What Is The End Of An Era? 'Jeopardy!' Host Alex Trebek Dies At 80

Nov 8, 2020
Originally published on November 8, 2020 5:07 pm

In the category of "Beloved Trivia Game Show Hosts," there is one very clear answer: Who is Alex Trebek? For 36 years, Trebek quizzed Jeopardy! contestants on history, geography, hip-hop lyrics, "Potent Potables" and "Potpourri."

Trebek died in Los Angeles on Sunday morning at age 80. His death was confirmed by the Jeopardy! Twitter account: "Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex."

Trebek enjoyed the intelligence of Jeopardy! contestants. "I love spending time with bright people ... and Jeopardy! puts me in touch with bright folks all the time," he told NPR in 2016.

Trebek was born in Ontario, Canada — his father was a chef who'd immigrated to Canada from Ukraine. In the early 1960s, while studying philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Trebek worked as a news and sports announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Trebek hosted programs about music, skating and horse racing, as well as a high school quiz show called Reach for the Top. In 1973, he moved to LA to host NBC's new game show, The Wizard of Odds. Trebek went on to host a string of shows in the 1970s, '80s, '90s and beyond, including The $128,000 Question, Double Dare, Battlestars, To Tell the Truth and High Rollers.

Jeopardy! was a hybrid trivia quiz and IQ test created in 1964 by TV host Merv Griffin and his wife, Julann. It was designed to restore credibility to the TV game show genre, which had fallen into disrepute following the cheating scandals of the 1950s. Twenty years after it began, Trebek became the host of Jeopardy! when it was syndicated. For his first three seasons, Trebek was also the show's producer.

"Most of the time, our contestants are not there for the money on Jeopardy!," he told NPR's Fresh Air in 1987. "They are there to show off their intellectual skills. They are there to have their moment in the sun and be television stars for that half-hour."

In 2016, he told NPR that he liked chatting with contestants to get a sense of their personalities. "Some of them — for want of a better term — are nerds, but most of them are just bright people," Trebek said on Weekend Edition. "What I'm trying to do is get across to the viewers that these are ordinary folks — you're going to like them."

Trebek said he hated to see contestants lose for forgetting to phrase their answers as questions. "I'm there to see that the contestants do as well as they can within the context of the rules," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1987. Above, Trebek poses on the set in April 2010.
Amanda Edwards / Getty Images

Jeopardy! champ James Holzhauer once compared Trebek's credibility to newsman Walter Cronkite's. But the host also sometimes poked fun at himself and wore goofy costumes. Trebek voiced himself in the animated series The Simpsons, and comic actor Will Ferrell parodied him on Saturday Night Live.

When asked why Jeopardy! survived while countless other game shows had come and gone, Trebek credited the "the gimmick" of the question-and-answer format. But it was more than that: "Americans are very competitive, and people play along at home just to test themselves," he said.

Trebek knew those fans playing along at home often got all the answers. They'd say, " 'Gosh, I sit at home in my living room and I get everything right,' " Trebek said — and he acknowledged it was true. "Most people do a lot better in their living rooms than they will ever do on the program."

In March 2019, Trebek delivered some bad news directly to fans. "Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer," he announced in an online video. "Normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this. ... Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years."

Trebek vowed to continue working, and he did, through bouts of chemotherapy.

In November 2019, one contestant expressed what many Jeopardy! fans were feeling: For his "Final Jeopardy!" answer, Dhruv Gaur wagered $1,995 on his answer: "What is We ❤ you, Alex!"

Ted Robbins edited this story. Beth Novey contributed to the Web version.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

TV's Alex Trebek, who hosted the game show "Jeopardy!" since 1984, has died at the age of 80. In March of 2019, he announced he'd been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports that while Trebek emceed some serious contests, he didn't always take himself seriously. We think he might have been amused by this remembrance of a beloved TV host.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The category is famous Canadian television personalities. For decades, he had all the answers. Who was Alex Trebek? He answered that question on NPR in 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALEX TREBEK: He's the avuncular host of a popular quiz show who has been around, it seems forever.

DEL BARCO: On "Jeopardy!", contestants came up with questions based on clues. Trebek quizzed them on trivia about everything from history and geography to hip-hop lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

TREBEK: Buy a chopper and have a doctor on speed dial, I guess, M.A.A.D. city. Julia (ph).

JULIA: Who is Kendrick Lamar?

TREBEK: Right.

DEL BARCO: In 2016, Trebek talked with NPR about hosting the show for so many years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TREBEK: I love spending time with bright people. I don't like spending time with stupid people. And "Jeopardy!" puts me in touch with bright folks all the time.

DEL BARCO: Alex Trebek was born in Ontario, Canada, the son of a Ukrainian chef. In the early 1960s while studying philosophy at the University of Ottawa, he worked as a news and sports announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He hosted programs about music, skating and horse racing in a high school quiz show called "Reach For The Top." Then, in 1973, he moved to LA to host a new TV game show for NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIZARD OF ODDS")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: You could win up to $10,000 in cash and merchandise playing "The Wizard Of Odds." And now, here's the wily wizard himself, Alex Trebek.

DEL BARCO: After that, Trebek hosted a string of game shows in the 1970s, '80s and '90s and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE $128,000 QUESTION")

TREBEK: "The $128,000 Question."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOUBLE DARE")

TREBEK: "Double Dare."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATTLESTARS")

TREBEK: "Battlestars."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

TREBEK: "To Tell The Truth."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HIGH ROLLERS")

TREBEK: "High Rollers."

DEL BARCO: In 1964, TV host Merv Griffin and his wife Julann came up with "Jeopardy!". It was a hybrid trivia quiz and IQ test meant to restore credibility to the genre that had fallen into disrepute in the 1950s following cheating scandals. Twenty years after it began, Alex Trebek became the host of "Jeopardy!". He told NPR's Fresh Air in 1987 that for the first three seasons, he was also the show's producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TREBEK: Most of the time, our contestants are not there for the money on "Jeopardy!". They are there to show off their intellectual skills. They're there to have their moment in the sun and be television stars for that half-hour.

DEL BARCO: "Jeopardy!" champ James Holzhauer once compared Trebek's credibility to newsman Walter Cronkite's. But the host also sometimes poked fun of himself and wore goofy costumes. Trebek played himself in "The Simpsons" and was parodied on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WILL FERRELL: (As Alex Trebek) Of Simon and Garfunkel, the one that is not Garfunkel.

TREBEK: Trebek even once joined his imitator, Will Ferrell, on "SNL."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

TREBEK: And so this was the Final Jeopardy.

(CHEERING)

TREBEK: In a more sobering moment, Trebek delivered his own bad news directly to fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TREBEK: Just like 50,000 other people in the United States each year, this week, I was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

DEL BARCO: In an online video, Trebek vowed to continue working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TREBEK: Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this.

DEL BARCO: Trebek even joked that he had to beat the disease because he had three more years left in his "Jeopardy!" contract. In the category of beloved game show hosts who fans will miss, the answer is, who is Alex Trebek? Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.