CHER IN DERRIERE-LESS DRESS? PATTI Davis bad-mouthing her ex-First Lady morn? Madonna confessing she doesn’t have a libido? No matter what the revelation, the host of the new Chuck Woolery Show probably won’t raise an eyebrow. After eight years as ringmaster of that televised blind-date circus, The Love Connection, Woolery has heard it all. Case in point: 1990 nonagenarian contestant J.D. Basham. “He was like a child,” recalls Woolery. “He didn’t censor anything. I asked him what he likes in women, and he said, ‘Large breasts…Dolly Parton comes to mind…BIG ONES!’ I was going crazy, but he’s 91—who’s gonna say, ‘You can’t say that!’?”
Not Woolery, 50, who has based his career on unflappability—and an aw-shucks enthusiasm he hopes will help his latest venture, a syndicated (113 markets) gabfest he tapes on his days off from Love Connection. Woolery calls his approach “old-fashioned”; one critic calls it “comfortable.” The Nielsens have yet to weigh in.
In his five-bedroom Beverly Hills house, Woolery anticipates detractors without real concern. After all, through Love Connection he’s earned fame wide enough for parody, courtesy of In Living Color’s James Carrey and his hands-on-face impression. “I do those things!” laughs Chuck.
Woolery’s emotional security was nurtured in a two-story clapboard house in Ashland, Ky. Life with his father, Dan, who owned a fountain-supplies company and who died in 1969, his homemaker mother, Katherine, 80, and sister Sue, 54 and now a nurse’s assistant, was “real happy and very simple,” says Woolery. Everyone sang, but his own vocal talent became a liability in Ashland Junior High School when seventh grader Chuck, suddenly 6′ tall, cooed Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” to his new classmates in a first-day assembly performance. “I looked and sounded like a man in front of all these little kids,” he says. “Girls liked me, and guys hated me.”
Woolery enrolled in the University of Kentucky in 1960 but left school that year for a two-year stint in the Navy. In 1963, at 20, he married a woman named Margaret Hayes, about whom he remains mysterious. The union lasted seven years and produced three children: adopted son Cary, 33, now a real-estate broker; Katherine, 25, a telecommunications consultant; and Chad, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1985 at age 19. Woolery, who was raised a Presbyterian and remains a devout Christian, feels his faith pulled him through that tragedy. “It helps me with every crisis,” he says, adding, “I’m not saintly.”
In 1967, nearing a degree in economics at Kentucky’s Morehead State University, Woolery dropped out to chase music stardom. He lit out for Nashville with his wife and kids in tow and hit the Top 40 pop chart in 1968 with a country rock tune, naturally Stoned.
But by the early ’70s, Woolery had soured on singing. It was then that he got a call out of the blue from comedian Jonathan Winters—a childhood idol. “I just thought he was the funniest human being,” explains Woolery. Winters phoned to compliment Woolery on a song, and it was the beginning of an enduring friendship. When Woolery moved to L.A. in 1972, Winters helped book him on Tonight and Merv Griffin. Three years later, Griffin tapped him to host Wheel of Fortune, which he rode until 1982, ceding the show to Pat Sajak following a contract dispute.
Until recently, his own love connections hadn’t been all that successful. In 1973, he married actress Jo Ann Pflug (The Fall Guy) and had a “terrific” daughter, Melissa, now 15, but they divorced in 1980. Four years later, Woolery had his first date with Terri Nelson, Ozzie and Harriet’s granddaughter, whom he had known since she was a teen—her dad, David, is a longtime Woolery chum. Chuck and Terri, now 35, married the next year, and their bustling household now includes Melissa (in summer), Terri’s daughters by an earlier marriage, Jennifer, 13, and Courtney, 12, and Chuck and Terri’s 19-month-old son, Michael. Says David Nelson of his old friend’s switch to son-in-law: “I see him a lot more now. We have a great time.”
For Woolery, a family connection beats the dating game any day. Especially when he considers the obstacles that confront his Love Connection contestants. “I can’t remember if I was ever on a blind date,” he admits, “but if I ever did go on one, I probably wouldn’t be interesting enough to get on my own show. I’m too saccharine; I really am.”
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles