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"My name is Rolf Benirschke. If you didn't understand it, I know it's a mouthful."
Rolf Joachim Benirschke (born February 7, 1955) was a place kicker for the San Diego Chargers from 1977-86 who was named NFL Man of the Year in 1983 and played a Pro Bowl that same year. From 1980-82, he was a radio and TV commentator for the San Diego Sockers, a pro team in the since-defunct North American Soccer League, and in 1983 was the first subject of a short-lived This Is Your Life revival hosted by Joseph Campanella.
Benirschke is also the national spokesman for a charity dealing with Ulcerative Colitis (the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America), which he was diagnosed with in 1978. In 1990, he founded the Great Comebacks program, which informs and helps those who have Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or colorectal cancer along with their loved ones.
Rolf's autobiography, Alive & Kicking, was published in 1996 and reissued in 1999. This was followed by Great Comebacks from Ostomy Surgery in 2002 and Embracing Life: Great Comebacks from Ostomy Surgery in 2009.
While initially being rather afraid of many elements of his illness, Benirschke slowly became courageous and eventually developed a sense of humor about the whole matter. This only increased when, following his mid-1980 comeback to the Chargers, fans responded in kind (and en masse) after NFL Today unexpectedly aired his detailed account of what he went through.
Around November 1988, Rolf was a guest on KABC's morning show A.M. Los Angeles (hosted by Steve Edwards and Adrienne Barbeau) to discuss healthy habits, albeit in probably the most absurd way: the first guests of the day were two child stars of the Les Miserables stage production, while the next ones were a group of rabbits who quickly began procreating.
Regardless, during his segment discussing healthy habits, Merv Griffin (who happened to be watching that day) quickly sensed that Benirschke was a genuine, sincere person who loved people – which resulted in Rolf being offered an audition for Winfall.
No, not Wheel – Winfall, Merv's newest game show project (Monopoly had already been in development for a year) which involved phrases beginning with, ending with, or containing certain words or letters with the values determined by a pachinko machine. Rolf never had aspirations for TV, but this had previously been his attitude toward pro football until he was drafted; noting the parallels, he viewed this as an opportunity to get a glimpse into an industry he did not know much about. Benirschke reportedly did so well here that Merv offered him an audition for the daytime Wheel.
Merv selected Rolf over 30 other candidates, including Vanna White (offered the job, but turned it down), M. G. Kelly, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, John Gabriel, Tim Brando (who reportedly did so well that Merv said he "could host the show tomorrow"), and Roger Twibell. Benirschke was placed on a shortlist with either Brando or Twibell and did not expect to be chosen as, unlike the aforementioned candidates, Rolf had little television experience and even less familiarity with Wheel...and as a result was "totally shocked" when told he had gotten the job.
The official statement by Merv Griffin Enterprises was that Benirschke was open and sincere, Vanna liked him, and he understood the game. His father, Kurt, was shocked that his son had become a game show host (he had considered football as recreation rather than a career until his son's hospitalization in 1979).
The announcement was made on December 13, 1988, and Rolf began taping the next day. Less than a week into taping, he appeared for a one-on-one interview on a show called Sports Look, during which he noted the kindness of the staff and Vanna along with the fact that in the eight shows he had taped so far, he had given away three cars, a boat, a truck, a Jeep, and a cruise.
Benirschke's first Wheel appearance was in a promo advertising his January 10, 1989 debut. Oddly, on his debut, Vanna walked out first to introduce him.
"It's a lot different than football..."
Rolf was visibly nervous and uncomfortable on his earliest outings, forgetting rules at least twice. On one of his first episodes, the game ended in a tie and he admitted on-camera that he did not know what to do; later, during a Teen Week, he looked at the wrong arrow during a Final Spin and was corrected by a contestant (who also pointed out that he actually landed on Bankrupt).
As his tenure progressed, Benirschke became increasingly comfortable in the role and developed mannerisms of his own such as "Hurry, hurry!" if a contestant was near Bankrupt or Lose A Turn, or saying that the player's cash was "in the bank". His tenure also resulted in a player winning $65,271, the largest of the daytime run.
During this period, Rolf appeared for the week of February 13-17 on Hollywood Squares (believed to be his only other game show appearance) and was credited as being from Wheel. The Thursday episode of this week can be seen here, albeit with very low audio.
Over the years, Rolf has been widely cited as the reason why the original daytime series fell in the ratings and subsequently removed from the NBC schedule after 14½ years. In reality, the ratings did not really budge: while some viewers did not want to see a stiff emcee who tended to screw up rules, and hence did not see Rolf's later episodes, The Price Is Right was continuing to build on its ratings lead by gaining viewers from almost everything but Wheel (which remained #2, albeit a progressively more distant second).
Contemporary media never blamed Rolf: when his hiring was announced, they supported him; when CBS announced the show's renewal the day after NBC announced its end, they quickly assumed he would "not miss a day of work". Further, Benirschke was told that Merv wanted to retain him as emcee, meaning that the only changes following June 30 would be the format, audiovisual presentation, and taping location; CBS had other plans, however, and Rolf's last episode turned out to be the same day.
While Benirschke never got a formal on-air goodbye, the June 30 show contains the extended full credit roll used on other NBC finales and is the only known time Charlie O'Donnell signed off with his name. Indeed, the first sign that Rolf had been dismissed at all was a TV Guide advert for the show's return on July 17 which used "New Host"; Bob Goen was announced as his replacement on July 7.
Interestingly, shortly before CBS picked up Wheel, they had been optioning Merv's Winfall, which had gone to pilot with Clint Holmes as host. According to Holmes in a March 1989 interview, the show was slated for a possible debut that Summer.
For many years, it was rumored that Rolf was ashamed of his Wheel tenure and preferred not to talk about it, with some pointing to the Great Comebacks website (see below) as proof. In reality, he did so at least three times: devoting Chapter 20 of his 1996 autobiography to Wheel, appearing on the show's E! True Hollywood Story in 2005, and briefly talking about it during an interview on Sports Talk in October 2011 after a clip of his debut was shown; the quality of the clip is clearly not from a primary source, and may have been found online.
Further, Benirschke has never viewed his association with Wheel as anything but positive, noting in his autobiography that he enjoyed doing what he called "an interesting experience" and "looking back, I have no regrets".
Wheel itself has directly recognized Rolf's contributions at least once, in a December 1989 daytime episode which celebrated the show's reaching a combined total of 5,000 episodes. Since then, however, he appears to have been forgotten despite the show having many Chargers players on in some manner, whereas sister show Jeopardy! used his brief tenure as a clue in a "Game Show Hosts" category on June 7, 1999 (the correct response being "Wheel of Fortune"), an episode also notable for having 1984 Tic-Tac-Dough champion Kit Salisbury as a contestant.
Surprisingly, Benirschke's first Bonus Round was used as the retro bonus puzzle on February 20, 2013, which not only provided the only known instance of the retro bonus puzzle being from the daytime Wheel and the only known instance of non-Sajak-era footage since 2003, but indirectly recognized Rolf's contributions for the first time since the combined 5,000th episode over 20 years earlier. It is not known why this particular episode was used as a retro clip, but the fact it was used at all suggests an indirect acknowledgement of this Wiki.
- ↑ The Washington Post, December 15, 1988 (page misspells the title as "Windfall", as per extant pilot footage the title did not use a D)
- ↑ Sports Look interview, mid-December 1988
- ↑ Winfall (Clint Holmes) pilot clips
- ↑ Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1989
- ↑ Alive & Kicking (1999 reprint), Pages 226-231
- ↑ Sports Talk interview, October 2011 (Wheel discussion begins at 7:49)
- ↑ J! Archive: June 7, 1999 clues and responses