One day, a Midwestern kid set his sights on Hollywood and headed West. He gave himself six months to make it or return to Nebraska. The day before his self-imposed deadline, he landed a job writing for television.
It sounds too corny for an inspirational movie, yet this is Harry Friedman’s life.
Now, after decades of running “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” Friedman is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Nov. 1, just months ahead of his planned May 2020 retirement. He’ll be 73, and although it’s been “a hell of a lot of fun,” it was time, he says, to step down from his executive producer role on the syndicated hits.
“When we went on the air in ’83, there were three networks, and that was it. No Fox, no streaming, no cell phones, no nothing,” says “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak. “It is as different as night and day now, but we continue to succeed, and we have continued to prevail. If we had kept on the same trajectory, I have no doubt we would be talking about ‘Wheel’ in the past tense. But Harry has a way of keeping the thing fresh.”
Friedman’s tweaks have been practical. When he arrived at the show in 1995, the letters were changed by hand, for example. “They would pull a letter out and stick another letter in,” Sajak recalls. “It was a good 10 minutes. From a production point of view, it was very clunky. The days were long, and players flag; the audience flags. And Harry looked at this, and we had computers almost overnight. It helped the production and helped everyone’s energy.”
Vanna White, who preceded Friedman on “Wheel of Fortune” by 13 years, immediately sensed the producer cared about the show. “Without him, we would not have a show,” White says. “He makes it all work.”
Two years later, Friedman began as a producer on “Jeopardy!” and two years after that was promoted to executive producer of both. He ushered in a couple of firsts for game shows: broadcasting in high-definition and forging digital presences. “Wheel of Fortune,” for example, has approximately 13 million people playing along online.
On “Jeopardy!,” Friedman removed the five-day limit for champions, making way for Ken Jennings’ 74-day run in 2004. Friedman’s favorite innovation on the answer-and-question show is the Clue Crew, which has traveled to 47 countries.
While he’s taken the show around the world, Friedman thinks his most significant contribution is a more down-home one: “I think part of what I do bring to the mix, besides experience, is a Midwestern sensibility,” he says. “Trying to be the average person, whatever that is.”
With that comes a quiet humor.
“I was talking with the studio audience once about how things have changed over the years,” “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek says. “ ‘I used to drive into an intersection and people would wave me through. They still wave me through, but they don’t use all of their fingers.’ Harry said, ‘Maybe they recognize you.’”
Friedman has amassed more than a dozen Daytime Emmy Awards over his historic career, including a Lifetime Achievement Award that he picked up in 2017. Almost all of the trophies are for “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” but his first was for writing on “The Hollywood Squares” (in 1974). When Friedman leaves “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune,” he will have produced 5,132 hours of television between these two shows alone.
“Harry has had one of the most epic runs in television history. It would be impressive enough to have one culture defining show dominating television for  years. But Harry has had two — at the same time! It has been an honor and privilege to see Harry’s work up close the last couple years,” says Mike Hopkins, chairman, Sony Pictures Television.
Without 100 employees to supervise, what will Friedman do? He is considering writing a memoir. His origin story alone warrants one.
Friedman’s first TV experience was at Omaha’s KMTV. Like so many local stations, KMTV had a horror movie host, an actor doing a pseudo-Slavic accent. A 12-year-old Friedman, exhibiting the sort of chutzpah that would come in handy as a Hollywood producer, called the station and invited the host to his Halloween party. When he declined, Friedman asked to stop by the studio — where he talked his way into observing, “decades before the idea of internships,” he notes. “I lurked there, but I didn’t really work there.”
Eventually someone questioned what this unaccompanied kid was doing hanging around the studio. Luckily, Friedman smelled something burning — the station’s sole color camera — and saved the day. “That bought me some time,” he says.
After college, he worked in advertising and booked opening bands for concerts. Moving to Los Angeles, he worked odd jobs until comic Roberta Kent, who remains a friend, mentioned “Hollywood Squares” was looking for freelancers. Friedman submitted 50 questions with jokes. For awhile he heard nothing.
“Then, the day before I was about to start packing up for home, Jay called,” Friedman says of producer Jay Redack.
He was paid $5 per question. Six weeks later, a staff job opened, and Friedman had his first full-time TV writing gig. Now, 48 years later, he prepares to leave what he describes, “without reservation, the best job in all of television.
“My responsibility is to make millions of people happy every night, and based on the ratings, I am doing my job,” he says. “So, what could be better than that, knowing you are making millions of people happy every night and bringing families together?”
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