It was an ordinary enough day at work for Kelly Miyahara, at least as far as her job went: Trek onto the white sand beach of Gardner Bay in the Galápagos Islands, walk into the midst of a dozen dozing sea lions, then turn to the waiting camera crew and list a few fun facts.
So it goes for a member of the Jeopardy! Clue Crew, as Miyahara was from 2005 to 2019. But on this day in 2009, something was off. “I’m doing my clues and I notice that the producers and everyone behind the camera start to giggle,” she says.
She turned around, and there was Alex Trebek lying face down in the sand, doing his very best sea lion impression.
At Jeopardy!, Trebek served as a father figure—dad jokes and all. He was the one who, when a USO tour took the Jeopardy! team to Italy in 2012, insisted on an excursion to Pompeii on the group’s day off, then spent the entire time peppering the tour guide with questions. He was the one who razzed the show’s younger staffers about when they were going to get married. He was the one who, regardless of whether he was on the clock, would always stop to pose for photos with passing fans—and who drove Albert “Ace” Miller, the longtime director of security for Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, nuts with just how much he’d share.
“The thing with Alex is he loved to talk to the audience,” says Miller, who retired in 2016. Trebek long held impromptu Q&As: at tapings in the Jeopardy! studio, at recruitment events around the country, on college campuses during tournaments, wherever. “He would take questions from just about everybody who had one, and he was very open about answering their questions.”
Trebek would talk about everything: not just who he thought should replace him (Betty White, he always deadpanned) or how he’d fare on Jeopardy! (maybe he could get by in a seniors tournament; the regular contestants would clean his clock), but also where his kids went to school, what kind of car he drove, and where he lived—information someone could have used to get closer to him than professional security would’ve liked. “Frankly it used to make me crazy,” Miller says, laughing. But that was Alex.
Miyahara’s enduring memory of Trebek came shortly after she left Jeopardy! Three weeks after her last day on the set, she had a double mastectomy after learning that she carried a genetic mutation that heightened her risk of breast cancer, with which two family members had just been diagnosed. After the surgery, Trebek called to check on her. “We talked for a little while, and I distinctly remember him saying to me, ‘Take care of yourself, stay healthy, we love you.’ It was very dad-like.”
This week Jeopardy! is airing the final episodes Trebek taped before his death on November 8 at age 80, a year and a half after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On Friday, viewers will see the final episode of his Jeopardy! tenure—his 8,260th. The following Monday, Ken Jennings will serve as the show’s first in a series of guest hosts. Jeopardy! has yet to announce who will take over as Trebek’s permanent successor, although speculation is rampant.
For the millions of people who watch Jeopardy! every weeknight, not to mention the thousands who have competed on the show, Trebek was a singular television presence, a beacon of intelligence and authority whose identity was inextricable from the quiz show he captained for more than 36 years. He was also an enigma: Federal regulations dating to the 1950s quiz show scandals meant that his interactions with contestants were almost always limited to the short conversations that appeared on camera during the nightly game. As his tenure holding court with each evening’s answers and questions draws to a close, it’s worth asking: Who was Alex Trebek?
It’s hard to believe, given that he will go down as one of the best to ever do it, but Trebek never set out to be a game show host, at least not for good. He moved to Hollywood from his native Canada at age 33 to become the host of a new game show called The Wizard of Odds. He’d been a rising star at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he moved from radio to TV and hosted his first-ever trivia competition, Reach for the Top—which earned him his first lampooning, courtesy of Eugene Levy on SCTV—as well as a variety show, Afternoon, where he met fellow Canadian Alan Thicke. Thicke migrated south to Los Angeles; he signed on to produce The Wizard of Odds and suggested Trebek be the host.
Trebek was lukewarm on the idea of game shows, to say the least. “I don’t want to do this all my life,” he said in 1974, the year after he moved to L.A. “Hell, I don’t even watch game shows. But it gets me down here, opens the door into films. I know it’s not the usual route, but anything can happen.” Game shows were simply a waystation to acting—or so he thought. “If they had needed a weatherman,” he said in 1986, “I would have been a weatherman.”
Trebek was reluctant to do Jeopardy! The Wizard of Odds had lasted only a single season, and in the ensuing decade, Trebek found himself bouncing between seven other game shows, including one, Pitfall, whose collapse was so complete that his check for hosting bounced. He had been out of work for a year when Merv Griffin, the creator of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, took a shining to the early ’80s craze around the just-released board game Trivial Pursuit. The original Jeopardy! with Art Fleming as host had been canceled in 1975 due to declining ratings, revived in 1978 as The All-New Jeopardy!, and then promptly canceled again. But Griffin felt the stars were aligning, and—encouraged by no less than Lucille Ball to give Trebek a shot—decided to try again. With its new, more relaxed host and a viewing public suddenly enamored of trivia, the show took off.
“Art Fleming was a very old-fashioned host with [announcer] Don Pardo—there was just that New York daytime host feel about them, and Alex Trebek was just perfect,” says Bob Bergen, who hosted the children’s Jeopardy! spinoff Jep! in the ’90s. “Perfect person, perfect talent, perfect timing, perfect reboot.”
Still, Trebek wasn’t quite sold on the role. He joked that game show hosts found themselves in a perpetual game of “musical hosts,” cycling between different shows ad infinitum, but never able to “break out of the game-show mold.” “Financially, I suppose game shows are not a bad trap to be in,” he told UPI two months into Jeopardy!’s run. “But a trap is still a trap no matter how plush.”
Even decades later, after Jeopardy! had transformed him into a television institution and a household name across North America—giving him enough financial security that he mounted that old bounced check on the wall of his office—he still seemed perplexed about how it had all happened. “God knows, I didn’t start out to do a quiz show,” he told Parade in 2002, “but it’s a show that I really enjoy doing. Someone once said, ‘If you find something you do well—and like doing it—that’s fulfillment.’”
Indeed, Trebek continued making Jeopardy! until the very end, taping his last episode just a week and a half before he passed. In October, Jeopardy! had to cancel two weeks of taping on short notice; Trebek had intestinal surgery, according to executive producer Mike Richards. A week before what would end up being his final pair of tape days in the studio in late October, Richards remembered telling him, “Alex, you’re barely up and around. We have a long way to go before you’re gonna be back in the studio taping.”
“I’ll be there,” Trebek replied—he had managed to get down some Jell-O that day, after all. “Don’t you cancel anything.”
They didn’t, and he was. When the host arrived at the Jeopardy! studio that morning, the show’s staff was uncertain of what to expect. Then Trebek appeared on stage, hair and makeup done, his suit as crisp as ever and his voice, while ever so slightly softer than in years past, betraying little of what he had endured in recent weeks. The cameras switched on, and with no prior warning to producers, Trebek launched into a brief speech before the day’s first game: “This is the season of giving,” he said.
"If we all pitch in just a little bit, we're gonna get there." pic.twitter.com/Ip6HZJi43Y— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) January 5, 2021
He asked his audience “to open up your hands and open up your heart” to those suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, and said, “We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re gonna get there.” When he finished, the producers, judges, and crew gathered around the stage (the tapings remain closed to the public because of COVID-19) burst into an impromptu round of applause.
Then Trebek wheeled around. Said Richards, “You can see [Trebek] kind of look over at us as he was crossing to reveal the categories: ‘What are you guys clapping about?’”
Trebek, after all, had an instrumental role in making Jeopardy! into the show that it is today. Though he was fond of saying he was the program’s host and not its star—the contestants, he insisted again and again, were the stars—he was always its anchor.
For Brayden Smith, whose electrifying five-day winning streak concluded with a loss on Tuesday night, making it to Jeopardy! was a lifelong dream. He’d grown up watching and had tried to get on the show at least a dozen times—applying for Kids Week, then teen and college tournaments—before finally breaking through in the adult pool last fall.
“I remember being really bad at it at first,” he says of playing along as he watched. “In my defense, I was in elementary school.”
Smith, 24, was born when Trebek was already more than a decade into hosting the show. He says Jeopardy! is “trivia near its best. Any harder, and people wouldn’t watch it; any easier, it’d turn into Weakest Link or Wheel of Fortune.”
Trebek is directly responsible for perfecting that balancing act. The host also served as the show’s producer for the first few seasons of its reboot—a role he said he insisted on for the sake of gaining experience, and maybe partly to talk himself into taking on yet another game show. As producer, he helped set the tone. Key among his changes were two designed specifically with the viewer in mind. First, he made it so that contestants could no longer ring in until he had finished reading the clue—separating the show from knives-out trivia competitions like quiz bowl, which care not at all about whether spectators are able to play along. And second, Trebek injected levity into the staid quiz show format. “There is also a lot more humor involved,” he told The Washington Post of his version of Jeopardy! in 1988, the reboot’s fourth season. “I stress this. I want it to be an entertaining half-hour, as populist as possible.”
This earned him—and his version of Jeopardy!—some heat in the show’s early days. “The no-nonsense original was straightforward, cerebral, and challenging,” read one incensed review that referred to the mustachioed Canadian as part of a “generation of game-show clones.” “On the new Jeopardy!, you merely have to possess a quick finger on the buzzer.”
But Trebek stayed the course. “We are informative and influential but we must be entertaining, too,” he said. The magic of the Jeopardy! format and the reason it has not simply endured but thrived for decades is somewhere in this decision: Its material is hard enough to be a real test of its brainy competitors, but not so hard that it’s not fun to play along at home, too. Trebek understood that the beauty of Jeopardy! was welcoming in the audience watching from their couches across the world.
He believed, moreover, that it was his responsibility as host to stay out of his contestants’ way—that anything he might do beyond simply guiding players through the rules was a distraction. “Anything else he does that interferes with the contestants playing the game should be held against him,” Trebek told the Post of the ideal game show host. “After all, the game is the thing.”
He forever downplayed his own influence. When I interviewed him in early 2019 as I was reporting out my book on Jeopardy!, he insisted, as always, that it was the format, writers, and contestants who made the show, not him. “I would hope that after 35 years, [audiences] have a pretty good idea that I’m just an ordinary guy who’s doing his best to help the contestants do their best and earn a lot of money,” he said.
Few who’ve watched Jeopardy! would agree. And Trebek’s legend only grew larger up close. He was doing even more work on the set than most fans would’ve imagined, from his crack-of-dawn review of game material to get the pronunciations just right to his control of the dreaded, entirely at-his-discretion boop-boop-boop signal when contestants fail to ring in. (The revelation of that latter point last month prompted myriad contestants to recount moments of locking eyes with Trebek and giving him the slightest shake of their heads—an air traffic controller par excellence.) He was sharper and funnier, too: When a spectator asked Trebek during one of those famous Q&As whether he wore Perry Ellis off air, too, he fired back, to the crowd’s delight: “When I’m off the air I wear nothing. I like it, even though it frightens little children and dogs.”
For those who made it to the Jeopardy! stage, meeting Trebek often loomed larger than the game itself. “The only thing I didn’t want to do was embarrass myself on the show with a bad wager, a bad guess, [or] a head-slapping Final Jeopardy! guess,” Smith says of his streak. On a show like Jeopardy!, actually winning was way down the list.
Still, even as Smith racked up runaway victories and approached $100,000 in winnings, he says it was only with Trebek’s acknowledgement that he thought he might have really made it. “I didn’t really think I was crushing until Alex said after one game something like ‘most impressive, I don’t even know what to say.’”
For all his feistiness with contestants who forget to answer in the form of a question, Trebek was known for his patience—whether on the Jeopardy! set or on Canada’s Walk of Fame, where the Clue Crew’s Miyahara remembers passersby giddily spotting a plain-clothes Trebek and gasping: “Is that … ?” But there is perhaps no proof of that patience stronger than that offered by Madison Moore and Brandt Sherman, two friends who spent a full decade prank calling Trebek.
It all started back in 2010, when Moore and Sherman moved to Australia together after graduating from Wake Forest. On a trip to New Zealand, they crashed in a family friend’s guest house—a chic rental that often drew an A-list clientele. They paged through the guestbook, amazed by the names they found. “It was George Harrison of the Beatles, a bunch of senators and representatives from the U.S.,” Moore says.
Then one name stopped them in their tracks: Alex Trebek. While most of the other entries included simple niceties, Trebek’s had a phone number. What are the odds it’s actually his? they wondered. Unsure, they jotted it down and went on their way.
Days later, the pair gave the number a ring. To their shock, a voice that sounded an awful lot like that of the famous Jeopardy! host answered. They’d prepared by skimming Trebek’s Wikipedia page; they said they were calling from the University of Ottawa, where Trebek had studied, and that they were interested in starting a game show graduate program. Trebek humored them, Sherman remembers. “He’s asking who we are. We gave him fake names. He’s asking what department we’re currently from.”
The fictions grew more and more preposterous, and yet Trebek didn’t hang up. But they made a mistake, Sherman says: “We didn’t really take the time change into consideration, and he said, ‘Why are you calling me at 3 a.m.?’”
They made their excuses and hung up. But the temptation to call again proved too much to resist, and every so often Moore and Brandt would dial up Trebek, who they say somewhat inexplicably never hung up. (The Ringer has reviewed partial phone records that show a number linked to Trebek as well as recordings of multiple calls. It’s worth noting that Brandt and Moore weren’t Trebek’s only notable serial prank caller.) They started with typical prank call fodder—SNL lines, or telling him that they worked for Nike (in fairness, Moore really did) and wanted to name a shoe after him. In all, they estimate they spoke to him about 60 times over the past decade.
As the years went by, and as Trebek kept picking up and, moreover, kept not hanging up, they say they came to feel a little protective of him. “He asked questions,” Sherman says. “He wanted to know more. He’d try to figure out, is this real or is this not? And then, I mean, his polite way of being like, ‘OK, it’s time to go,’ or, ‘Well, just send me all you’ve got.’ And if we had more questions after that, he’d stay on, and he’d answer them. He’s just the epitome of politeness and a gentleman.”
They called at reasonable hours. They asked for real advice, like when Sherman was on the outs with his brother. (Trebek advised “patience, understanding, ask questions, work to get to know what their perspective is”; it worked.) As members of their circle of friends started to get married, they began a tradition of calling Trebek just before the nuptials to ask for his blessing.
“I hope you’re half as lucky as I am,” Trebek told one groom. “I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you are, but if you’re getting married, I’ll just wish you good luck,” he told another.
He never took himself too seriously. In 2011, he tore his Achilles tendon chasing down a burglar in the halls of a San Francisco hotel. As Trebek recuperated, Miller—the show’s director of security, whose drive from his home to Jeopardy!’s Culver City studio took him near Trebek’s house—offered to play chauffeur on tape days, picking him up early in the morning and driving him back after the games were finished. “We were just two old guys trading stories,” says Miller, who was born in 1940, just a few months after Trebek. “We would talk about the best way to get rid of gophers.”
Gophers? That’s right, Miller says. Trebek often talked about his fondness for yard work. It was the real deal: Miller gave him a gopher trap, and together they lamented the woodpeckers laying siege to Trebek’s house near Paso Robles.
One day, Trebek brought up guns. He knew that Miller, who began his career as an officer with the LAPD, was often armed, and told him that he had no experience with a handgun. Trebek then accepted Miller’s invitation to a gun range, where he cycled through an assortment of options: a .22-caliber pistol, Miller’s .38-caliber service revolver, a .357 Magnum. “He was a very adept marksman,” Miller says, still sounding proud years later.
On the drive home, Trebek turned to him. “He says, ‘Well, you know what I want to do? I want to be like Bruce Willis in that movie with a .45 automatic in each hand.’”
So they went back to the range a second time. They loaded up the .45s, and Trebek attempted his best Bruce Willis. It was, alas, not for him, Miller says—Trebek aggravated an old wrist injury. For the man who might have been a lifelong broadcaster, or a movie star, or a weatherman, it was just one more hat worth trying on.
Trebek’s absence will be felt profoundly in the coming days as Jeopardy!’s timeline catches up to the present: by the show’s many fans, by those who’ve had a go behind one of those storied lecterns, by those who have worked on Jeopardy!, and by those who knew him offscreen. His presence was a source of steadiness and wisdom for decades; two months after his passing, it is still difficult to comprehend. “It’s hard to believe, I think, because I haven’t been at the show,” Miyahara says. “I hadn’t seen him in person in a really long time, and somewhere I still feel like he’s there.”
The show, though, will go on, just as Trebek always intended. Someone else will inherit his place and have the opportunity to test the mettle of the nation’s engineers, paralegals, and librarians. But they will step into a show shaped by Trebek.
“Everyone knows there’s no replacement,” Miyahara says. “Alex will never be forgotten. It will never be the same, but it shouldn’t be the same—it was Alex’s Jeopardy!”