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Alex Trebek, host of TV's 'Jeopardy' for three decades, dies at 80

David Henry and Stacie Sherman
Bloomberg News

Alex Trebek, the genial television host who spent three decades testing the general knowledge of contestants and viewers of the hit U.S. game show “Jeopardy,” has died. He was 80.

He died at home on Sunday morning, according to a tweet by the show.

Trebek announced he had advanced pancreatic cancer in March 2019, but said he intended to keep working. He said he planned to beat the disease’s low survival rate with the love and support of family and friends and with prayers from viewers.

The American Cancer Society estimates 3% of patients with stage 4 pancreatic cancer are alive 5 years after being diagnosed.

In May 2019, Trebek said some of his tumors had shrunk by more than 50% and he was near remission, according to People magazine. He returned to the show in September for its 36th season, but soon revealed that his health had taken a turn for the worse, and he was undergoing chemotherapy for a second time.

Alex Trebek presents an award at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on May 5, 2019.

The Canadian-born philosophy graduate was a familiar face in his adopted country for hosting about 8,000 episodes of “America’s favorite quiz show,” its trademark slogan. He headed a program that went into syndication in 1984 and averaged 25 million viewers a week a quarter-century later. Trebek won five Emmy Awards as host of the daytime show.

“What makes Jeopardy’ special is that, among all the quiz and game shows out there, ours tends to encourage learning,” Trebek said in a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post. “A lot of the stuff is trivia, but maybe a subject will come up that will arouse the viewers’ curiosity.”

“Jeopardy” featured three contestants who aimed to formulate the correct question to a cryptic clue provided by Trebek in a half-dozen topic categories.

The brother of this leader is believed to be the first known European to have died in the Americas,” Trebek said in the final clue of a show in October 2004.

“Who is Leif Ericson?” software engineer Ken Jennings replied after 30 seconds of the program’s “think” music. Jennings broke the $2 million mark in winnings with his correct question and wound up collecting about $2.5 million when his run of 74 consecutive games ended, according to the show’s website. His total rose to $3.3 million when tournaments were included.

Outlasting more than 300 competing game shows, “Jeopardy” was created in 1964 by producer Merv Griffin, who conceived “The Wheel of Fortune,” the longest-running U.S. game show in syndication, according to the “Jeopardy” website. “Jeopardy” was licensed to NBC for more than a decade before its syndicated rebirth in 1984, with a mustachioed Trebek at the helm.

He presided over various themed spinoffs of the program, including a competition that pitted International Business Machines Corp.’s “Watson” computer against Jennings and former contestant Brad Rutter, who later surpassed Jennings’s record by winning more than $4.6 million on “Jeopardy” and in its special tournaments. IBM’s Watson beat its human opponents on the show in February 2011.

Among the celebrity contestants who tried to solve Trebek’s clues were actress Jodie Foster, television host Larry King, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. About 130,000 people applied to take part on the show each year.

George Alexander Trebek was born July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, a city in Canada’s Ontario province. He was the son of George Edward Trebek, a hotel chef, and the former Lucille Legace, a homemaker. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Ottawa in 1961.

“I once thought about teaching or being a doctor, or prime minister of Canada,” Trebek said in a 2014 interview with USA Today. “I haven’t realized those dreams, so I guess I’m a failure.”

From 1961 to 1973, he was an announcer and newsman for TV and radio at Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto. He also hosted the game show “Reach for the Top” for seven years. Trebek then moved to Los Angeles to emcee the daytime game show “Wizard of Odds” for NBC, which hired him for the programs “High Rollers” in the 1970s and “Battlestars” in the early ’80s. He also hosted “Concentration” and “To Tell the Truth” after taking on the “Jeopardy” role.

“You are there to make these players relax enough that they can demonstrate their skills,” he said in a 2007 interview with the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. “They’re the stars of the show. They’re the ones that the viewers are interested in seeing.”

The academy, which administers the daytime Emmys, honored Trebek with its lifetime-achievement award in 2011. He worked with the United Services Organization to entertain U.S. troops abroad and hosted the National Geographic Bee.

Trebek, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, was married twice. With his first wife, Elaine Callei, he had two children, Matthew and Emily. The marriage ended in divorce. He later married Jean Currivan.

After his cancer diagnosis, Trevek received an outpouring of support from fans. In November 2019, student contestant Dhruv Gaur didn’t know the answer to the final question, so instead he wrote: “What is We love  you, Alex!” causing the host to tear up.

During an ABC prime-time interview that aired in January, Trebek acknowledged that he might not have a lot of time left.

“Because of the cancer diagnosis, it’s no longer an open-ended life, it’s a closed-ended life,” he said. Trebek’s contract was scheduled to expire in October. During the ABC interview, he said he would continue “as long as his skills don’t diminish.” Still, he had already prepared for his final show.

“I’ve kind of in my mind rehearsed it already,” he said. Trebek said he would tell his director that day, “Leave me 30 seconds at the end.”

“That’s all I want,” Trebek said. “I will say my goodbyes and I will tell people, Don’t ask me who’s going to replace me because I have no say whatsoever. But I’m sure that if you give them the same love and attention and respect that you have shown me, then they will be a success and the show will continue being a success. And until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.’”