clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Alex Trebek Was More Than a Game Show Host. He Was Family.

The face of ‘Jeopardy!,’ a cherished American ritual, died on Sunday at the age of 80

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a long-standing joke among former Jeopardy! contestants: The first thing anyone wants to know is “What is Alex Trebek like?” How a contestant did, what they spent their winnings on, and what it was like to compete on the most beloved game show—and perhaps just show, plain and simple—on television: All of that was beside the point.

On Sunday, the host who had presided over one of TV’s most cherished rituals for 36 years passed away due to complications of pancreatic cancer. At 80, he had spent nearly half his life—and the entire lives of many a Jeopardy! fan—delivering more than 8,000 episodes’ worth of answers and questions. For many viewers, Jeopardy! is something bordering on sacred. Trebek—patient, wise, and occasionally wry—was unambiguously its center of gravity.

I interviewed him for the book about Jeopardy! that I have spent the last two years reporting. He was characteristically humble about his role—anyone who had been on a show as long as he had would be revered the way that he was, he insisted.

Forgive me the correction, but I think the judges will agree with me: Trebek was a singular talent and a singular delight, whose decades at the helm of Jeopardy! put him in rare company. He was a modern-day Walter Cronkite, as contestant Ken Jennings once put it—an emblem of knowledge and sincerity and a tradition unto himself. For those who grew up in the blue glow of his “We hope you’ll join us tomorrow, folks,” he felt like a member of the family.

Part of his success came from the fact that he walked the walk. In his early years as host, he insisted on taking (and acing, of course) the contestant test each year; he kept a library stuffed with the classics at his home, and his and his wife Jean’s favorite vacation spot was the home of the Brontë family in England. At each episode’s end, Trebek—in his tailored suits, forever the consummate gentleman scholar—would walk to the contestant lecterns to shake the hand of the new champion. Numerous players have told me that the conversation during those fleeting last moments on camera was usually about the game’s finale: How did they work out that Final Jeopardy! clue? Or, worse for those who missed it: Hm, don’t you remember that in Mesopotamia .... To Trebek, these things were important. Jeopardy! was just a game, yes, but all those obscure facts—to him, and by proxy to the millions of people playing from their couches every night, those things really mattered.

But there was so much more to what he was doing than just reading off clues. He treated his job with a seriousness you might not expect from a game show host. On tape days, he arrived at Jeopardy!’s Culver City studio by 6 a.m. and set about reviewing the day’s game material, a dictionary by his side while he made diacritical notations to perfect his pronunciation. During games—a frenetic 22 minutes of taping that blazes by—he used a crayon to mark up a copy of the board in front of him, watching with some occasional, mostly playful exasperation over the years as his contestants harped on ever more complicated strategies, like the Forrest Bounce, that kept him on his toes. He had a sports announcer’s talent for pacing games, nudging his players along and giving clues room to breathe, and—especially in recent years with players like Buzzy Cohen and Austin Rogers—playing the straight man while his contestants cut loose. That he made it all look seamless is proof of how hard he worked.

Trebek viewed himself first and foremost as a performer, and felt above all that it was his duty to give the audience—whether that was those physically in the studio or the millions who watched from home—the best version of the show that he could. Jeopardy! films five episodes on each tape day in front of a live studio audience (at least in non-pandemic times). When a game ends, the contestant is whisked away backstage to change into “tomorrow’s” outfit, have their face re-powdered, and maybe breathe into a bag. Trebek, meanwhile, spent the gaps between games holding court with the audience in impromptu Q&As, strolling along the stage’s edge and calling on whoever raised a hand.

Day in and day out, he got the same questions. “How would he do as a contestant?” “What does he do in his spare time?” “Who should be the next host of Jeopardy!?” He answered each with good cheer, and his signature self-deprecation, as though it were the very first time: He’d get thumped by his opponents unless maybe he were in a seniors tournament; he tinkered around the house or—always to a laugh—turned to chardonnay; invariably, he said that Betty White should replace him.

He understood what it meant to visitors to see him, meet him, talk to him. He was, each and every tape day, eager to give everyone who came to his professional home their own Trebek memory to take away with them. He was in the studio until October 29, just a week and a half before his death.

In 1992, he told a reporter that he imagined retirement—not anytime soon, but certainly he thought there would come a time when he would slip off his dress shoes and relax. “In 20 years I’d like to be living off the fat of the land, watching my son as he jumps high and slam dunks or throws the long bomb for Notre Dame,” he said.

Then Trebek kept on hosting, year in and year out. He didn’t retire when he reached that 20-year mark, nor did he retire when he announced his cancer diagnosis last year. He didn’t retire even as his treatment dragged on—choosing instead to acknowledge the pain that chemotherapy brought, but saying that he would retire only when he knew it was affecting his performance.

But of course, he was Alex Trebek: His skills never slipped. Trebek admitted to me in one of our conversations that he occasionally watched Jeopardy! at home—as he put it, “I check in from time to time to see if I’m losing it.” He was forever a perfectionist and his own harshest critic, and in this time of grief, it’s moving that not even he could find fault with his Jeopardy! performance.

There will, inevitably, be questions about the future. Trebek was always the first to say that Jeopardy! would continue long after he’d hung up his hat—it’s simply too good of a game not to. And it will continue—sometime after the final episode of the Trebek era airs at the end of this year, we will see a new host. Trebek told me that he wanted nothing to do with choosing his successor—hoping instead that whoever it is might be able to make Jeopardy! their own, in the same way that he did when he took the reins in 1984. Perhaps Trebek will get his wish, and whoever and whatever comes to Jeopardy! next will simply feel like another chapter of a favorite book. But this much is certain: Jeopardy! will always be synonymous with Alex Trebek.

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! will be published on November 10.