Surprises for $1,000: 20 Biggest Revelations from Alex Trebek's New Memoir

In his new memoir The Answer Is..., Alex Trebek takes Jeopardy! fans inside his life as he battles stage IV pancreatic cancer.

By Billy Nilles Jul 21, 2020 9:42 PMTags
Watch: Look Back at Alex Trebek's 2019 E! Interview: E! News Rewind

Answer: In his new memoir, The Answer Is..., this beloved host of long-running quiz show Jeopardy! gives fans a peek at his 80 years on Earth while sharing his thoughts on his battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Question: Who is Alex Trebek?

In the just-released book, the game show host takes readers on a journey that began eight decades ago in a shack behind his grandparents' home in a small town in Ontario, Canada, before bringing him stateside as the cherished host of one of syndicated TV's most enduring mainstays. It's something he admits he's been asked to do many times over the last 30 years, though his answer had always been the same: a resounding no.

"I've had no interest whatsoever. I didn't think I had anything pertinent to say to the world. And my life was not particularly exciting," Trebek writes in the book's introduction. "I've shown up to work at the same job for thirty-six years and have lived in the same house for thirty years. I respect and like my colleagues, and have a family that I dearly love. In this, I'm no different from many other people. I have never seen myself as anything special."

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So, why now?

"Early in 2019, all of that changed when I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer," he continues, explaining that the outpouring of support from fans across the globe after sharing his diagnosis helped him see that "there are millions of people out there who seem to care and who feel I have played an important part in their lives."

As he writes, the book is his way of recognizing that support while allowing people "to know a little more about the person they have been cheering on for the past year."

Through the "series of quick look-ins," as he describes them, readers get a glimpse at Trebek's life from the man who knows it best. And that includes his thoughts on where it goes from here as he continues to undergo treatment. 

While the entire book is worth your time, we've gathered 20 of the biggest revelations from The Answer Is... The highlights of the highlights, if you will. 

1. Born in a Shack

Alex Trebek's life began 80 years ago in the most inauspicious of places. "I was born in July—July 22, 1940, in a little shack of a house just behind my grandparents' home," the son of Ukrainan immigrant George Trebek and Franco-Ontarian Lucille Lagace writes of his birth in Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. "There was no doctor. My aunt Eunice was the midwife. My mother went through thirty-six hours of labor before delivering me. She lived to be ninety-five and reminded me of this many times."

2. Family Illness

When he was barely 10 years old, his mother, Uncle Wilfred, and cousin Doris were all diagnosed with tuberculosis at the same time. "So all three of them wound up at the same sanitarium in Gravenhurst, Ontario," he writes. "They were in the hospital for the better part of a year and a half. I can't remember visiting my mother during that time. Maybe once, outside the hospital, but I don't recall them allowing children to go inside the hospital." As a result, his grandmother and her second husband moved into the family apartment to help look after them.

3. Surprise Sibling

His parents eventually split up and, after they did, Lucille moved to Detroit, where two of her sisters lived. "And unbeknownst to me, she was pregnant," he writes, explaining that before leaving Sudbury, she'd begun seeing a man who impregnated her, but did not want to marry her. As a result, she gave up the baby boy for adoption after leaving town. "I didn't know I had a half brother until shortly after I started hosting Jeopardy! He and I have communicated over the years, but we are not close," he continues, adding that it led to some resentment toward his mother that was fortunately dealt with before her death.

4. Meeting the Queen

After landing work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1961, Trebek began hosting the music show Music Hop, quiz show Reach for the Top, as well as several sporting events. As one of the only bilingual announcers on staff, he was assigned to host a two-hour variety special on Parliament Hill in 1967, Canada's centennial year. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were in attendance and greeted everyone at the end of the show. "As the host, I was at the end of the line. The Queen got to me and said, 'Good show. Please tell me your name, and where you are from.' And as I began answering her, I couldn't help but notice that she glanced over her shoulder, just for a second, to see where Prince Philip was," he writes. "Now, normally in public the Queen has Prince Philip one or two steps behind her, and she will not leave the stage until he is accompanying her. Only this time he wasn't one or two steps behind. He had paused fifty feet back and was chatting up the Kalev Estonian gymnasts—a group of twenty- year- old blond girls in electric- blue leotards. So the Queen was stuck talking to me for four or five minutes. You're not supposed to lead the conversation with the Queen. She loved horses, and once she found out I was hosting the Canadian Triple Crown of racing, we spent much of our discussion on that. Finally, after several minutes of conversation, Prince Philip showed up and said, 'Good show,' shook my hand, and off they went." The next day, he hosted another show that involved the Queen and he expected them to greet one another like old pals. "And when she got to me, she said, 'Good show. Please tell me your name, and where you are from,'" he reveals.

5. Milk & Chardonnay

At the start of his career, he believed he needed a vice so that people wouldn't feel judged by him. So he began deliberately "interjecting curse words" into his conversations. "But it didn't help me become one of the guys," he writes. "It just made me look like a jerk. My bad." He's since replaced cursing with drinking—or, rather, the suggestion of it. When audience members ask how he stays in shape or prepares for the show, he always answers, "I drink." In truth, he doesn't drink that much. "Occasionally I'll have a glass of chardonnay, but my drink of choice is low-fat milk," he continues. "It's become a habit. I drink low-fat milk and chardonnay—but not together."

6. Bad Brownies

While drugs were never his thing, Trebek does share one story of unintentional drug use that happened shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles in the early ‘70s. While attending a dinner party in Malibu, a plate of brownies caught his eye. "The hosts said, 'Go ahead, help yourself.' I had four or five of them. I did not realize they were hash brownies. Mr. Naive here," he writes. "The party was on a Friday night. The drugs knocked me out so much I spent the weekend laid out in their guest bedroom and didn't leave their home until Monday morning. Talk about embarrassment."

7. Giving It Away

As host of the short-lived and rather complicated NBC game show The Wizard of Odds in 1973, he accidentally gave a car away to a contestant who hadn't won it. During the bonus round, which required the contestant to tally up numbers associated with four of 10 presented items and keep it below a certain number to win the grand prize—see what we mean about complicated?—the contestant just missed the mark. "Then I took another look at the numbers. 'Wait a minute, the math doesn't work. We screwed up. We made a mistake. You shouldn't be punished for our mistake. So I'm going to give you the car anyway,'" he recalls saying. While the audience loved the move and he felt good about himself for being fair, the producers weren't so thrilled. Stopped on the way to his dressing room, he was told, "Alex, next time when you notice we've screwed up, we'll just stop tape and rectify it. Don't give the car away." Oops.

8. Landing the Gig

While hosting the equally short-lived NBC game show Battlestars in 1981, he was asked by Merv Griffin to fill in for then-Wheel of Fortune host Chuck Woolery, hospitalized at the time, as they filmed a Wheel tournament over the weekend. When Woolery left, Griffin hired Pat Sajak to replace him, but when he decided to syndicate Wheel as an hour-long block with a revival of Jeopardy!, the legendary producer recalled the favor Trebek had performed for him years back. "Before I got off that phone call with Merv and Bob [Murphy, Griffin's vice president], I jokingly asked a very important question: 'Will you pay me?' 'Yes,' they said. 'Okay,' I said. 'I'm your man.'"

9. Making Changes

For the first three years as host of Jeopardy! following its debut in 1984, Trebek also served as producer to get a little more money out of the notoriously stingy Griffin. And after the first season, he insisted on one significant change that the show's kept all these years. "That first season, contestants could ring in immediately when they saw the clue. It caused a lot of confusion among viewers at home. They would be watching and they'd see a contestant's light come on, but I would call on another contestant because their light had come on first and had gone off before the camera turned from the clue to the contestants. It drove the audience nuts," he writes. "So I changed that. Now, a contestant cannot ring in until after I've read the clue in its entirety. An unintended benefit was that it gave viewers a better experience of playing along." He also insisted that announcer Johnny Gilbert announce him as "the host" and not "the star."

10. Meeting Jean

After divorcing first wife Elaine Kares in 1981—"Of all Hollywood-type wedding-divorce scenarios you can think of, ours is probably the least confrontational and contentious," he writes—Trebek married second wife Jean Currivan in 1990. She was the bookkeeper for a friend of his while also studying at Pepperdine University. He was instantly smitten. "With Jean, I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being," he writes. At 24 years her senior, Trebek recalls the reaction Jean's father had when they were introduced: "He took one look at me and said, 'I guess I won't be calling you "son."'

11. Work-Life Balance

As the father to son Matthew and daughter Emily, Trebek notes that he's never had much trouble juggling work and family. "It's not difficult because I only tape Jeopardy! two days a week. A total of forty-six days a year. Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I'm not exactly overworked. I have a lot of spare time," he writes, adding that he's always been present at the kids' sporting events. "Bryan Cranston and I helped out as assistant coaches," he adds.

12. Breakfast of Champs

While sharing what a typical day at Jeopardy! looks like, Trebek reveals his unorthodox approach to breakfast. "For years, my breakfast of choice was a Snickers and a Diet Coke. Then my doctor lectured me about changing that," he writes. "So now it's a Kit Kat and a Diet Pepsi."

13. A Day in the Life

As for what a typical day at work is like, he writes, "We tape two days a week, five shows each day. On tape days I come into the office at 6:00 a.m. First, I'll grab breakfast…Then I'll go over all the games that we'll be taping that day. I have newspaper-size broadsheets of all the answers and questions printed out, and I read through each clue and response to familiarize myself with the words so that I don't make too many mistakes in pronun . . .  pronunci . . .  pronucia . . .  in saying words properly. Five games. Sixty-one clues a game. That's 305 clues. It takes about an hour and a half to go through them all." After a read of that day's L.A. Times, there's a production meeting where everyone reviews the games together to make sure everything's up to date based on current events. After a trip to makeup and wardrobe, it's showtime.

"We do three shows with one audience, then we take a lunch break and tape the last two shows with a different audience," he continues. "We finish taping around five in the evening. It's basically an eleven-hour day. Yes, Jeopardy! is a game. But to all of us who work on the show, it's a job—one we take seriously."

14. A Little Advice

While speaking of the game play about iconic Jeopardy! champs like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, Trebek offers his own take on the best strategy to employ. "A lot of contestants try a little too hard and guess at clues they shouldn't. There are going to be thirty more clues coming up. Then another thirty clues. You'll get a chance. Wait for your chance. If it's a category you don't feel confident in, lay back for a while," he writes. "And don't immediately jump down to the $2,000 clue—unless you're James Holzhauer and you're so bright you can get almost all of those correctly. Why place extra pressure on yourself?" As for Final Jeopardy!, he adds, "It never ceases to amaze me how conservative contestants will be with their bids. When there is no other alternative but to bet everything they've got, when that's the only way they will win, many still won't do it…For me, it always comes back to the Kaiser Wilhelm line, which was one of General Patton's favorite quotes: ‘L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace.' Audacity, audacity, always audacity."

15. Impressions on Impressions

Though Will Ferrell's impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live in the iconic Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches may be the better-known impression, Trebek notes that he prefers one from his native Canada more. "It was a lot of fun, but to be honest, my favorite impersonation of me would be the one done by Eugene Levy on SCTV," he writes. "They did a marvelous parody of Reach for the Top called High Q. Eugene played me. He looked more the part than Will did."

16. Celeb Smarts

Speaking of Celebrity Jeopardy!, Trebek shares that there are a handful of stars who he believes have what it takes to compete in the regular (and harder) game. "Usually they come from the news media. Those folks have a good grasp of current events. The actors Michael McKean and Jodie Foster are two other fierce competitors who come to mind," he writes. "Other celebrities who I feel could definitely compete…would have to include Aaron Rodgers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anderson Cooper, Andy Richter, and Joshua Malina."

17. The Sinatra Story

Though he says he isn't one to name drop, he admits that a moment shared with Frank Sinatra is one of the highlights of his life. "I met him at a golf tournament in Palm Springs. His wife, Barbara, then mentioned to me that Frank was a fan of Jeopardy! She said he watched the show every night. I figured she was just being nice," Trebek writes. "Not too long after, we had a whole category devoted to him. He sent me a letter that said something to the effect of, Thanks for making me a star.' I framed that letter and hung it in my office."

18. A Hairy Reveal

When a loss of balance and a fall in the bathroom in early 2018 led to doctors discovering Trebek had blood clots on both sides of his brain that needed to be removed immediately, the intense scars after surgery "scared the crap out of" the Jeopardy! staff. From there, his experience with a hair piece began. "The guy who did it does wigs for a lot of the big stars, mostly women. I won't share their names, but I bet you'd be surprised. I certainly was. These pieces are so good. Nobody can tell," he writes. "In my case the hairpiece makes me look better than my real hair. I probably should've started wearing it a long time ago."

19. A Decision on the Future

While Trebek notes that he doesn't like using the terms "battling" or "fighting" when discussing cancer because of what it implies when a person succumbs to the disease, adding that it's "simple biology," he writes, "Yet I still believe in the will to live. I believe in positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope, and I certainly believe in the power of prayer." However, he notes that he's made a decision when it comes to the future of treatment for his stage IV pancreatic cancer. "I'm going to stick with this current protocol, then that's it. If it doesn't work I'll probably stop treatment," he writes, admitting that telling his family that very morning "wasn't an easy conversation, and it isn't any easier writing these words."

20. Thoughts on the End

On the subject of death, Trebek notes that he's not afraid of it. "One thing they're not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is ‘He was taken from us too soon.' I'm about to turn eighty. I've lived a good, full life, and I'm nearing the end of it. I know that." With his family gathered near to weather the coronavirus pandemic together, he admits, "I'll be perfectly content if that's how my story ends: sitting on the swing with the woman I love, my soul mate, and our two wonderful children nearby."

The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life is available now.

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