When it comes to quiz shows, competitiveness is everything and charity is often left at home. So, when a female contestant on Wheel of Fortune made peculiar plays in the final speed round, many were stumped by her strange behavior. It was only later, in fact, that fans realized the heartwarming truth behind her unusual actions.
We’ll return to the guest’s strange actions a little later, but first let’s learn more about the show that she appeared on. Millions of us are of course familiar with Wheel of Fortune, which has been a staple of NBC’s lineup since 1975. In fact, it’s now recognized as the longest-running syndicated game show in the United States.
Considering its creator’s track record, Wheel of Fortune’s success is easy to understand. Indeed, Merv Griffin had already created the mega-hit Jeopardy! for the network just 11 years prior. And the ratings triumph of Wheel of Fortune cemented this broadcaster’s media empire.
Much of the show’s popularity can be attributed to its simplicity. Modeled on the children’s game Hangman – a pastime in which Griffin partook alongside his sister – the series sees three contestants calling out letters in an attempt to fill out a blanked-out word or phrase. The player who correctly guesses the saying then wins the round.
Nevertheless, Wheel of Fortune contains an extra element of strategy via its eponymous wheel, which is placed in the middle of the playing area. Before their turn, each contestant must spin the wheel roulette style and the segment that it lands on determines how much prize money the guest will receive for a correct guess. Those lucky enough to win the round will also earn their accumulated cash total.
The rules sound simple enough, right? Well, over the many years that Wheel of Fortune has been on the air, the show has seen its fair share of strange guesses. And whether it’s due to the high stakes or the pressure of being on television, some guests have found it hard to pick a logical answer.
In many cases, these weird guesses have become an inadvertently hilarious part of the series. For instance, one guest was faced with an almost complete board and the art-based conundrum “S_LF-PO_T___T.” Instead of going for the obvious answer of “self-portrait,” the contestant blurted out the puzzling “self-potato.”
But sometimes it’s not just a case of one guest saying the first thing that comes into their head. For example, one show saw a contestant mispronounce the Arthurian figure “Merlin the Magician” as “Marvin the Magician.” Minutes later, their competitor revealed the same answer, despite the fact that it was proven wrong just moments earlier.
Over the years, the aforementioned gaffs have inspired a litany of parodies. For example, South Park based an entire episode around one of its character’s making an offensive incorrect guess on the show. Meanwhile, Family Guy’s Peter Griffin guessed obviously wrong letters including a “Z,” three “Q’s” and a Batman symbol before going on to correctly guess the answer anyway.
In spite of these jovial blunders, however, the show still manages to mix levity with serious topics. For instance, a special April’s Fool Day episode in 1997 replaced the show’s usual hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White by none other than Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek. In place of their regular guests, both presenters played the game for charity.
And that’s not all the show has done for charitable causes. As part of Veterans Week 2015, Wheel of Fortune’s producers decided to do something special. In honor of the contribution made by America’s service men and women, the show would have a military theme. In addition, the week’s episodes would only feature current and former armed forces members as guests.
And the military theme was especially important for one member of production in particular. Before gaining his fame in television, host Sajak had served in the U.S. Army. What’s more, he’d even spent time as an Armed Forces Radio DJ during the Vietnam War.
Sajak has also worked with organizations like the National Vietnam Veterans Committee. He wrote on the American Veterans Center’s website in 2014, “The reality is that the Vietnam Veterans compiled an outstanding record of courage, service, and patriotism. They should be proud of their record and we should be proud of them.”
Naturally, Veterans Week was something that Sajak would be proud of. And the host stated his support for the cause in a promo leading up to the show. The presenter told the reporter Krista Lili Knaus in 2015, “I think our audience appreciates the fact that these people come on and have a chance to supplement their income…”
Similarly, co-host White was humbled by the opportunity to help some heroes. The quiz master added, “I think it’s a tribute to our veterans. They do so much for our country and it’s our way of giving back, shall we say. Thank you so much for all that you do. We are just so grateful.”
After a smooth-sailing episode on the Monday, audiences sat down expecting more of the same on the following day. Indeed, the episode – which was on November 10, 2015 – started much like any other. Host Pat Sajak introduced veterans Steve Jostes, Troy Smith and Nura Fountano, and the game proceeded as normal.
As with the previous episode, the day’s contestants all had prior experience in the military. Hailing from Mt. Zion, Illinois, Smith was previously a member of an armored division which had seen combat in the First Gulf War. Meanwhile, Jostes had spent almost 25 years in the Air Force and his son was training to follow in his footsteps.
Working as a medical assistant in her civilian life, Fountano too had also seen combat during her six years in the service. As a system maintainer for Bradley Fighting Vehicles, the veteran had been deployed to Iraq twice. Since then, she’d moved on from maintaining tanks to providing medical care and even moonlighted as a makeup artist.
Fountano also talked to Knaus about what working in the service had meant to her. She said, “Veterans do so much for this country and you don’t realize it. I’m grateful to [have been a part of] that.”
Upon the episode’s start, Sajak and White introduced the first Toss-Up challenge for a prize of $1,000. One by one, the letters on the board began lighting up before the letters __UR-_T_R ___E_A_ became visible. Cottoning on to the military theme, Fountano buzzed in and correctly guessed “four-star general.”
Next up came another Toss-Up round, this time for double the amount of the last. Once more, the board began to fill out until Fountano again pushed down on her buzzer before her fellow contestants. From the letters, _ORL_ H_S__RY, the combatant cried out “world history” and added $2,000 to her pot.
With $3,000 already added to her score, Fountano was sitting pretty in the game’s opening moments. By the time the wheel round started in earnest, she seemed all set to continue her winning streak. However, the medical assistant struck out with her letter choices – leading Smith to win the round on the guess “doing a double loop-the-loop.”
And yet Fountano would overcome this slight setback and go on to win the next couple of rounds. Thanks to her guesses “wind tunnel of love” and “ideal spot for a getaway,” the guest regained her killer game. What’s more, she even gained a special prize along the way – a spa vacation in Belize.
Within a few rounds, it became clear who was going to win the game. In fact, by the episode’s penultimate round, Fountano had swept the board and secured $13,970 in the bank. In contrast, Smith had bagged just $4,300, and poor Jostes hadn’t managed to win anything at all.
As the episode entered its last speed round, Fountano was the definite fan favorite. After Smith correctly guessed “T” in the two-letter clue word, audiences turned their attention to Fountano – expecting another sensible play. However, what she said next left them more than a little confused.
With complete assuredness, Fountano uttered the least likely letter possible: “Z.” Naturally, audience members and fellow contestants alike were baffled. For example, Jostes – smiling for the cameras just a minute earlier – furrowed his brow and stared at Fountano in utter disbelief.
Sajak also couldn’t believe his ears, asking, “Say that again for me.” But rather than realize her apparent mistake, Fountano instead repeated her original answer. The host asked once again, “Did you say ‘Z?’” Nonetheless, the contestant remained completely unfazed. She said firmly, “As in Zulu: ‘Z.’”
“You did say ‘Z.’ Okay.” Still visibly shocked, Sajak turned to face the board, which – to nobody’s surprise – failed to light up. Brushing off this answer as a momentary lapse of reason, the host turned to Troy, who rightly guessed the letter “R.” Following this, the latter correctly called “S” before it was Fountano’s turn again.
This time, instead of offering up another bizarre letter, Fountano simply declined to answer at all. However, she was at least able to come up with a letter in the next round. As a bemused Sajak turned to face her, Fountano decided upon another bewildering choice. The contestant cried out, “Q.”
By now, Fountano’s antics had started to catch on with viewers and the Twittersphere was full of fans expressing their disbelief. One user wondered, “Is Nura drunk?” Meanwhile, after the contestant made another weird choice, a confused Breanna Sooter asked, “Why is this lady guessing ‘Z,’ ‘X’ and ‘Q’ for this puzzle?”
However, the best quotes of all were reserved for host Sajak, who responded to Nura’s strange guesses with barely contained frustration. Indeed, before the guest’s penultimate round, the exasperated host muttered, “I wonder what letter [Fountano] will call?” Moreover, she certainly didn’t disappoint, answering, “X.”
As with her previous guesses, Fountano subsequently failed to see a single letter light up this time around. What’s more, her final turn yielded nothing either, as she stood awkwardly in silence waiting for the timer to run out. All in all, it was a curious performance from someone who had been playing so well just moments earlier.
In the end, it was Jostes who walked away the round’s victor. Having correctly guessing the phrase “following footprints,” he claimed his first win of the night as well as $6,400 to take home. But while Jostes may have been the eventual winner of the round, it was Fountano who gained the biggest reaction.
Following the eventful segment, Sajak grilled his guest about her intriguing picks. And Fountano cryptically replied, “That’s what I saw.” However, the host was clearly unconvinced by her explanation, stating, “That was an unsatisfactory answer, but she’s not under oath.”
Though she’d lost the round, Fountano had still done well enough in the early parts of the game to proceed to the final. Furthermore, her poor performance allowed Jostes to leave the show with some sort of consolation prize. Suddenly, fans began to wonder if she had been playing a different game entirely.
While she didn’t confirm anybody’s suspicions, Fountano – knowing that she had already won – seemed to be playing tactically. Indeed, very much in the spirit of Veterans Week, she appeared to be sharing the spoils between her fellow service people. By stepping back from the round, she had let another contestant go home with money in his pocket.
Almost immediately, those who’d been following the show expressed their admiration via social media. One user tweeted, “Just saw the classiest move on Wheel of Fortune. [Fountano] threw the final puzzle to let a fellow military person win it. Much respect.”
As a result, the episode had turned into a particularly memorable instalment. And for many viewers, this was the first time that they’d witnessed such a charitable act on a game show. Another well-wisher tweeted, “Way to go [Fountano]! Never saw someone throw a round so everyone could win some money.”
Despite her sketchy performance in the preceding segment, Fountano was back to her best when it came time for the last round. However, even with her full attention, the veteran was unable to guess the final puzzle: “by appointment.” Consequently, she lost out on the $33,000 grand prize.
But the star player was happy with the near $14,000 she’d already won. Clapping and smiling at the end of the show, Fountano exclaimed, “I’m going to Belize!” As the episode reached its end, Sajak congratulated his guest before telling her, “You made us all happy.” Thanks to Fountano’s unselfish actions, his words couldn’t have been more appropriate.