For more than 30 years, Alex Trebek hosted 'Jeopardy!,' one of the most popular game shows in television history.
Alex Trebek became the host of the Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top in the mid-1960s. His first appearance on American television was as the host of the brief-lived 1973 game show The Wizard of Odds. He began his long-running hosting role of a revived version of the trivia show Jeopardy! in 1984. He revealed in 2019 that he is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer and will die from it in November 2020.
Alex Trebek’s Early Life and Career
Trebek was born in Sudbury, Canada, a large city in northern Ontario, on July 22, 1940. His mother, Lucille Trebek, was a French-Canadian with First Nations ancestry, and his father, George Trebek, was a Ukrainian immigrant who worked as a chef at a nearby hotel. "My father drank a lot, but he never missed a day of work in his life," Trebek recalls. Trebek describes his father as a hoarder of trinkets that turned out to be useful years later. "His basic philosophy was don't throw something out because it might come in handy someday," he says of his father.
Trebek, a bright and inquisitive child from a young age, attended Jesuit schools until the age of 12, when he left Sudbury to attend the University of Ottawa High School in the Canadian capital. "Sudbury is a more distant memory," he admits now, "because I was born and raised there, but I left to attend boarding school."
Trebek attended the University of Ottawa to study philosophy after graduating from high school in 1957. Trebek decided to pursue a career in journalism rather than philosophy after graduating in 1961. He got his first job with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC TV, as a fill-in reporter and newscaster. Despite quickly earning a reputation for his cool on-screen demeanor, he decided to shift his focus from journalism to the more lucrative field of game show hosting in 1966. He rose to prominence as the host of the Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top, which pitted high school teams against each other in academic competitions. Trebek advanced to hosting the more prominent, nationally televised Canadian game show Jackpot in 1970.
Host of 'Jeopardy!'
Trebek decided to leave his home country for the place where the biggest television stars are made: Hollywood, in 1973. His first appearance on American television was as the host of the brief-lived 1973 game show The Wizard of Odds. The show only lasted one season before being replaced by another game show called High Rollers, which Trebek hosted in 1974. Trebek hosted the show for two years on NBC, from 1974 to 1976 and again from 1978 to 1980. Simultaneously, he expanded his resume by hosting other game shows such as The $128,000 Question (1977-78) and Pitfall (1981-82), which aired in both the United States and Canada.
In 1984, ABC hired Trebek to host a game show created by Merv Griffin, the famous creator of Wheel of Fortune. The show was a reboot of the popular trivia competition Jeopardy!, which originally aired from 1964 to 1975. Jeopardy! used a unique format in which clues were given in the form of answers and contestants responded with questions. Trebek's version of Jeopardy! quickly became one of the most popular game shows in television history, and Trebek became a pop culture icon as its charismatic and unflappable host, winning multiple Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Game Show Host over more than three decades on the air.
Another indicator of the host's iconic status in pop culture is the prevalence of Trebek parodies — Will Ferrell played a crazed Trebek on Saturday Night Live, Eugene Levy played "Alex Trebel" on Half Wits, and Trebek-parodying storylines have appeared on Family Guy, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. Trebek thinks the parodies are hilarious, and he especially enjoyed Levy's take. "I thought Eugene captured the private horror a game show host experiences trying to keep things moving on a bad day," he says.
Trebek remained as fresh, motivated, and humble after hosting Jeopardy! for more than 30 years. When asked how he achieved such a remarkable balance of professional success and personal modesty in an interview, Trebek replied, "Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."
He also addressed a question that had been lingering in the minds of viewers since Trebek first reminded contestants to state their answers in the form of a question back in 1984. How would he fare as a contestant? Trebek responded, "I'd do well among senior citizens, but I'd struggle against a good 30-year-old because I can't recall information as quickly as I used to. When you'd say something, I'd go, boom, right away, very sharp. Now it's like, Oh, yes, but hold on a second, uh, uh...."
Trebek hinted at the end of the line in a July 2018 interview, saying that the chances of him returning to host Jeopardy! after his contract expired in 2020 were "50/50 and a little less." He also named two possible replacements: Alex Faust, play-by-play announcer for the Los Angeles Kings, and Laura Coates, radio host, author, and law professor.
Cancer Diagnosis and Health Issues
Trebek was diagnosed with subdural hematoma in December after hitting his head in a bad fall in October 2017. He underwent surgery the next day, necessitating a break from his hosting duties, but Trebek quickly reassured fans via a video posted to the game show's website: "I came home after two days in the hospital to begin my recovery," he explained. "The prognosis is excellent, and I anticipate returning to the studio to tape more 'Jeopardy!' programs very soon!"
Trebek made the shocking announcement in March 2019 that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
In a video posted to YouTube, the TV icon announced his intention to finish the season of Jeopardy! "Normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging," he said, "but I'm going to fight this and keep working."
Trebek revealed a few months later that he was in remission. "It's kind of mind-boggling," he told People for its cover story on June 10, 2019. "The doctors said they hadn't seen such a positive outcome in their memory... some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than half." When asked why he thought he was responding so well to chemotherapy, the host attributed it to the "positive energy" sent his way by many well-wishers.
Trebek revealed on Good Morning America in mid-September that he was undergoing another round of chemotherapy. The following March, he returned to social media to mark the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis.
Trebek died "peacefully" at his home on November 8, 2020, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, surrounded by his family and friends.
His Personal Life
Trebek married Elaine Callei in 1974, and the couple divorced seven years later in 1981. He married Jean Currivan for the second time in 1990, and they have two children, Emily and Matthew.
Trebek was an active volunteer and spokeswoman for organizations like World Vision and Smile Train, which help impoverished children all over the world. He took part in 13 USO tours, visiting American troops around the world, and received the prestigious Bob Hope Entertainment Award in 1998.