Obit writing has a great side benefit -- you often get to speak with people you’ve watched for years on TV and in the movies. My DVR isn’t programmed for “Wheel of Fortune” (solving word puzzles feels a little too much like work to me), so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the show’s host, Pat Sajak, called me Tuesday to talk about Charlie O’Donnell, the longtime “Wheel” announcer who died Monday at 78.
For starters, Sajak spoke in complete, ready-for-print paragraphs about the man he so clearly admired. He was wittty, self-deprecating and came across as exceedingly kind.
Here’s most of Sajak’s polished yet off-the-cuff memorial to his friend:
He was the perfect voice of the show. He had an old-school style that was a little over the top. It was perfect for the show. We’re a little over the top. We’re a throwback.
He loved warming up the audience. It was almost like the kids were going to the circus and he was the barker bringing them in. It was perfect for our show. Ours is a very difficult show for [announcers] to do. We are still plug-full. If you didn’t have someone who could do it in an entertaining way, it would seem like one long commercial. He made it seem like fun. He was quick on the uptake. I f I threw something at him, he threw it back. He actually paid attention to what I said.
His voice is probably, almost certainly heard the most during the course of the half-hour. He talked more than I do. He quite literally was the voice of “Wheel.” It’s going to seem strange not to hear that. It’s going to take a period of adjustment, he’s been there so long.
Viewers really have adopted this show. It’s been on at dinnertime for so long, and the whole family watches. As hokey as it sounds, all of us are all part of their families. It’s going to seem a little empty at the dinner table.
He was great at warming up the crowd. He’s been in television forever. He loved performing in front of crowds. He took that role very seriously. … He loved meeting people, and when we went out on the road, Charlie was the first contact that thousands of people had with “Wheel of Fortune.” From an aural point of view, Charlie was the most recognizable part of this show.
He really was the most professional guy I ever knew. That’s what he took pride in. He’s sort of a vanishing breed. He was a broadcaster. He started in radio and grew up in television. He knew how to do everything, from hosting rock 'n' roll radio to doing a game show. Everything he did, he took seriously in a lighthearted business. He took great pride in what he did. He was a great inspiration to all of us.
We’ve done so many shows. He had genuine enthusiasm. How many trips has he plugged over the years? There was never a moment that you ever sensed that he was thinking, “I have to talk about another trip to Cabo.” Every time he announced that someone had won the money, it sounded like he won it.
This is the way he would have wanted to go out, working to the end. … Charlie’s great skill was timing. If something was 13 seconds long, next time it would be 11. I figure it applied to his life. If Charlie left, it meant it was time. He got a cue. I guess it was time for him to leave.
An acknowledgement of O’Donnell’s death will appear at the end of the “Wheel of Fortune” scheduled to air Friday. “Jeopardy!” announcer Johnny Gilbert will fill in on “Wheel” until a permanent successor is chosen.
-- Valerie J. Nelson
Photo: Vanna White and Pat Sajak flank Charlie O'Donnell on "Wheel of Fortune." O'Donnell was the show's announcer for 28 years. Credit: Carol Kaelson / Califon Productions Inc.