Fabled host of quiz show "Jeopardy!" Alex Trebek dies at age 80 after cancer battle
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, November 8, 2020 12:36PM EST
Last Updated Sunday, November 8, 2020 5:44PM EST
To millions of television viewers, Alex Trebek was almost like a family member. To his friends and colleagues, he was a quintessential quiz-show legend who could connect with almost anyone and do almost anything.
As tributes poured in for the Canadian-born “Jeopardy!” host, who died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, many remembered his unflappable demeanour, sharp wit and prolific broadcasting skills that made him a suppertime staple in living rooms.
“As the host of 'Jeopardy!' for almost four decades, he hosted more episodes of a single television game show than anyone else in history,” said a statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who also called Trebek an “icon” on Twitter.
“We looked forward to his quick wit and wry jokes -- and the questions about Canada he'd sneak into the show. Alex never hesitated to promote Canada on prime time TV, and to take the opportunity to stump even the brightest contestants with questions about Canadian culture, history, and geography.”
The official “Jeopardy!” Twitter account said Trebek died early Sunday morning surrounded by family and friends. He was 80.
Trebek revealed in March 2019 that he'd been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The survival rate was low, he said in a video, but he vowed to “fight” and “keep working.”
The Sudbury, Ont.-born personality did indeed continue to work, maintaining a rigorous shooting schedule. He kept fans informed of his health status in YouTube videos, with his signature suit and measured delivery, on the “Jeopardy!” set.
“That's brave, to share a tough illness like that with the world,” said Barb Williams, executive vice-president of English services at the CBC, where Trebek started his career.
“He shared the ups and his optimism, he shared the downs when it was tough,” she added in an interview.
Sony Pictures Entertainment said Trebek's last day in studio was Oct. 29. “Jeopardy!” episodes hosted by him will air through Dec. 25. The show is not announcing plans for a new host at this time.
If Trebek's life were a category on “Jeopardy!,” the clues would describe a consummate professional who memorized pronunciations for all the words on the show; a master of small talk who took a keen interest in contestants' lives; and an intellectual who could banter about virtually any topic.
“He told me once that getting the emphasis on the right syllable in a name or a place right is as important as getting the pronunciation right, and I try to live by that,” said Ben Mulroney, co-host of CTV's “Your Morning.”
“He got it right every time... He was deeply respectful of every answer and every question.”
For many, meeting him on the set was a life-long dream that began when they were children watching the TV personality every night with their family.
The mere mention of his name fires up the tick-tock percussion of the “Jeopardy!” theme song in many fans' heads.
“I can't think of another TV icon that I looked up to more as a kid,” former “Jeopardy!” contestant Seattle-based Sally Neumann told The Canadian Press in 2019, when she organized a mass tribute of well wishes for Trebek.
Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, to a father who was a Ukrainian immigrant and chef at a hotel, and a French-Canadian mother who tended the house.
He got a philosophy degree at the University of Ottawa and was still a student when he began announcing radio and TV news with the CBC as a way to help pay off his tuition. That led to hosting gigs on CBC shows including “Music Hop,” “Reach for the Top” and “Strategy.”
Trebek moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s and hosted a slew of other game shows, including “The Wizard of Odds,” “Double Dare” and “The New Battlestars.”
He took the helm of “Jeopardy!” as a host/producer in 1984, shooting five episodes a day, twice a week.
“He did everything and he did everything really well,” said retired CBC News anchor and chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, recalling he first met Trebek at the public broadcaster in Toronto the late 1970s.
“He reached for the heights and he achieved them.”
Contestants say Trebek had a natural flair for languages, particularly French. He was also gifted at playful repartee during each taping.
Trebek wanted to ensure the show and its participants were the focal point and told announcer Johnny Gilbert from the very beginning to introduce him with the words “And now here's the host of the show” - not “the star of the show.”
“The game is the star, the contestants are the stars,” Trebek said in a 2009 interview with The Canadian Press.
“I'm just the host and if I do my job properly, people will feel comfortable welcoming me into their homes each day and I'll hopefully have some longevity.”
Trebek became an American citizen in 1998 but returned to Canada for various events. In 2017, he received the Order of Canada and was proud of his Canadian roots, say many.
His on-air persona was characteristically calm but droll with some sillier bits, like the time he walked onto set without pants to help cut the tension during a Tournament of Champions special.
At a taping in 2001, he even shaved off the moustache he'd been sporting for 20 years. He did it during a lunch break and shocked the audience when he returned without it.
Trebek was nominated for more than two dozen Daytime Emmy Awards for “Jeopardy!” and won seven. His other honours included stars on the Walk of Fame in Canada and Hollywood.
He had two children with his wife, Jean Currivan.
His cancer diagnosis was among several health scares he faced.
In 2004, Trebek escaped serious injury after he fell asleep at the wheel of his pickup truck and it drifted off a road and crashed into a ditch in California.
In December 2007, he had a minor heart attack at his home.
And in late 2017, he underwent surgery for blood clots on his brain caused by a fall.
Throughout it all, Trebek vowed to keep working on “Jeopardy!”
Trebek also had guest appearances on various TV series and game shows, and was lovingly lampooned by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live.”
He wrote about those impersonations in his 2020 memoir, “The Answer Is...Reflections on My Life,” which touches on everything from his upbringing to his “penchant for cursing.”
It was in that book that Trebek wrote if his current treatment for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer didn't work, he would probably stop pursuing medical intervention.
He said he'd “lived a good, full life,” knew he was nearing the end of it, and was “not afraid of dying.”
He also admitted there were moments when his cancer made him “a basket case” before taping.
But as soon as he got onstage, “it all changes suddenly. I'm myself again. I feel good,” he wrote.
“No matter how I feel before the show, when I get out there it's all forgotten because there's a show to be done. Work to do.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2020.