At first, he didn’t want to watch, but she insisted, saying “sit with me,” and so he did.
Over the years, as he became an adult, he kept watching. He left North Kingstown and traveled for 16 years, spending time in South Africa and Canada to name two places. He met his wife, started a family and about 11 years ago returned home to Rhode Island to live in the same house he grew up. That's when the tradition of the TV on at 7 p.m. with Pat Sajak, Vanna White and his parents and children truly became a family routine.
“When you just sit down every night and watch, after a while, I felt like ‘you know? I can do that. I could be on that,’” Johnson said.
Today, Johnson can cross being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune off his bucket list and he and his friends and family are eagerly awaiting the April 16 airing of his appearance, the results of which he is sworn to keep secret. He hasn’t even told his parents what happened.
“It was cool just to be able to stand there, to walk into the studio and see it in person for the first time,” Johnson said. “When I walked in and looked at the wheel, it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.”
Sajak “is as nice in person as he seems to be on the show and so is Vanna,” Johnson said.
Now, Johnson wants to pay it forward. And to do so, he’s asking for his friends to come to his viewing party at the Knights of Columbus Hall that night and bring a canned good. Later, Johnson said he will deliver all the cans he’s collected to the North Kingstown Food Pantry.
“We’ll come together to watch it – it was fun and exciting and we can bless some other people,” Johnson said.
Locals will know Johnson as a member of the North Kingstown Community Chorus and M.C. for all the concerts there.
“I make my way around town,” he said.
He’s also asking for all the friends he made over the 25 years he’s traveled with a Christian theater company to bring a canned good to their local food pantries, “even if they just watch in their own living room.”
So how does one get from muttering in front of the TV to laying hands on the 2,700 pound wheel in front of the lights and cameras?
It all started with a notice he saw about a casting call at the Warwick Mall in October. It was his birthday weekend and he figured there’s no harm in trying.
It was a “cattle call,” he said, with names on pieces of paper in a bucket. Those lucky enough to get called have a chance to audition.
He didn’t get picked on the first day.
So he came back, put his name in the bucket, and sure enough, found himself on stage.
“You have to have a hook, talk about yourself, and if you have special talents, you get to show those. Then solve a puzzle,” he said.
What else can a singer do but sing, and so Johnson broke out into a rendition of a song he wrote himself.
It’s called Breakfast with Dad and it’s based on a true story about one of his friends and her dad as the generations go through life. It starts with a child’s young love for a dad, to his habit of ordering the same breakfast at Cracker Barrel, to a time after her dad has died and she sees a “great big sign,” and she knows it’s time for “one last breakfast with dad.”
People were clapping by the end and it’s likely a few were crying. He didn’t bring a CD but folks were clapping along. He spoke loud with a clear voice. Made sure he smiled and showed charisma. Finding the perfect Wheel of Fortune contestant is a science, Johnson said, and he said he tried to “put it all out there.”
Three months later, he gets an e-mail inviting him to another audition in January in Newport. He goes and next thing he knows, he's locked in a three-hour long process. He's in a large group of people who take turns solving puzzles, responding to questions, “all kinds of things” to see who might make the cut.
“They’re being specific about what they want. They want personality. They want energy. Smile. Drive.”
At the end, three-quarters of the potential contestants are told to leave. Just 25 were left and the entire process starts over.
“When I came home from that my dad says to me ‘how did you do?’”
“I did the best I can,” Johnson said to his father.”I did my absolute best. If they don’t take me, then OK, don’t take me, but I gave it everything I had.”
Two weeks later a letter arrived in the mail from Wheel of Fortune, telling him he’s a contestant and between now and the next 18 months he’d be notified of his taping date.
“I thought I had time,” he said, only to get an e-mail 10 days later telling him his tape date was Feb. 13.
He and his wife scrambled to rearrange their schedules and soon found themselves in sunny California, heading into the taping.
When he walked into Sony Pictures Studios, that was it – no more contact with the outside world. Even with his wife. Talking to other contestants, even asking someone where the bathroom is, could be considered cheating.
Contestants get appointed representatives who guide them through the process. They’re shown the wheel, the set, trained on how to use it.
And everyone at the show seemed excited and rooting for the contestants, Johnson said.
“They want you to win. They don’t want to watch you go away losing.”
Every contestant is promised at least $1,000 for appearing, and Johnson said that’s the extent of what he can reveal.
And it’s understandable that Johnson wants to keep the results a surprise.
It’s a chance for him to look to his 16-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son and say, “come sit with me.”
The viewing party will be held at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 1265 Tower Hill Road, North Kingstown and will be from 6:15 to 8 p.m.
Johnson has a CD of original music entitled "Moments in Time" and is available at his Web site, wrichardjohnson.com The CDs will be for sale for $12 at the viewing party and $2 from each sale will go to the food pantry.