Georgia Firefighter Appears on Pat Sajak's Last Show

June 9, 2024
As Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak hosted his last show, he joked with contestant and firefighter Nino Toro.

Maira Garcia
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — "Wheel. Of. Fortune."

After those words cued the start of this historic episode, Pat Sajak made his way from behind the puzzle board, arm-in-arm with co-host Vanna White. It's difficult to imagine another person taking his place on one of America's most popular game shows, but that's what will happen in September when TV personality Ryan Seacrest takes over as host of "Wheel of Fortune." They're big shoes to fill, even for someone as well-known as Seacrest, whose résumé includes "American Idol," daytime talk show "Live With Kelly and Ryan" and numerous other shows and specials.

Friday, however, was a chance to hear Sajak, who has hosted "Wheel of Fortune" since 1981, say goodbye. And it was a clip from his first appearance that kicked off the show. "Morning everyone, welcome to 'Wheel of Fortune.' Please do not adjust your sets at home. Chuck Woolery's not shrunk. A lot of people are playing with their vertical hold right now. As Jack mentioned, I'm Pat Sajak." (For anyone who didn't grow up with an '80s-era CRT television set, vertical hold was a button you would use to adjust the picture.)

It was that type of quip, and his warmness toward White, contestants and the show's announcers, that endeared Sajak to millions of viewers over the years. This episode, which was to air later Friday night, was no different. "I'm all grown up! Way grown up," he said as he walked onto the stage after the introduction.

The episode was mostly business as usual. His final contestants were Tammi Barker of Livermore, California; Nino Toro from Augusta, Georgia, and Adrienne Bean of Memphis, Tennessee, whom he introduced after the first game, a Toss Up. He set up a joke with Toro, who said he was a firefighter and that his co-workers back at the firehouse would be watching his performance. "I can just hear the trash talk when they see me on TV."

"I don't want to say anything to make you nervous, but try not to mess up," Sajak said, eliciting laughs from Toro and the audience. "I'll do my best, Pat. Thank you," Toro replied.

At about the three-minute mark, Sajak acknowledged that it was his final show and that he would be making some remarks. In order to make time for that, they would cut a round. But as a compromise for the contestants, he would spin the wheel, add $1,000 to whatever it landed on and give that amount to each person. It landed on $1,000, but he paused. "You know what, it's not my money. Let's give them all $5,000." Cheers erupted.

Eventually, the show wound down to its final spin and viewers got a fitting puzzle. The clue: a thing. The solution: STANDING OVATION.

In anticipation of his final show, Sony Pictures Television, which produces the program, released a clip of Sajak's farewell to the "Wheel of Fortune" audience. His goodbye speech was slightly longer on the episode, where he thanked viewers, contestants — calling them "the real stars of the show" — the staff and crew and his family, including his daughter, Maggie, who does interviews on the show's social media channels.

"I want to start with all of you watching out there. It's been an incredible privilege to be invited into millions of homes, night after night, year after year, decade after decade," he said. "And I've always felt that the privilege came with the responsibility to keep this daily half-hour a safe place for family fun. No social issues, no politics. Nothing embarrassing, I hope. Just a game."

He also acknowledged the show's legacy, saying it became "a place where kids learn their letters, where people from other countries hone their English skills, where families came together along with friends and neighbors and entire generations."

Lastly, he gave thanks to White, his "professional other half." "We've seen a lot of changes in each other's lives over the years, but we've always been there for each other," he said. "I will miss our nightly closes and her laughter and good nature. She's a very special woman."

White will continue in her role when Seacrest joins as co-host.

Sajak took over as host from Woolery, the first host of the game show along with Susan Stafford, back when the half-hour program was still on daytime television, later morphing into a syndicated program. Before that, Sajak was a weatherman on local station KNBC-TV and had a career on radio as well. Joining him as co-host and letter turner in 1982 was White, who on Thursday in a prerecorded segment gave a heartfelt goodbye to her longtime colleague.

"I don't know how to put into words how much these past 41 years have meant to me, but I'm going to try. Eight thousand episodes went by like that," said White, snapping her fingers. "When I started, I was so green. You made me so comfortable and made me so confident, Pat. You made me who I am."

She described how, as hosts, they spent countless hours together, traveling the world for the show. "What an incredible and unforgettable journey we've had. And I've enjoyed every minute of it with you," said White, her voice cracking. "You're like a brother to me and I consider you a true lifelong friend, who I will always adore."

Sajak, now 77, announced his retirement last summer, writing on Twitter (now X): "I've decided that our 41st season, which begins in September, will be my last. It's been a wonderful ride, and I'll have more to say in the coming months. Many thanks to you all." His departure marks another major change for the game show landscape. In 2020, "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek died at 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. "Wheel of Fortune" has traditionally aired directly after "Jeopardy!"

Over the years, "Wheel of Fortune" has been watched by countless viewers, becoming a cultural touchstone for generations of Americans. Phrases like "I'd like to buy a vowel" or "I'd like to solve" are synonymous with the show, as is Sajak's style of a quip to elicit laughs from the audience in between segments.

"What an honor to have played even a small part in all that," he said. "Thank you for allowing me into your lives."


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