Very few showbiz types can say they have found true balance in their lives. This is not the case for Dr. Susan Stafford, a motivational speaker, nutritionist, counselor, actress and the first letter-turner on Wheel of Fortune. She’s also an author and just published: Stop the Wheel – I Want to Get Off!
Before there was Vanna, Susan turned letters for the game show in which she was Emmy nominated.
“When I first started, I was so nervous, I wanted to make sure I talked without trembling. Rock Hudson gave me the best advice. He told me to treat the camera like it’s your favorite person in the world. That’s my mother,” she said.
There was no scripting in those days.
“If you don’t think about yourself and think about someone else, you’re always going to be OK,” she said.
She’s modest, but she was the first woman on a game show to use a microphone, thanks to the late Merv Griffin, who produced the show.
Before the game show experience, Susan was co-starring in numerous television series, including Marcus Welby, MD; Ironsid;, Love American Style; Marcus Welb; and Police Story. She was romanced by a few of her leading men.
Apparently fame, fortune and glamour, a reason she was in Hollywood, was not what kept her in the business.
“Driving home from NBC, I’d notice all the prostitutes standing on Sunset. I’d see these little sisters and wanted to help. Instead of money, I offered food and took them to. Daddy was really worried about me,” she said.
As a result, she started her own counseling crusade and helped many girls leave prostitution.
After visiting India on a two- week hiatus, the Kansas-born game show beauty realized that there was more to do.
“When you’ve accomplished something and you’re not happy doing it anymore, I don’t think you have to be a brain surgeon to know that it’s not your purpose. I loved the money and the position, but it did not challenge me enough.”
She gave up a $100,000 a year job (today it would be in the millions) to help others.
She stayed up to three months at a time at hostel houses in India, where makeup and hair weren’t on the prerequisite list.
“Glen Campbell’s ex-wife went with me. She stayed with Mother Theresa; I stayed with Mother Theresa’s namesake, little Mother Theresa. I worked with the leprosy victims and oddly enough in a place called the Hollywood slums. I had never seen such poverty and never see people pray to a sacred cow.”
To get the word out, Susan worked with former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, making documentaries for American Leprosy Missions in Paraguay, the Himalayas, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines, Brazil and Africa.
And at the age of 40, she returned to school for her Ph. D in psychology. She works with cancer and AIDs patients and families, as well as clients who need to sort issues out. Las Vegas is her base; she is on the road when necessary.
One of her last e-mails was from former colleague Pat Sajak.
“Pat said that he loved the book and it was so great to read something kind,” she said.
Even though she no longer resides here, she appreciates the time spent.
“Hollywood is a fabulous place and it can give you every opportunity. But it can eat its young. I think kids need help these days. They need a belief in themselves.”
Sue Facter writes about all things A-list. She is a 20-year contributor to USA Today.