In a statement, a spokesperson for Jeopardy! said Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning (November 8th), surrounded by family and friends.”
Born in Sudbury, Ontario, on July 22nd, 1940, to chef George Edward Trebek and Lucille Lagacé, George Alexander “Alex” Trebek wore his Canadian heritage as a badge of honor, staying in the country throughout his formative years and receiving a degree in philosophy from the University of Ottawa.
Trebek’s aptitude for on-camera work was apparent early into his post-graduate career. In 1961, the year of his graduation, he began to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, headquartered in Ottawa. Trebek was a respected member of the CBC team, reading the news as well as delivering weather and sports reports, a good preview of his ability to focus on a variety of topics.
Despite how adept Trebek was as a reporter and announcer, his charisma proved so great that it couldn’t be relegated to the dryness of news media. From 1963 to 1964, he hosted Music Hop, Canada’s answer to American Bandstand. He saw his first long-term gameshow host gig as the MC of Reach for the Top, which had some of Canada’s smartest high schoolers competing against one another, from 1966 to 1973.
Plenty of other hosting opportunities came, on shows that have been lost to the sands of time, such as Double Dare (no, not that one), Jackpot, The Wizard of Odds, High Rollers, The $128,000 Question, Battlestars, and Pitfall, but it wasn’t until September 10th, 1984, that Trebek started the job that made him an indelible part of popular culture.
Jeopardy!, the Merv Griffin-created game show that had undergone several incarnations, all hosted by Art Fleming, was coming back as a five-days-a-week syndicated game show, and Trebek was the mustachioed man for the job.
Trebek’s pleasurable delivery of questions (or, in the case of Jeopardy!, answers) and wry wit helped make him one of the show’s greatest draws. Phrases like “I’ll take [X] for [Dollar amount], Alex” have entered the popular lexicon, recited by people who watch the show religiously and those who only know of it through cultural osmosis.
During his tenure on Jeopardy!, Trebek won six Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Game Show Host and was witness to some of the most important moments in the show’s history. In 2003, the show dissolved its previous rule of contestants being able to win a maximum of five games before being rotated out of regular season play. This paved the way for amazing runs by Jeopardy! legends like Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, and James Holzhauer. Trebek also presided over a special game between Jennings, Rutter, and IBM supercomputer Watson.
Trebek’s work ethic was also something to behold. In addition to shooting five episodes of Jeopardy! in a day, including special competitions like the “Teacher’s Tournament” and the “Tournament of Champions,” he popped up on other game shows. In 1991, he hosted three game shows at once: Jeopardy!, Classic Concentration, and To Tell the Truth. His hosting duties were in-demand for non-quiz show competitions, including a multi-year stint in the ‘90s as host of the Pillsbury Bake-Off on CBS. He even helmed an episode of Wheel of Fortune, trading roles with Pat Sajak for April Fools Day, 1997. In 2014, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Trebek for setting the record for most episodes hosted of a game show, breaking the previous record of retired The Price Is Right host Bob Barker.
Trebek was never afraid to poke fun at himself and Jeopardy!, delivering memorable appearances on comedy programs such as Cheers, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Conan. Arguably the most famous Trebek impersonation was on Saturday Night Live’s recurring Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch, where Will Ferrell played Trebek as a man oscillating between baffled and demoralized by the idiocy of responses given to sub-elementary-level clues from the likes of Burt Reynolds, Sean Connery, and others. The real-life Trebek professed an admiration for Ferrell’s portrayal and even made a cameo appearance during the sketch during Ferrell’s final episode of SNL.
Although he had experienced some health issues over the years, including a pair of heart attacks, one in 2007 and one in 2012, and a subdural hematoma stemming from a fall, the thought of a world without Trebek didn’t enter the cultural consciousness until March 6th, 2019, when he broke the news of his stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis. In the video announcement, he brought forth resolve and classic Trebek wit, saying that he would “fight this” and “keep working,” remarking that “under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”
True to his word, Trebek continued hosting the show that made him famous while receiving treatment for his illness. In that time, he also managed to publish an incredibly candid memoir called The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life, which revealed, among other things, that Trebek swears a lot, has a half-brother he didn’t know about until he was in his 40s, and even once overindulged in hash brownies. Another tidbit that surprised and delighted fans was the host’s unusual breakfast of choice: a Snickers and a diet Pepsi.
Trebek also remained incredibly open about his battle with cancer. In one profile with The New York Times, he spoke bluntly about the possibility of halting treatment altogether if a current course of treatment failed. “Yesterday morning my wife came to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ And I said, ‘I feel like I want to die.’ It was that bad,” he told The Times. “There comes a time where you have to make a decision as to whether you want to continue with such a low quality of life, or whether you want to just ease yourself into the next level. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”
Fortunately for Trebek and his millions of fans, working on Jeopardy! provided him the succor that treatment sometimes couldn’t. “Oddly enough, when we started taping, I suddenly started to regain my strength,” he explained. “It’s the strangest thing. It is some kind of an elixir.” That strength allowed Trebek to continue taping the show right up until his final days, his last day in the studio being October 29th. New episodes of Jeopardy! with him as the host will continue to air through Christmas day.
In his decades as a television fixture, Trebek could be seen with and without his famous mustache, his hair dark and curly as well as grayed and straight, sometimes with glasses, other times without. He could transition effortlessly from reading a clue that involved him reciting “The Real Slim Shady” lyrics to one about the biological process of fission. His presence in our homes and in our hearts is beyond measure. You don’t need to be a trivia fiend to know how to respond to this answer: This man’s record-breaking career as Jeopardy! host made him one of the most revered television icons of all time.
Alex Trebek is survived by his wife, Jean Currivan-Trebek, and two children, Matthew and Emily.