Cultural Touchstone Alex Trebek, Host of Jeopardy! Dies at 80

Cultural Touchstone Alex Trebek, Host of Jeopardy! Dies at 80
(Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc. via AP)

The world just got less literate. Alex Trebek, the beloved host of the game show “Jeopardy!”, has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Trebek was 80 years old.

The official “Jeopardy!” Twitter account announced the news this morning:

In March 2019, Trebek announced to the “Jeopardy!” audience that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was determined to continue his “Jeopardy!” host duties, and did so with the grace, aplomb, and fortitude for which he had become known. He taped his last shows on October 29, 2020. He passed away at home on Sunday, surrounded by his wife Jean, and their two adult children, Emily and Matthew, and other family and friends.

Born George Alexander Trebek in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada on July 22, 1940, Trebek grew up in a bilingual household, speaking French and English. He earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Ottawa, and his interest in news broadcasting led him to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), where he covered national news and special events for both radio and television. After hosting the CBC program “Music Hop” in 1963, Trebek went on to host CBC’s classical music programs from 1967 to 1970 before he moved to the United States in 1973.

Trebek became a familiar face as a game show host for NBC, with shows like “The Wizard of Odds,” “High Rollers,” “Double Dare,” “The $128,000 Question,” and “Wheel of Fortune.” Most of his stints were short-lived until he took over “Jeopardy!” in 1984.

“Jeopardy!” was created by Merv Griffin and first ran on NBC from 1964-1975 with host Art Fleming. Trebek took over as host in 1984 when the show was picked up for syndication.

Trebek has been a cultural touchstone ever since, as evidenced by his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (near those of Ann-Margret and Vincent Price).

Trebek has won five Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding game show host. In 2011, Trebek received a Peabody Award for “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge,” and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which presents the Daytime Emmys.

In 2013, Trebek was also honored as one of the “Giants of Broadcasting” by the Library of American Broadcasting, when he also received the Alexander Graham Bell Medal from the National Geographic Society for his 25 years as host of the National Geographic Bee. Trebek has also been inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.

Trebek held the Guinness World Record for the most game show episodes hosted by the same presenter on the same program since June 13, 2014. At that point, Trebek had hosted 6,829 episodes of “Jeopardy!,” overtaking the previous record-holder, Bob Barker of “The Price is Right.”

According to Variety, Trebek was a frequent guest star and guest host for a number of shows and sitcoms. He appeared at least twice on the late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.” He guest-starred on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” in December 2010, and on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” in March 2014. He also appeared on the series finale episode of the late-night CBS show “The Colbert Report” on December 18, 2014. Trebek was the familiar spokesperson for Colonial Penn Life Insurance.

Trebek believed in charitable giving and causes and had long-standing commitments to numerous charities and educational organizations. He sat on the boards of the National Geographic Society Education Foundation and the National Advisory Council for the Literary Volunteers of America. Trebek participated in 13 USO tours, and he traveled to many developing countries in support of World Vision, reporting on the organization’s efforts on behalf of children. He adopted a village in Zambia, Africa, helping to build a school, homes for teachers and a medical facility.

Writer-Editor Sarah Lucy Beach is a personal friend and was a researcher on “Jeopardy!” for 18 years. She shared with me some of her fond memories of Trebek:

“I smile at the fact that for 18 years of my life, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him. I respect him greatly, for his professionalism, for his sense of humor, and for the way he navigated Hollywood celebrity.

“My favorite display of his sense of humor wasn’t even on our show. Alex appeared on an episode of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect the same evening as Jerry Seinfeld. Because Alex was “off the leash” of his host duties (as it were), his humor got to shine. His sense of humor and quick wit were on full display then, and his snappy – and funny – responses were beating Seinfeld’s out of the gate. Alex was getting all the laughs before Jerry could get a come-back out.

“There are many such moments for those of us who have had the pleasure of encountering Alex in some way. He has created many rich, positive experiences for those who have crossed his path.”

In September, Trebek talked to Deseret News about his ongoing cancer battle and referenced contestant Cindy Stowell (pictured), who lost her battle with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2016.

“Trebek has often thought of Jeopardy! contestant Cindy Stowell, who had stage 4 colon cancer during her six-game run on the show in 2016. Stowell died just a week before her games aired — prior to that, the show sent her a DVD so she’d be able to watch herself.

“ ‘I admire how she didn’t want to make a big deal about her illness,’ Trebek said. ‘And how she didn’t let it keep her from achieving her dreams.’ ”

He also reflected on the writing of his memoir, “The Answer Is…” which was released on July 21, 2020:

“The longer I’ve lived with the cancer, the more my definition of toughness has changed. I used to think not crying meant you were tough. Now I think crying means you’re tough. It means you’re strong enough to be honest and vulnerable. It means you’re not pretending.”

“Jeopardy!” episodes hosted by Trebek will air through December 25, 2020. The show is not announcing plans for a new host at this time.

“Jeopardy!” Executive Producer Mike Richards penned a fuller obituary on the website:

“This is an enormous loss for the JEOPARDY! staff, crew and all of Alex’s millions of fans. He was a legend of the industry that we were all lucky to watch night after night for 37 years. Working beside him for the past year and a half as he heroically continued to host JEOPARDY! was an incredible honor. His belief in the importance of the show and his willingness to push himself to perform at the highest level was the most inspiring demonstration of courage I have ever seen.

“His constant desire to learn, his kindness, and his professionalism will be with all of us forever,”

Filmmaker Caleb Hull posted this truly magnificent piece of video from one of Trebek’s last shows with returning “Jeopardy!” champion Burt Thakur.

“I learned English because of you,” Thakur told Trebek after winning $20,400. “My grandfather who raised me, I’m gonna get tears right now. I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day.”

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