Aussie TV star’s last heartbreaking text
JOHN Burgess remembers the last time he heard from his long-time friend and Wheel Of Fortune colleague Adriana Xenides, just days before she passed away at the age of 54 in Sydney on June 7, 2010.
It was his birthday and she had sent him a text message.
"She sent me a big, long text during the night, which she was prone to do," he told news.com.au.
"She would always send messages around 2am in the morning about different things. She didn't sleep that well apparently."
After he got the message, Burgess informed Xenides he would be in Sydney in a few days, and they arranged to catch up.
But on the Monday morning they were due to meet, Burgess got a call from one of Xenides' family members saying she had been rushed to hospital; she was in a coma and wasn't expected to live longer than a few hours.
"I just couldn't believe it," he said.
"She had intestinal problems and one had burst, and it just filled her body with toxins and what have you," he recalled.
"By the time someone got to her and realised she was in trouble, it was just too late.
"We went straight up to the hospital and sat with her, she was in a coma. She just looked awful, it was heartbreaking.
"My wife said that when I leaned over and said, 'Burgo is here, Adri', she said her eyes opened briefly. But I didn't see it, I was too busy bawling.
"It was just awful to see her. I hardly recognised her, it was awful. "I think it was about quarter past four in the afternoon we left the hospital, and she died half an hour later."
Burgess and Xenides had one of the most long-running and much-loved partnerships in Australian television history.
From 1984 to 1996, the duo fronted Wheel Of Fortune on Channel 7, Burgess the host and Xenides famously turning over the letters. Australia loved the duo on television, and for Burgess, he loved working with her.
"We worked together for 12 years and never had an argument," he said.
"In this business, that's quite a remarkable feat, I can assure you. She was a delight to work with.
"She was always very outgoing and giving, she couldn't do enough for people. We just hit it off from day one."
In 1984, Burgess got a call from Grundy Television asking him if would like to replace Ernie Sigley as host of Wheel Of Fortune.
Sigley was leaving Seven to host a late-night variety show on Channel 9 and Grundy was on the hunt for a new host.
"They flew me to Adelaide where it was filmed and I met Adriana, and we got along, and the rest is history," Burgess said.
"Back then it was on at 3.30pm in the afternoon, then it moved to 5pm and after a couple of months to 5.30pm. We then became the number one program at that time in the country."
For 12 years, Wheel Of Fortune was a family-friendly favourite that was the perfect lead-in for Seven's 6pm news around the country.
However, television can be a brutal game and despite being loyal to Seven for 12 years, Burgess was dumped as host of the show at the end of 1996.
Wheel Of Fortune moved filming from Adelaide to Sydney and Seven decided they wanted a new host - former Sale of the Century host Tony Barber.
One small thing, no one from Seven told Burgess of the change.
"They were moving the show to Sydney and I said on air, 'Goodbye, and see you soon from Sydney'," he said.
"Well, somebody forgot to tell me that I wouldn't be doing it.
"I got a phone call from Grundy on another matter, and they said, 'By the way, we are going to change the host of Wheel Of Fortune'.
"I rang my wife and said, 'Life as we know it now has changed'. It was devastating."
Almost immediately, Burgess got a call from David Leckie at Nine once the news was out he would no longer be hosting the show.
"He said, 'We can't have you on the street Burgo', and they generously paid me a retainer until something came up.
"David had nothing for me to do, but he said if someone else offers me a job, he'd like to know about it, and we would progress from there."
As it turned out, Barber as host of Wheel Of Fortune didn't work, and Burgess got a call from Seven.
"They offered me my job back. They said they had made a huge mistake," he said.
"Seven started losing the 6pm news - which they never lost - in places like Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth."
Seven offered Burgess a contract, but keeping his word to Leckie, he let him know about the offer. Leckie then went to Nine owner Kerry Packer, and they matched the contract but also gave him the extra job of hosting breakfast radio at TCH in Sydney.
"That was the icing on the cake," Burgess said.
"I rang Seven and said, 'thank you very much, I'm not coming back'."
Nine ended up finding the perfect vehicle for Burgess: another game show called Burgo's Catch Phrase. That show started in 1997 and ended in 2003.
Xenides continued as co-host of Wheel Of Fortune, leaving in 1999.
"Adriana lasted a little while longer then me, but then they moved her sideways as well," Burgess said.
"That was the start of her downward spiral really. She found it really, really tough after having done it for so long."
In the end Rob Elliott, Steve Oemcke, Larry Emdur and Tim Campbell also hosted Wheel Of Fortune in Australia, but none had the longevity of Burgess in the role.
The last time the show was on air in Australia was when Campbell hosted a revamped version on Channel 7 in 2008.
Burgess, 76, now lives in Perth and would be up for hosting television again.
He believes just because you are a certain age shouldn't mean you should not have the opportunity to host television.
He points to the fact American host of Wheel Of Fortune, Pat Sajak, is 72, and Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, is 78.
"America hangs on to their personalities," he said.
"They become part of their families. When you turn on your television, you expect them to be there."
Would Burgess host Wheel Of Fortune again?
"Never say never," he said.
Luke Dennehy is a freelance entertainment journalist. Continue the conversation via @LukeDennehy