“He was the face of Jeopardy! for over 35 years.”
Who is Alex Trebek?
Trebek died Sunday at the age of 80 after a long, public battle with pancreatic cancer, the show announced.
Ubiquitous, friendly, competent, unflappable, the Jeopardy! host was “like family” to millions of TV watchers for decades, but unknowable, like a slightly distant but pleasant uncle who never let you get close. With him it was all about the questions. The answers were someone else’s job.
He seemed taller than 5-foot-8. All game-show giants do—giant craniums in long, lean bodies. Maybe the coolest thing he ever did was to appear on Card Sharks in 1980 alongside other heavy-hitting quiz show hosts, including Jim Lange (The Dating Game), Allen Ludden (Password), and Wink Martindale (Tic Tac Dough). In the final round, Trebek took the tournament away from favorite and the “Dean of Game Show Hosts” Bill Cullen (To Tell the Truth). At that time, he had a couple of decades of experience in television, mostly as a newscaster and game-show emcee in his native Canada. Four years later, he would start hosting Jeopardy! and become a fixture in the pop-culture landscape for the next four decades.
Besides Jeopardy!, Trebek, like his counterparts in the game-show universe, hosted a laundry list of shows: The $128,000 Question, The Wizard of Odds, Classic Concentration, Battlestars, High Rollers, and Double Dare among a zillion others. And he relentlessly played “himself” in countless acting credits: Seinfeld, Groundhog Day, How I Met Your Mother, The Golden Girls, Rugrats, The Simpsons, Baywatch, The Bucket List, Orange Is the New Black. And he really stretched his acting chops in an episode of The X-Files in which he played a Man in Black who looked remarkably like himself. He won 29 Emmys and a Peabody Award.
His impudent and condescending Canadian milquetoast personality-less personality made him one of Will Ferrell’s best Saturday Night Live impersonations. Trebek enjoyed Ferrell’s portrayal of him but didn’t have much interesting to say about it. When asked what he thought of Ferrell’s “Trebek” with foils Sean Connery and Turd Ferguson as contestants, he blandly replied, “He’s quirky but people like that. One of the great things about this show is that the audience relates to individuals, to personalities.”
Maybe that’s why the impersonation is so wonderful—Trebek, while a consummate professional, never seemed to have much humor about him. He was a consummate professional, but both on and off camera, he was unweird and unquirky, although maybe a little OCD: He had white hangers for dress shirts, and black for sports shirts. And he arranged his spice rack alphabetically, according to his mother, Lucille.
He was married twice. His second marriage to Jean Currivan stuck. After presenting the 26-year old Currivan with a pair of black velvet slacks and matching Bolero jacket, the 49-year-old Trebek followed up with a surprise 16-carat sapphire center stone surrounded by diamonds. Jean said yes. Jean was probably pregnant, because they married the last day of April and delivered their first of two children the following February. Did he ever see her model the bitchin’ pantsuit?
At the time of that marriage, Trebek was living with his mother, but not in the pathetic way one lives with their parents during middle age, because he was already a rich game-show host. It was likely to help her. Jean and Lucille got along famously.
Alex Trebek was born July 22, 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and grew up in a bilingual French-Canadian family. In 1998, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He bred and trained thoroughbred horses at Creston Farms, his ranch near Paso Robles, California. In 2017, he suffered a heart attack, and, in 2018, he suffered a subdural hematoma after a fall, and had brain surgery to remove clots. On March 6, 2019, Trebek announced his Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis and began a series of public updates about the state of his health, and triggering a massive outpouring of love and support for the beloved TV host.
During the Nov. 6 episode of Jeopardy!, contestant Burt Thakur, who was born in India, thanked Trebek for teaching him English through the game show after Trebek asked him if any family members from India were tuning in to cheer him on.
“I grew up, I learned English because of you,” Thakur told Trebek as he accepted his $20,400 winning check. “And so, my grandfather, who raised me—I’m gonna get tears right now—I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day, so it’s a pretty special moment for me, man.”
Trebek dedicated his memoir, The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life, published in July 2020 to “those who are hoping to become survivors.” In the emotional book, he discussed feelings of suicide tied to his cancer diagnosis that caused great concern to his millions of fans. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times around the publication of the book, he explained how he was able to overcome his dark thoughts. “
You can’t be telling people ‘Keep your chin up, fight on!’ and then all of a sudden you counter that by: ‘What happened to Trebek?’ ‘Oh, he killed himself. He just got too discouraged,’” he said. “‘Well, hell, he was telling us to be positive. And then he did this negative thing.’ So, yeah. That’s the responsibility that has bothered me.”