If a future episode of Jeopardy! were to have the question — “The Greatest Game-Show Host of All Time?” — there’s probably not a contestant who’d miss the answer “Who Is Alex Trebek?”
Canadian-born Trebek was the genial and beloved host of the American TV game-show that almost became synonymous with his own name over a period of three and a half decades.
Created by genre genius Merv Griffin, Jeopardy! has been around since 1964 — or 56 years to be exact. But Trebek has stamped his DNA on the franchise since his entry in 1984.
Not surprisingly, he holds the Guinness World Record for the most game-show episodes hosted by the same presenter. Trebek has been in more than 8,200 episodes of Jeopardy! over 37 seasons.
He was, for all intent and purpose, “Mr. Jeopardy” himself.
So ingrained Trebek was in the public consciousness of his both his country of birth and residence that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted upon learning of his death:
“We have lost an icon. Almost every night for more than three decades, Alex Trebek entertained and educated millions around the world, instilling in so many of us a love for trivia. My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all who are mourning this tremendous loss.”
But Trebek had always been humble about himself.
“I have lived a good life, a full life and I’m nearing the end of that life,” he told USA Today in an October 2019 interview, seven months after revealing that he was on Stage Four pancreatic cancer. His death would come just over a year later, on Nov. 8 2020, at the age of 80.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, which has owned Jeopardy! since buying the show off Columbia Pictures Television in 1986, said Trebek was in the studio just over a week before he died, and that episodes hosted by him will air through Christmas Day 2020.
“For 37 amazing years, Alex was that comforting voice, that moment of escape and entertainment at the end of a long, hard day for millions of people around the world. He was the heart and soul of ‘Jeopardy!’ and he will be deeply missed by everyone who made him part of their lives,” said Tony Vinciquerra, Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
A jovial emcee, Trebek won five Daytime Emmy Awards for outstanding game show host. In 2011, he received a Peabody Award for “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge”; Jeopardy! is the only post-1960 game show to be so honored.
The show, which airs in tandem in most markets with “Wheel of Fortune,” has delivered amazingly durable ratings, much of which is attributed to Trebek’s popularity and longevity as host.
Bob Iger, executive chairman of Disney, paid tribute to Trebek as “a friend, a colleague and an icon.” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” have for decades aired on ABC-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other markets.
“He graced us with his kindness, warmth, wit and pure elegance, which is why we welcomed him into our homes night after night, year after year,” Iger said. “He also showed us what courage looks like as he battled cancer with dignity and determination.”
The “Jeopardy!” website has included a quote from Trebek — “I think what makes ‘Jeopardy!’ special is that, among all the quiz and game shows out there, ours tends to reward and encourage learning” — and from his delivery of the “answers” to his interactions with the contestants on the show, Trebek showed himself to be a man interested in intellectual pursuits of all kinds — not an empty suit like so many other game show hosts.
Kenichiro Yoshida, chairman, president and CEO of Sony Corporation, also paid tribute to Trebek: “We join our colleagues at Sony Pictures in mourning the passing of Alex Trebek. Alex was an extraordinary talent whose intelligence, wit and comforting presence appealed to millions of people around the world and made ‘Jeopardy!’ the outstanding show it is today.”
Trebek’s TV career in the U.S. first blossomed in the 1970s when he was tapped to host network and syndicated daytime game shows such “The Wizard of Odds,” “High Rollers” and “Battlestars.”
A Canadian Schooled in Philosophy
George Alexander Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario. He grew up in a bilingual household, speaking French and English. He earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Ottawa.
Interested in a career in news broadcasting, he joined the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), where he covered national news and special events for both radio and television. He first hosted a show, the CBC program “Music Hop,” in 1963. Trebek hosted the CBC’s classical music programs from 1967 to 1970, including performances by Glenn Gould.
Moving to the U.S. in 1973, he hosted a new NBC game show, “The Wizard of Odds.” A year later Trebek hosted the popular game show “High Rollers,” which had two runs on NBC (1974–76, 1978–80), and a syndicated season (1975–76). He hosted the short-lived CBS game show “Double Dare” and the second season of the Toronto-shot “The $128,000 Question.”
During the heyday of the TV game show, the hosts of such programs often appeared as panelists or players on other shows. In one guest appearance on a special week of NBC’s “Card Sharks” in 1980, Trebek competed against a number of other hosts in a week-long round robin tournament for charity that he ultimately won.
After a period of frustrating stints hosting shows of short duration, he took the reins of the new syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” in 1984.
Along the way, Trebek married Elaine Callei (now known as Elaine Trebek Kares), an union that lasted from 1974 until their divorce in 1981.
In 1987, while continuing to host “Jeopardy!,” Trebek took on hosting duties on NBC’s “Classic Concentration,” his second show for Mark Goodson. He hosted both shows simultaneously until September 1991, when “Classic Concentration” went off the air. In 1991 Trebek became the first person to host three American game shows at the same time, taking over as host of NBC’s “To Tell the Truth,” also for Goodson-Todman, from February until that series’ end in May.
A frequent guest star on late-night talk shows and guest host, he logged notable primetime guest appearances on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” in December 2010 and on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” in March 2014. On the series finale episode of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” on December 18, 2014, Trebek greeted Colbert as the latter boarded a sleigh driven by Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln and departed from the studio for the final time. He also appeared in many commercials for Colonial Penn Life Insurance.
In 2011, Trebek received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which presents the Daytime Emmys. He was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and was also honored as one of the “Giants of Broadcasting” by the Library of American Broadcasting in 2013, 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 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.
* Cover image: Getty Pictures