top of page

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek dead at 80

Canadian-born TV host had battled pancreatic cancer

Alex Trebek, the former CBC broadcaster who ended up hosting the popular U.S. quiz show Jeopardy! for more than three decades, has died at age 80, the show announced on Sunday.

In March 2019, Trebek announced in a video message that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, vowing to "beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease."

Trebek's run on Jeopardy! began on Sept. 10, 1984. The show became a hit with viewers and critics alike, winning six consecutive Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Game Show in the 1990s.

The Emmys has honoured the show with 16 awards overall, and Trebek won the Emmy for outstanding game show host six times. 

Trebek told CBC's Rosemary Barton several weeks into treatment last year that he had been heartened by the well wishes from fans and viewers. Maintaining a positive attitude was the only option, he said.

"You've got a choice: You can be pessimistic or you can be optimistic," he said. "It's a lot better to be optimistic."

Trebek spent more than a decade at the CBC, beginning in Ottawa in 1960. He then moved on to Toronto, hosting the youth-oriented Music Hop and Pick and Choose, among other shows.

Trebek once told talk-show host David Letterman that hosting the high school quiz show Reach for the Top was "good training for Jeopardy! because people had to be bright."  

Trebek kept each episode of Jeopardy! moving in his trademark crisp, unflappable manner. He was at turns gently admonishing, impish or corny. Off air, he could be high-minded about the show's benefits for viewers, and he insisted it be known as a quiz show, not a game show.

He received a prestigious Peabody Award in 2012, was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2018 and received a star on the Walk of Fame in both Toronto and Hollywood.

"I wasn't exactly down on my luck or cast adrift in showbiz," Trebek once said, referring to his early career in broadcasting. "But there's no question about it: Jeopardy! has really made me visible to millions of more people than was the case before."

CBC's jack of all trades

George Alexander Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, the oldest of two children to a Ukraine emigré and his French-Canadian wife.

Trebek remembered his father, George, as a man who didn't let his lack of formal education and broken English hold him back, and said they had a close relationship.

His mother, Lucille, said that as a child, Trebek "kept very much to himself. He'd sit on the steps and watch the other children play."

Trebek was considered bright, but admitted he sometimes cut class as a teen. He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a philosophy degree in 1961, but by then he was already a year into his ultimate career path.

He had been accepted as a relief announcer at the CBC, reporting for work at the broadcaster's radio studios in Ottawa's Chateau Laurier Hotel. His national profile was soon elevated as host of the TV show Music Hop, CBC's contribution to a burgeoning genre aimed at teens.

In a 1963 review of Music Hop, a critic at the Ottawa Citizen opined that the cardigan-clad Trebek "seems able to keep things swinging but his natural presence comes through so any parent watching could come away feeling the future of the world isn't that bleak after all."

Entering the U.S. market

The bilingual Trebek eventually moved to Toronto, where the CBC offered him an array of hosting opportunities. The list included the radio shows Young Man's Fancy (a music-based series) and Outside/Inside (which focused on design and architecture), CBC Sports broadcasts for curling and the Commonwealth Games, as well as special events like Dominion Day and Miss Teen Canada.

Like most on-air personalities, he took his share of lumps in the press.

"Trebek's experience ranges from acting as host on Swan Lake to the horse races. His detractors tend to say that he is equally glib on them all," the Globe and Mail wrote in 1972.

I don't want to do this all my life. Hell, I don't even watch game shows.- Trebek, early 1970s

Trebek decided 1973 would be "the year of the hustle," and took time off from CBC for a trip to Hollywood for auditions. He had the inside track on the new game show The Wizard of Odds, created by friend and fellow Canadian Alan Thicke, then a fledgling actor/producer.

In a review, a U.S. critic marvelled that Trebek was the "first big-time quiz show host to wear his hair semi-long and bushy — and a mustache."

Trebek was grateful for the opportunity, but told a reporter at the time: "I don't want to do this all my life. Hell, I don't even watch game shows." 

Wizard of Odds lasted just one season, but Trebek remained in demand over the next decade on game shows like High Rollers, Double Dare, The $128,000 Question and Pitfall

"On two occasions, I replaced myself in the same time slot with a different show," he told CBC's Q radio show in 2008. 

Perfect casting, perfect timing

Trebek went through a rough patch at the beginning of the 1980s, when his father died and his first marriage, to Elaine Callei, ended. He admitted decades later that as a result, he overindulged in wine and fast food in a depression that lasted "about a year or so." 

Things brightened when television impresario Merv Griffin came calling for a reboot of an old quiz show called Jeopardy!

"It was perfect casting," said Griffin, who died in 2007. "He has a kind of professorial look about him, he's very much in command."

The new Jeopardy! retained the essence of the show's first run in the 1960s, but added a few tweaks — more lucrative clues and an entire answer would have to be read out before contestants could buzz in. This made it a more rhythmic, participatory experience for the TV viewer.

Jeopardy! was the No. 1 quiz show in the U.S. each and every week for well over a decade. It was soon part of of the cultural firmament, inspiring parody sketches on Saturday Night Live and This Hour Has 22 Minutes and serving as a plot device in the '80s sitcom Cheers and the motion picture Rain Man.

Mustache shocker

Trebek was the subject of occasional gossip in the 1980s in the pages of People magazine, which claimed he had been on dates with actress Stefanie Powers and gossip maven Rona Barrett.

He met his second wife, Jean Currivan, at a party. She was cognizant of their 26-year age difference, but later said, "there was something that just kept drawing me to him," particularly his sense of humour. The couple married in 1990 and within a few years had welcomed a son, Patrick, and a daughter, Emily.

"I think waiting a long time to have children for Alex was such a gift to his life," Currivan said. "I don't think he ever expected to be 50 years old and to have a newborn son."

Meanwhile, Jeopardy! rolled on. Trebek shocked viewers in 1997 when he impulsively shaved off his mustache. In the same year, he pulled an April Fools Day switcheroo with Pat Sajak, the host of another Griffin-created show, Wheel of Fortune.

The two shows formed a potent and contrasting one-two punch in syndication, regularly attracting over 30 million viewers at their peak. Over the years, Jeopardy! producers kept things fresh with special editions featuring students, seniors, celebrities and the tournament of champions of past winners.

Jeopardy! had to cede some of the quiz show spotlight to prime-time offerings such as Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link, which became popular at the turn of the century.

Trebek demurred at comparisons, pointing out that Jeopardy! was in syndication around the clock. He also poked fun at some of Millionaire's softball questions.

"We're comfortable, like an old pair of shoes, we don't come on with a splash," he told the New York Times.

Trebek took on other broadcast opportunities where possible, including other game shows, sports award telecasts, hosting the U.S. National Spelling Bee and even moderating a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate.

'I'm a pretty good quiz show host'

Away from the set, the Trebeks owned a thoroughbred ranch, and he was known as an enthusiastic home renovator and tinkerer. He donated his time to several charitable causes, including a decades-long association with World Vision.

Even into his 70s, Trebek still drove his pickup truck to the studio lot at dawn 46 times a year for the tapings, where the producers shot five episodes a day.

After a few hours spent familiarizing himself with clues and pronunciations and a production meeting, Trebek would transform, ditching the jeans and T-shirt for an elegantly tailored suit, usually Armani.

After some banter with the studio audience — the time in which Trebek put his full personality on display, according to Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings — show tapings began.

Like a pro athlete with an ironman streak, Trebek took pride in the fact that the production schedule never needed serious altering — even amid the health issues in his later years, including brain surgery for blood clots, a heart ailment, even an Achilles injury (which he incurred after chasing a would-be robber).

His only concession after his cancer diagnosis in 2019 was a wig.

Trebek published the memoir The Answer Is … Reflections on My Life earlier this year.

Trebek had once mused about running for office and trying his hand at acting, but thought better of it.

"I guess at some point you go beyond compromise and you just say, 'Hey, I'm a quiz show host. I'm a pretty good quiz show host. And I'm having a good time doing it!'"

2 views0 comments
bottom of page