It might seem at first like an odd coupling: the puckish host of "Wheel of Fortune," one of the longest running game shows in television history, performing in theater in rural Connecticut.
But Pat Sajak doesn't see it that way. "The Odd Couple" is a Neil Simon comedy after all, and it nicely reflects the host's playful personality on TV and off. It also allows him to perform on stage with a longtime buddy during a summer break.
Sajak and Joe Moore, an actor, playwright, and news anchor at KHON-TV in Honolulu, Hawaii, are cast in "The Odd Couple," which begins performances Thursday and continues through July 7 as part of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Nutmug Summer Series on the UConn campus in Storrs.
The two men first performed the comedy for a benefit at a theater in Hawaii in 2001. A tape of that production made its way to UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre. Vincent J. Cardinal, the department head of dramatic arts and CRT's artistic director, who is staging the comedy, asked the men to have another go at the show. The men thought if they could manage to get free from their demanding TV schedules, "Why not?"
Sajak and Moore also performed as another famous comedy team, playing the characters of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, in a stage adaption based on the TV series "The Honeymooners" in 2004.
"I have no illusions about who I am and what I do and where I stand in the pantheon of broadcasting," says the three-time Emmy Award-winning Sajak about stage acting. "If I were a younger man I might have said, 'I'd like to do more of this and pursue it more seriously.' But I'm not. It's more than a lark, but it's not a career move."
Playing a character and performing in a narrative is different than hosting a game show, but there are some similar skills, says the Chicago native.
"I discovered that I have developed over the years a sense of timing," he says. "I'm also a pretty good study and a pretty good learner of things. Plus, I've been lucky enough to have been directed by some awfully good people: Vince, in this case."
But Sajak has no illusions that he will be getting a call from Lincoln Center.
"There are certain realities with whom you are and the baggage you carry in terms of your career. I don't think the world was ready for 'King Lear' starring me so 'The Odd Couple' seemed to be a good vehicle that we could have fun with."
Sense of Self
Indeed Sajak and Moore talk like they are enjoying themselves on stage and off, bantering back and forth like two good-natured smart alecs they are in real life.
Sajak isn't all that different off-camera from his "fortunate" self, says Moore, who plays the lug to Sajak's bantam boy.
"I've always maintained that one of the toughest roles to play is yourself," says Sajak. "It's one of the reasons why some of the worst talk show guests are well-known actors because they don't know how to be themselves... If I was the 'Wheel of Fortune' host walking around the house my wife would kill me after a week and a half."
Moore is asked what Pat Sajak is really like.
"Pretend I'm deep," says Sajak. "'Underneath the facade there's a veneer.' "
"He is a nice guy," says Moore. "He's not one of those people you see on the air and think he's a nice guy and then finding out he's a jerk in real life. To me, he genuinely seems to be what you see on the air.
"He can be a bit of the wisecracking guy as the host and he's definitely that in person, but it comes from a good place. He's not taking shots at guys."
"Is there any dark side?" says Sakak, egging his friend on.
"Thankfully none that I've seen," says Moore.
"We've only had two days living together up here," says Sajak. "Talk to us after the run."
When it came time to decide which one should play Felix, the compulsive cleaner, or Oscar the slob, they went with physical types.
"In truth we're both Felix," says Sajak. "But Joe seemed so naturally physically to play Oscar."
"And even more so that we're staying in the house that the producers are providing for us," says Moore.
"The house is cleaner now," says Sajak.
Sajak and Moore met when both men were in Vietnam in the late '60s as part of the American Forces Radio Network.
"We were literally thrown together in a room in a hotel in Saigon that the army was operating with members of not only our [radio] network but other command support groups, says Moore. "We ended up as roommates.
"I was doing sports and news announcements and Pat was the morning guy who followed Adrian Cronauer. [Robin Williams played Cronauer in the 1987 movie, "Good Morning, Vietnam."]
We were the odd couple in Vietnam."
Sajak says, "It's a strange thing to be doing what we were doing with a war going but there was an undercurrent that this was a really dangerous place to be."
The experience in Vietnam gave him perspective. "I don't get nervous about things. What's the worst thing that can happen? You could write something bad. Fine, but you're not going to shoot at me."
Sharing a love of drinking, carousing and sports, the men bonded in the war zone. After they were discharged they lost track of each other until Sajak saw Moore, who was living and working in Hawaii, in an episode of the original"Hawaii Five-O"series. They reconnected and remained close friends since.
"We have a similar outlook on life, I think," says Moore. "We certainly don't take ourselves seriously. We take what we do seriously and have a lot of fun with it."
Asked about "Wheel of Fortune" and his role in it — he joined the then-only daytime series in 1981 — Sajak is prepared with an answer.
"I will leave before the show does and I say that only because of Father Time. The show is incredible. Listen, we're playing hangman and spinning a giant multi-colored wheel, that's what what we're doing. And it's been on for over 30 years."
"You're being very modest," says Moore, "because each year you seem to bring some change to it. The game has evolved. And you have really made a big impact."
"I'd like to think so," says Sajak, tongue firmly in cheek.
"But I can give you 10 reasons why the show really shouldn't work but it has. It's become part of the popular culture. It may never go away — and that's not hyperbole. If we lost half our audience tomorrow, we would still be a very successful. So the show is going to go on forever, especially in these days when television is so splintered. There are very few mass audience shows. We're in 20 million homes each night."
So if the show isn't going anywhere, is he?
"I joke but it's true. I have two criteria. I would like to leave while the show is still this popular and I'd like to leave before people start to say, 'What the hell happened to him?' Look, I'm much closer to the end than I am to the beginning. But at some point a deal will be up and I'll say that's enough."
But for now he's still spinning the wheel, with chunks of time off, most in May and June when there's a long break in the taping of the shows.
"Doing something like 'The Odd Couple' is something I really enjoy doing. I also understand that my name on a project doesn't hurt the box office. But I'm a pretty honest critic of myself. If I think if I'm credible at what I do and I really like doing it I'll do as much as I can. But I really can't do it very often. But if I can do one of these projects every year or two before I begin to drool, I'll be fine with that."
THE ODD COUPLE plays June 21 to July 7 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus, 802 Bolton Road, Storrs. Preview performance is Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Opening night is Friday, June 22 at 8 p.m. Performances continue June 23 at 2 and 8 p.m.; and June 24 at 2 p.m.; June 26-28t 7:30 p.m.; June 29 p.m.; June 30 at 2 and 8,July 1 at 2 p.m.,July 3 and July 5 at 7:30 p.m.; July 6 at 8 p.m. and July 7 at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $32 to $45. Information: 860-486-1629 and http://www.crtuconn.edu. Tickets: 860-486-2113.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. Catch him talking to Rachel about theater every Friday during the 9 o'clock hour on FOX/CT's Morning show. And be the first to know by following me on http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun