A Tribute to ‘Jeopardy!’s Beloved Alex Trebek
Let’s start with the answer: Courage, grace, humility, and optimism.
Now for the question: What are the traits that Alex Trebek displayed during his long and public fight with pancreatic cancer?
For 36 years, millions of Jeopardy! fans played along with the genial and urbane host, 80, who died peacefully in his sleep Sunday morning, November 8. Even though the news was long expected, his passing is a shock, leaving a great void in our daily TV routines. A genuine broadcaster who was a constant presence in so many of our lives, Trebek will forever be identified with one of the smartest shows ever made for TV, an oasis of intelligence and quick thinking presided over by a man with the air of a gentleman scholar.
Not that the self-effacing Trebek ever considered himself the star of his show, which is why he always insisted on being introduced as Jeopardy!‘s host. “You have to set your ego aside. The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself,” he said in a November 2018 interview for Vulture, months before going public with his diagnosis in March 2019.
“If you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to … ‘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,” he once said.
No one can say Trebek didn’t do very well, exceeding expectations of the former Canadian newscaster. He came to the U.S. in the 1970s, hosting a variety of middling game shows (including The Wizard of Odds, High Rollers and Battlestars, among many forgettable others) before landing the Jeopardy! gig when it was relaunched in syndication in 1984. (The host of the original version, Art Fleming, died in 1995.)
Among his many accolades, Trebek won seven Daytime Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding game show host, a Peabody Award for “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge,” and a Guinness World Record for most game-show episodes hosted by the same presenter on a single show (at last count, over 8,200). For 25 years, he also hosted the National Geographic Bee.
A household name who could command national headlines by merely shaving off or regrowing his signature mustache, Trebek loved being spoofed on Saturday Night Live by Will Ferrell (even appearing in his final Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch) and earlier by Eugene Levy in Canada’s SCTV.
“In a way, being parodied means you’ve arrived,” he wrote earlier this year in his memoir, The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life. He frequently appeared as himself in shows as varied as Cheers, The Simpsons, The X-Files and Orange Is the New Black, even tapped to appear in the final episode of The Colbert Report, flying away in a sleigh with the admiring late-night star.
“Those opportunities are always fun, though I wish someone would offer me a part that wasn’t a quiz show host,” he wrote. “I’d love it if someone came to me and said, ‘We’d love to cast you as an ax murderer.’ ”
Not likely! Trebek was always a warm and friendly presence, putting contestants at ease during Jeopardy!‘s chat segment, even managing to be affably likable when correcting nervous contestants on their wrong answers and mispronunciations. He earned yet more respect as he continued hosting the show for 18 months after his diagnosis, candidly and openly discussing the toll a five-shows-a-day, two-days-a-week taping schedule took on him, battling pain and fatigue off camera.
“The will to survive is there, and then you get hit with shock waves —whether pain or unpredicted surges of depression or just debilitating moments of agony, weakness,” he wrote in his memoir. “I don’t have much stamina anymore. It’s not even a question of physical activity that tires me out. Just being awake is enough to exhaust me.” He continued to tape episodes through the end of October, which will continue to air through Christmas Day.
Choosing not to retire, he told Good Morning America in a September 2019 interview, “As long as I can walk out and greet the audience and the contestants and run the game, I’m happy.” He said he joked with his Jeopardy! staff, “One thing they will not say at my funeral is, ‘Oh, he was taken from us too soon.’ … I’ve had one hell of a good life. And I’ve enjoyed it. … The thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t. Other things do, the affect it will have on my loved ones. … It makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on, hey folks, it comes with the territory.”
In his memoir, he predicted, “You could replace me as host of the show with anybody and it would likely be just as popular. Hell, after 36 years with me, it might even be more popular.” Jeopardy! has yet to reveal plans for the future, but all modesty aside, everyone knows there will never be an answer man to surpass Alex Trebek, who lived each day as if to say, “Let’s make it a true Daily Double.”