A good host, he once said, could set his ego aside and let contestants be all they could be. But he let them know when he thought they missed easy answers.
- Published Nov. 8, 2020Updated Nov. 9, 2020
At a restaurant several years ago, a stranger went up to Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” and as strangers often did, tried to stump him.
“The American flag flies here 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” the stranger said, using the quiz show host’s particular locution, in which questions are delivered as answers.
Mr. Trebek sensed that the stranger was looking for something more clever than a list of which buildings, like the White House, had been authorized to fly the flag through the night. And without missing a beat he answered in the form of a question: “What is the moon?”
The quick-witted Mr. Trebek, who died on Sunday at age 80 after a battle with cancer that drew legions of fans to rally around him, hosted “Jeopardy!” for a record-setting 37 years. He was an authoritative and unflappable fixture for millions of Americans who organized their weeknights around the program, shouting out the questions as Mr. Trebek read the answers with his impeccable diction.
One major appeal of the show, apart from its intellectual challenge, was its consistency. Over the years its format stayed reliably familiar, as did Mr. Trebek, though he trimmed back his bushy head of hair, grew grayer and occasionally sported a mustache, beard or goatee. Otherwise he was the model of a steady and predictable host — a no-nonsense presence, efficient in his role and comforting in his orderliness.
Mr. Trebek’s death was confirmed by the show’s producers. They said that episodes of the show he hosted would air through Dec. 25 and that they had not made plans for a replacement.
Mr. Trebek had announced in a video on March 6, 2019, that he had received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that week. He said that like many others with the disease, he had no symptoms until it had spread throughout his body. He delivered the news from the show’s set, wearing, as usual, a bandbox-fresh suit and tie as he spoke straight to the camera without sentiment or histrionics.
When he commanded a game, he might occasionally raise an eyebrow and say “Oooh, noooo, sorry” or repeat a clue with a whiff of condescension; he told New York magazine that when contestants missed obvious answers, he deliberately struck a tone that was meant to convey: “How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.”
Image Mr. Trebek in his first appearance on “Jeopardy!” in 1984. In the years since, he hosted every episode except one, on April Fool’s Day in 1997.Credit…Jeopardy! Productions
Through it all, he kept the game running on its strict timetable.
He started hosting in 1984, when the show returned to the airwaves after a hiatus. Since then he has been the only host, helming every episode except one, on April Fools’ Day in 1997, when he swapped places with Pat Sajak, the host of “Wheel of Fortune.”
Mr. Trebek and Mr. Sajak had a friendly rivalry over the years as they led two of the longest-running game shows in television history. For years, “Jeopardy!” was the top-rated quiz show in America and usually the No. 2 game show, behind “Wheel of Fortune.”
A few weeks after Mr. Trebek announced that he had cancer, the ratings for “Jeopardy!” coincidentally began to soar when a contestant, James Holzhauer, a sports gambler from Las Vegas, roared through the game on a winning streak that captivated the nation.
Each night, more and more viewers tuned in to see whether Mr. Holzhauer could beat the record set by Ken Jennings, a computer programmer, who scored 74 straight victories in 2004. With Mr. Holzhauer on the buzzer, “Jeopardy!” even blew past “Judge Judy,” long the top-rated show in syndication.
In the end, Mr. Holzhauer fell just $58,000 shy (over 32 games) of breaking Mr. Jennings’s record win of $2.5 million. But he boosted the show’s ratings to a 14-year high, drawing 13.3 million daily viewers. He later donated some of his winnings to charitable causes, including research into pancreatic cancer in Mr. Trebek’s name.
Mr. Trebek said later that while he was taping some of the shows with Mr. Holzhauer, he had been in excruciating pain.
Unlike many celebrities who conceal illness, Mr. Trebek was transparent about what he was going through. Sometimes his pain would shoot “from a three to an 11” during tapings, he told CBS’s “Sunday Morning” in May 2019.
“I taped the show, and then I made it to the dressing room on one occasion, just barely, before I writhed in pain and cried in pain,” he said.
In March 2020, he gave a one-year video update on his status, noting that just 18 percent of people with pancreatic cancer live that long.
The chemo treatments were almost too much, he said.
“There were moments of great pain,” he said, “days when certain bodily functions no longer functioned and sudden, massive attacks of great depression that made me wonder if it really was worth fighting on.”
But to give up, he said, would have been to betray loved ones who were helping him survive.
Mr. Trebek, photographed at his home in Los Angeles in 1988.Credit…Alan Greth/Associated Press
Mr. Trebek hosted more than 8,000 episodes of “Jeopardy!” In 2014, he claimed the record for hosting the most episodes of a single game show, surpassing the record set by Bob Barker, who had led “The Price is Right” for 6,828 episodes between 1972 and 2007.
Mr. Trebek once said he thought game shows did well because they avoided conflict.
“In this day and age, when there is so much societal tension, game shows are valuable because they’re pleasant,” he told New York magazine in 2018.
Some viewers were drawn to the sense of absolute certitude that Mr. Trebek projected.
“As we get further into the 21st century, and we become more aware of the relativism of truth, there is something satisfying about Alex telling you it’s right or wrong,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said in a phone interview.
“I love that there is no discussion, no panel of experts,” he said. “Just Alex with his cards.”
Mr. Trebek spurned being called the star of “Jeopardy!” He wanted viewers to focus on the material. The show derived its drama not from any antics of his, but from the contestants and the possibility that at any moment fortunes could shift, with an apparent loser becoming an instant winner, and vice versa.
“You have to set your ego aside,” Mr. Trebek said of his role. “If you want to be a good host, you have to figure out a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — ‘be all you can be.’ Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association, I do well.”
Mr. Trebek accepting the Emmy for outstanding game show host in 2019. He won the award six times, and also won a lifetime achievement award.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press
The show did well. “Jeopardy!” has won more Emmy Awards — 35 — than any other game show. They included the 2017 Daytime Emmy for outstanding game show — remarkable for a program on the air for more than three decades. Mr. Trebek himself won six Emmys for outstanding game show host and an additional lifetime achievement award.
“Jeopardy!” won a 2011 Peabody Award, the first time in more than 50 years that a television quiz show had been so recognized. The citation said the award, given in 2012, was “for decades of consistently encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge.” It said that “Jeopardy!” was “a model of integrity and decorum.”
The nod to integrity was significant. Quiz shows had fallen into disrepute after cheating scandals in the 1950s; the 1994 film “Quiz Show” dramatized the deceit.
In reaction to those scandals, the idea for “Jeopardy!” was born.
Merv Griffin, the talk show host and media mogul who created the show, recounted in “The ‘Jeopardy!’ Book” (1990) that he had been talking to his wife in 1963 about how much he missed the old quiz shows. But, he said, he recognized that the format had lost all credibility after revelations that contestants on some programs had been secretly fed the answers.
Well, then, his wife, Julann, had said, Why not give contestants the answers to start with and make them come up with the questions?
It was a light bulb moment. Ms. Griffin said, “79 Wistful Vista.” And Mr. Griffin replied, “What is Fibber McGee and Molly’s address?” — a reference to characters on a long-running radio comedy.
The mechanics of the game, initially called “What’s the Question?” went through a few iterations before “Jeopardy!” made its debut on NBC on March 30, 1964, with Art Fleming as the host.
Initially a hit, the show was canceled in 1975 as NBC sought to reach a younger demographic. “Jeopardy!” returned in 1978, disappeared again, then underwent a high-tech face lift. The low-tech game board was replaced with a bank of video monitors. The theme music, composed by Mr. Griffin, was updated using electronic synthesizers. And in 1984, the show came back for good.
Mr. Trebek in 1993 on the set of “Jeopardy!” He set the record for hosting the most episodes of a game show.Credit…Alamy
Mr. Trebek has said that he was chosen as host because he had made a good impression when he filled in on “Wheel of Fortune” in an emergency when the original host, Chuck Woolery, was hospitalized. Merv Griffin Enterprises, which created both shows, appreciated Mr. Trebek’s seamless performance on “Wheel” and offered him “Jeopardy!”
Mr. Griffin also wrote the show’s highly distinctive “Think” theme, which is played during “Final Jeopardy!” as contestants write down questions that usually make or break them. Its 30-second countdown has become synonymous with any deadline pressure, with a wood block timekeeper and a harp glissando finish as well as pizzicato strings at the very end.
Mr. Trebek enjoyed hearing the theme music played at ballparks and football games when managers huddled or time was otherwise stopped. That meant that the music was instantly recognizable, that “Jeopardy!” had arrived, he said — that it had become “part of Americana.”
George Alexander Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, north of Toronto. His father, George Edward Trebek, was a chef who had emigrated from Ukraine as a child, and his mother, Lucille (Lagacé), was French Canadian. Alex grew up in a bilingual French-English household.
He attended Jesuit schools until the age of 12, when his parents divorced; he then left Sudbury to attend boarding school at the University of Ottawa High School in Ottawa, graduating in 1957. Afterward he enrolled at the University of Ottawa.
By his junior year he needed money to pay for college and found a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a summer relief announcer. He took on other announcing gigs. After graduating in 1961 with a major in philosophy, Mr. Trebek stayed at the CBC, where his interests turned to hosting.
His first such job was for a Canadian music program called “Music Hop” in 1963. He then hosted a high school quiz show called “Reach for the Top” and other miscellaneous programs until 1973, when he moved to the United States. There he started out on a short-lived game show called “The Wizard of Odds.” A dizzying series of other shows followed, including “High Rollers,” “Double Dare” and “The $128,000 Question.”
Mr. Trebek on the 1970s game show “Double Dare.” Credit…Buzzr
In 1974 he married Elaine Callei, a businesswoman and former Playboy bunny. They had no children and divorced in 1981. In 1990, he married Jean Currivan, a real estate project manager from New York.
Survivors include his wife and his children, Matthew, Emily and Nicky.
In 2016, Forbes estimated Mr. Trebek’s salary at $16.5 million and ranked him as the 11th highest paid television host in the world. Nonetheless, Mr. Trebek eschewed the Hollywood high life. He reveled in being a homebody, drove a pickup truck and spent his leisure time on do-it-yourself home repairs. For a time, he owned a 700-acre ranch near Paso Robles in California, where he bred and trained thoroughbred racehorses, but he sold it in 2005.
His job helming “Jeopardy!” did not prevent him from periodically hosting other game shows, adding to his popularity. He hosted “Jeopardy!” and “Classic Concentration” simultaneously and on Feb. 4, 1991, made broadcast history when he also appeared on “To Tell the Truth,” becoming the first person to host three American game shows at once.
Will Ferrell as Mr. Trebek, left, with Mr. Trebek on the set of Saturday Night Live in 2002.Credit…Mary Ellen Matthews/NBCUniversal, via Getty Images
Somewhere along the way he became a cultural icon.
Mr. Trebek appeared frequently as himself in movies, including in “Charlie’s Angels” (2000), and on television programs, including “The Simpsons” and “The Colbert Report.” He ran a leg with the Olympic torch in advance of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
He even hosted a debate for the governor’s race in Pennsylvania in 2018, but the result was disastrous. He had said that he wanted the format to be conversational, but no one had anticipated how much he wanted to be part of the conversation. He talked for more than 40 percent of the time, including offering random comments on the clergy abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. He later apologized, saying he had misunderstood the role of moderator.
Still, in an unscientific poll in Reader’s Digest in 2013, he came in eighth on the list of 100 most trusted Americans (he became a naturalized United States citizen in 1998).
Since Mr. Trebek announced his diagnosis, his admirers have flooded the internet and elsewhere with encomiums.
“Despite the diagnosis, Trebek continued to work, to put on his suits and read his clues,” wrote one, Sam Anderson, in 2019 in The New York Times Magazine.
“It was a dignified refusal to surrender to doom,” he added. “He was the squarest possible existentialist hero: a man who holds the answer to every single trivia question, but not to the great final question of death — and yet he keeps showing up anyway, reading his clues, giving us every last answer he can.”