Pat Sajak, the Cool, Unflappable, Reliable Host, Signs Off

If AI were ever prompted to generate an avatar of a game show host, surely the result would be Pat Sajak.

After four decades on the air, Mr. Sajak, 77, presides over his last episode of “Wheel of Fortune” on Friday. And his departure — Mr. Sajak has suggested in a series of televised exit interviews with Maggie Sajak, his daughter, that this will be a welcome retirement — offered a chance to reappraise what it is that made him such a durable fixture of the American cultural landscape.

Mr. Sajak, it is probably worth remembering, has been with viewers through seven presidents, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both the AIDS and the Covid pandemics, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial crash and, oh, the Kardashians. Not incidentally, he has outlasted the internet’s incursions into broadcast television’s long-held primacy.

Through it all he’s been with the American game show audience, unflappably prompting contestants to choose a consonant or buy a vowel. He calmed contestants as they guessed at Hangman-style word puzzles. He bantered inoffensively with the imperturbable Vanna White in her parade of sparkly gowns. He blandly exchanged quips with an ever-changing roster of celebrity guests as they spun a carnival-style wheel, willing it to clatter past “Lose a Turn” and “Bankruptcy” to land on big money.

And, for 41 seasons, this avuncular figure in a jacket and tie hovered into millions of households a night, a perma-tanned deity ruling over a placid empyrean.

Against a backdrop of lives filled with workaday stress and debt, “Wheel of Fortune” was a refuge, notably less as game of chance than bulwark against everyday humdrum. How oddly easy is it to forget that overdue electric bill as Mr. Sajak asks, in his peppy tenor, “How do you feel about ampersands?”

In voice as in other ways, Mr. Sajak seemed to have been born for the role. For a start, there are his generically agreeable features: a symmetrical face with apple cheeks, a wide brow, deep-set eyes and starkly white teeth displayed in a smile that resembles a quarter moon hung sideways. Throughout his tenure, serving as host of the Emmy Award-winning show for 41 seasons, he and Ms. White stood as two of the longest-serving faces of any television program in game show history (and somehow he kept his modified feathered ’80s hairstyle throughout).

Examined at close range, Mr. Sajak’s movements, too, seem so stylized and restricted that they read as Kabuki-like. Did it signify anything when he held his hands in front of him, fingers lightly clasping, or raised his arms in preacher posture? It is hard to know. Yet the symbolism of his defining posture — body tilting in slight contrapposto, arms spread wide — is clear: Welcome.

Naturally, in an image-dominated world, it is important to note that neutrality of dress is no matter of happenstance. Few jobs require jackets and ties anymore, yet Mr. Sajak was seldom photographed on “Wheel of Fortune” dressed in anything casual. His suits varied over time, as did their styles and colors — wider trousers, broader shoulders, though almost always single-breasted. The fits and the lapels shrunk or widened according to prevailing fashion, but the overarching image was of steadiness. He was the image of a best man, a deacon, the archetypal guy next door.

In that way, too, Mr. Sajak proved himself a master of optics. In reality, his offscreen life may not always have conformed to that of the centrist character he portrayed, as became clear when, in 2022, a photograph surfaced of the “Wheel of Fortune” host with Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Trump-aligned Georgia Republican, and went viral on X. “Pat Sajak has always been a far-right lunatic I’m not surprised at all,” one user wrote.

Whatever his real-life beliefs, Mr. Sajak cultivated a neutral and comforting on-air image that fell somewhere between used-car dealer and regional weatherman. The important thing to remember about him as he makes his exit is that however chaotic the world outside “Wheel of Fortune,” Pat Sajak could be relied upon to turn up each night, cool and unflappable, a host who was also the ideal undemanding guest.

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