sajak recovered, White filled in as the host of Wheel of Fortune for 15 episodes. The show is taped ahead of time and has a bit of an unusual schedule. Sajak told CBS in a 2011 interview, “We shoot 35 times a year, 35 days a year, but it’s stretched out over nine months” and went on to explain that they film six shows per day. Because of this, producers made the quick decision to have White step in for Sajak, calling her at 10:00 a.m. when filming was set to begin at noon.
Ultimately, the crew canceled that day’s tapings and rescheduled them for the following day. White told the New York Post, “We only had one rehearsal before we shot my first show, for timing and for my comfort level. It was very scary for me to step into that role, especially without any practice, but I did it.” In all their years of working together, White says she’s spun the very heavy wheel just a few times and stood in for Sajak only momentarily in 1996, during a bonus round when he lost his voice.
By January 2020, things were back to normal on set, with Sajak at the wheel and White at the letter board. Don’t get too used to it, as both of them have contracts that expire in 2022.