For 36 years, Alex Trebek was the purveyor of obscure facts. Curious about the finer points of Asian geography? Or which sports legend graced, say, a 1940s issue of TIME magazine? Trebek—the man millions of viewers around the world could depend on—had all of the answers.
But in early 2019, the longtime host of beloved game show Jeopardy! pivoted to educate his followers about something infinitely more important and far more personal.
"Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer," he shared that March in a video message that quickly went viral as upwards of 5 million fans absorbed the shocking news. "Now, normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this, and I'm going to keep working."
He refused to categorize the 20 months that followed as a battle, not liking the implication that a cancer sufferer succumbs to the disease from lack of will rather than a cruel twist of biology.
And though he poured everything he had into surviving—"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"—he also devoted a bit of time to appreciating everything he had.
"One thing they're not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is 'He was taken from us too soon,'" he wrote in his July 2020 memoir, The Answer Is.... "I've lived a good, full life, and I'm nearing the end of it. I know that."
Still, we'll take utterly devastated for $1000, Alex.
As crushing as it is whenever we lose any of our cultural icons, Trebek's Nov. 8 passing at the age of 80 stings far more than any failed Daily Double. For the past three-plus decades, the native of Ontario, Canada has just been reliably there for us, turning up on our TV set each weeknight to teach us about literature, state capitals and world leaders in his soothing, authoritative voice.
And while some stars might begrudge being pigeonholed so completely for the bulk of their career, the former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation newsreader seemed to truly relish his roles as America's teacher.
"You have to set your ego aside," he reasoned to Vulture in November 2018 about the secret to his longevity. "The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That's why I've always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star. And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to—as in the old television commercial about the military—'be all you can be.' Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association I do well."
In many ways, he's succeeded far beyond any dream he may have harbored growing up the son of Ukrainan immigrant George Trebek and Franco-Ontarian Lucille Lagace "in a little shack of a house just behind my grandparents' home," as he put it in his book.
Though his childhood certainly had its share of twists and turns, including the year-and-a-half his mom spent in the hospital after she and two other relatives were diagnosed with tuberculosis, the native French and English speaker enjoyed career success early, doing announcing work at the CBC while still completing his philosophy studies at the University of Ottawa. "I went to school in the mornings and worked at nights," he explained to the network in 1964. "I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job."
By then, he'd earned a gig hosting a CBC-TV teen dance show called Music Hop, followed by Reach for the Top, a high school quiz show, and Strategy. In 1973, with a decade of hosting under his belt and considerable fame in his home country, he made the move to California.
Though he landed a role heading up The Wizard of of Odds, a game show with challenges revolving around statistical questions, he felt ill at ease in his new city. "I was a shy, small-town Canadian kid," he explained to Vulture. "A friend of mine, Alan Hamel, who is married to Suzanne Somers, had come to California before I did, and I always thought, He fits right into this society. I never felt like I belonged."
He adopted a few tropes to appear a bit edgier than his Canadian upbringing, such as deliberately "interjecting curse words" into conversation, he wrote in his book, and talking up his drinking vice. But in actuality, his glasses of Chardonnay were fairly sporadic ("My drink of choice is low-fat milk") and he was the guy naive enough to indulge in a small stack of hash brownies at a Malibu house party in the early 1970s.
"The hosts said, 'Go ahead, help yourself.' I had four or five of them," he shared. "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."
His career ascent, though, was anything but.
As he began collecting TV jobs—The Wizard of Odds was followed by High Rollers, Battlestars and Classic Concentration—he found a mentor in publicist Richard Gully. "We met, and because he threw a lot of dinner parties at the Bistro, an 'in' restaurant in Beverly Hills at the time, he often needed single guys to fill out the table," he explained to Vulture. "So Richard would invite me, and his being there to introduce me to people made me comfortable. And Burt Sugarman, who produced the very first show that I hosted here, The Wizard of Odds, introduced me to the backgammon-playing community. I met people that way; I didn't have to go out on my own."
Among his most crucial connections was legendary producer Merv Griffin, who asked him to pinch hit on Wheel of Fortune in 1981 when then-host Chuck Woolery was hospitalized. Though Griffin would go on to tap Pat Sajak as a replacement when Woolery left, he decided to syndicate the game show as a 60-minute block with the revival of Jeopardy! (the original, daytime version premiered on NBC in 1964) and the man who'd paid him that favor several years back sprung to mind.
"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?'" he recalled in his book. "'Yes,' they said. 'Okay,' I said. 'I'm your man.'"
As he began his career-making gig, he soon learned people were eager to meet him. "I would play in celebrity golf tournaments and meet stars," he shared with Vulture. "Frank Sinatra told me he was a fan of the show. Jimmy Stewart, too. I thought, Oh my gosh. These major stars watch me on occasion. I felt good about that."
One of the highlights of his existence sprung from that encounter with Sinatra. "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 wrote in his book. "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."
Not that he bought too much into his own celebrity. A self-described homebody, he didn't really love the L.A. nightlife, preferring quiet evenings at home reading James Comey's A Higher Loyalty, Amy Siskind's The List or The Brontës by Juliet Barker. "I was never into going out to clubs," he told People. "It wasn't my scene."
And he gets how admissions like that play into the nerdy professor image most fans have of him and, frankly, he's fine with it.
"I've learned that people draw conclusions that satisfy their prejudices, and those conclusions don't always coincide with reality," he noted to Vulture. "People think because I'm the host of a fairly serious, intelligence-based quiz show that I must know all the answers. I do—because they're written on a sheet of paper in front of me. And audiences are always surprised when they discover that I like to fix things around the house, that I'm not a nerdy person who spends all his time researching information that might come in handy on Jeopardy!. But I don't mind surprising people in that way."
Another little-known aspect to his personality: He's a bit of a romantic. Following a seven-year marriage to businesswoman Elaine Callei that ended amicably in 1981, Trebek having already adopted her daughter Nicky, he spent years tooling around the Bistro ("I was not a player," he insisted. "I dated not that often") before meeting a Pepperdine University student from New York named Jean Currivan, who was working as a bookkeeper for a friend. "With Jean," he wrote, "I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being,"
A smitten Trebek says his only regret about their three-decade marriage, which has produced New York City restauranteur Matthew (he owns Harlem eateries Oso, Lucille's Coffee & Cocktails and Pizza By Lucille's) and Emily, a house flipper and interior designer, is that it didn't begin sooner. "I was thinking about President Bush when he died, and all the comments about his life about what a nice guy he is, and how he and his wife had been together 73 years," he told People in his January 2019 interview. "I thought, oh my gosh…if I'd just met Jean in my 20s we could have had a longer life together."
Because the existence they built together was quite idyllic. Working alongside eldest daughter Nicky at Jeopardy!, he had plenty of time for jet ski- and tubing-filled weekends at their lake house in Paso Robles. He rarely missed one of Matthew's paintball tournaments and when Emily bought her first fixer-upper, she was able to lean heavily into Dad's handyman skills. "He worked at the jobsite every single day and taught me so much," she shared in a Father's Day 2020 article for her mom's site, Insidewink.com. "It really meant a lot to me how much time he dedicated to the project."
So, sure, he'd take more years of all that, but as he wryly joked to People of his 57-year-old bride, "I guess if I'd met her when I was in my 20s she wouldn't have been born yet. But hey, 29 years is pretty good!"
Friends first, Jean told the mag, "There was just this deep sensitivity about him with a gruffy exterior. I kept thinking, he's 24 years older than me...but there was something that just kept drawing me to him."
Now she realizes it was his great sense of humor coupled with intelligence and just the right amount of humility. "He takes his job very seriously," she said, "but won't take himself too seriously."
While he's quick to downplay his importance as the man at the helm of the beloved program, he maintains a deep appreciation for the game. He gets annoyed when people bet too little on Daily Doubles. "I have been disappointed when contestants made conservative wagers because they don't realize the obvious. And that is, if a clue is in the second box from the top, it's going to be easier than a clue at the bottom of the category." And that ever-so-condescending tone when contestants miss on an obvious question? It's 100 percent authentic.
"Yes, it's conscious," he told Vulture. "Not that it's preplanned—it's a reaction—but I know that 'You've disappointed daddy' is a tone I'm striking. It's also, 'How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.'"
Across his decades in the public eye, Trebek has faced few scandals, save for some complaints about seemingly sexist remarks ("I've been criticized for treating women more harshly than men. I've also been criticized for treating women better than men. In fact, I remember looking in a stack of letters once and finding two: One said, 'Boy, you fawn over women [contestants] and try to help them out.' And the other was, 'Boy, you're mean to women'") and the time he moderated a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate only to be taken to task for talking too much.
As such he recently checked in at number eight on Reader's Digest's list of the most trusted people in America and encountered an unexpected uproar when he floated the idea of a potential retirement during a July 2018 chat with Harvey Levin for OBJECTified, fans unable to imagine anyone else reminding contestants to phrase their answers in the form of a question. At the time, he'd undergone a December 2017 operation to remove blood clots from his brain and survived two mild heart attacks.
"I got a lot of publicity when I mentioned that," he admitted, having since renewed his contract through 2022, "but, pardon me, I look at the show and think, I'm pretty good. So either our director is saving my ass through judicious editing or I'm not as bad as I sometimes think I am."
Plus, he really loved what he did. "I have to work, but it's work I enjoy and that still has challenges," he said. "I have at least two new players on each program and all new material that I've got to read properly."
Even after his 2019 diagnosis, he made it clear he had no intentions of walking away. "I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics of this disease," he stressed in his original video message. "Truth told, I have to. Because under the terms of my contract I have to host Jeopardy! three more years!"
He was forthright about the extra challenges he faced. In addition to hair loss that required him to wear a wig on set, he had sores in his mouth that could make it difficult to enunciate words. "There are weaknesses I feel in my body but I can always suck it up when it comes to tape the show," he told CTV's Lisa LaFlamme in October 2019. "I'm sure there are observant members of the television audience that notice also, but they're forgiving," he continued. "But there will come a point when [fans and producers] will no longer be able to say, 'It's okay.'"
However, he had little issue maintaining his two-day-a-week taping schedule that kept him at the studio from 6 a.m. (when he'd grab his daily breakfast of a Kit Kat and Diet Pepsi) until 5 p.m. and found time to answer any and all questions about "Who is Alex Trebek?" in his 2020 biography.
He never imagined he'd indulge in such a thing, writing in his intro, "I didn't think I had anything pertinent to say to the world. And my life was not particularly exciting." But as the host, who donated $10 million of his fortune to his alma mater in late 2019 and another $100,000 to L.A. homelessness charity Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, absorbed the outpouring of well wishes following his diagnosis announcement, he realized that actually viewers do care a great deal.
"People all over America and abroad have decided they want to let me know now, while I'm alive, about the impact that I've been having on their existence," he shared in the January 2020 ABC special, What Is Jeopardy? Alex Trebek and America's Most Popular Quiz Show. "They have come out and they have told me. And my gosh, it makes me feel so good."
Riding out the bulk of quarantine in the Studio City, Calif., mansion he's lived in for three decades, he was raring to return to the studio when conditions allowed, filming episodes that will air up until Christmas.
And while he was more than up to the challenge, should he have felt it time to call it quits, he was ready to cede control. "All you need is a competent host to help keep things moving," he told Vulture, noting that the perfect person would be "personable, bright, have a sense of humor. My recommendation is Betty White." (Others he has floated include CNN's Laura Coates and Los Angeles Kings announcer Alex Faust.)
His only request, he said, was to go out on his own terms.
"I will tell the director, 'Time the show so that I have 30 seconds at the end.' Because when Ken Jennings lost after 74 wins in a row, I had a tear in my eye and no time for a good-bye. So all I want on my last show is 30 seconds, and I'll do what Johnny Carson did: 'Hey, folks, thank you. Been a good run and all good things must come to an end.' Then I'll move on."