Alex Trebek, the venerable host of Jeopardy!, has stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In a taped announcement released Wednesday, he acknowledged the prognosis is, in his words, “not very encouraging.” He said he plans to keep working and will reportedly begin treatment immediately.
Going into 2019, Trebek was years into playing chicken with retirement. He’s 78, and, in his 35th year hosting Jeopardy!, well past the point when anyone might quibble at the decision to devote himself more fully to Chardonnay and Snickers. He’s had health scares—heart attacks in 2007 and 2012, a car crash in 2013, brain surgery in 2017 after a fall—but each time his contract has wound down, he’s signed on to stay longer.
I spoke to Trebek in January, at which point he was still thinking about retirement as something remote. “After you’ve been hosting a show as long as I have, and you’ve reached my age—I’ve been in the business for over 55 years now, so retirement is not an outlandish idea,” he told me. “It goes with the territory, age, and experience. I’m not retiring right now, and I don’t have any immediate plans to do so, but it’s nearer rather than further off in my outlook.”
In 2012, after the second heart attack, he was reportedly convinced by Sony, which produces Jeopardy!, to stay on for one supposedly final three-year stint while a successor was found. Anderson Cooper and the since-disgraced Matt Lauer were both reportedly vetted. “If Matt Lauer would come over to Jeopardy!, I’d be happy to take over his job on Today,” Trebek said at the time.
Lauer, needless to say, did not get the job. Instead, Trebek kept extending his tenure, and for those of us watching at home as he reeled off supplementary factoids and crowned each evening’s new nerd overlord, you could get to thinking that it might go on forever.
For years, he’s joked that Betty White—an avowed Jeopardy! fan and, by the by, 97 years old—would be his ideal replacement. Over the summer, Trebek set off a flood of coverage when he, then engaged once again in contract renewal talks, told TMZ’s Harvey Levin that he thought Alex Faust, the L.A. Kings’ play-by-play guy, or Laura Coates, a George Washington University lecturer and CNN legal analyst, would make worthy successors.
In January, Trebek was still flummoxed by how much interest those comments had attracted. As it turns out, he was not at all interested in retiring over the summer. In October, he reupped his expiring contract, signing a fresh one that would keep him on the show through 2022—a season that would wrap just before his 82nd birthday.
Thirty-five is an auspicious number in game shows: It’s the same number of years Bob Barker hosted The Price Is Right. Trebek is, in so many ways, a holdover from a previous generation of television. On Wednesday, Ken Jennings—the longest-running winner in Jeopardy! history—compared Trebek to Walter Cronkite: an “authoritative, reassuring TV voice you hear every night, almost to the point of ritual.” (He added: “And I hope some very good L.A. oncologists are getting ready to have their mispronunciations corrected.”)
For a generation of viewers, Trebek has been a constant of cable programming, a sometimes mustachioed, sometimes prickly, always steady presence, the keeper of a finite blue-purple world where the passage of time could be counted both in operatic ephemera and, maybe, the number of different living rooms where you found yourself watching over the years. It’s impersonal—a formulaic game played by strangers—and it’s also not: Come to enough family dinners, and soon enough you’ll be expected at them. Trebek has often insisted on being called the host of Jeopardy!, such that there would never be any confusion that he was the star: That, he says, is an honor that belongs to the contestants. Fair enough, perhaps, but he’s the one who became family.