Column: Ruta Lee remembers Alex Trebek, her ‘High Rollers’ cohost and ‘friend for life’
For many of us, Alex Trebek was a fixed point in an often unsteady universe. As arbiter of all knowledge on “Jeopardy!” he survived 35 years of cultural shifts and upheavals, the shattering of the television landscape and, until Sunday, Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. For all his sly and ready humor, he may be the last television figure who possessed the kind of authority that was once called gravitas.
But Ruta Lee remembers when Trebek was just another new kid in Hollywood, albeit one so handsome and charming that she was happy to take him under her wing.
They met in 1974 on the set of “High Rollers,” a then-new NBC game show in which contestants won prizes through a system of dice rolls and questions. Trebek, as host, asked the question; Lee, as cohost, rolled the dice.
“We clicked immediately,” Lee, 85, says. “I was Canadian-born, he was Canadian-born, and I just knew he would make a great addition to my coterie of Hollywood friends.”
Lee, who had played one of the brides in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and appeared in a long list of films (“Funny Face,” “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Sergeants 3") and television series (“Maverick,” “Perry Mason”), had a lot of Hollywood friends (and, it must be said, still does). “I introduced him to people like Phyllis Diller and Betty White, and he loved them and they loved him,” Lee recalls. (Trebek jokingly suggested White as his “Jeopardy!” replacement during a “Good Morning America” appearance in July.) “He and Betty were good friends to the end.”
As were Trebek and Lee; she had spoken with him the day before he died. “His voice had become softer, but he was the same. We talked about family, about his kids; he was very proud of how well they were doing.”
In remembrance of Alex Trebek, who died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer, here’s a roundup of some of the longtime “Jeopardy!” host’s best moments.
This has not been an easy year for most people, but for Lee it has been particularly hard. She lost her husband of 44 years, Webster “Webb” Lowe Jr., in July. “It has been a really s— year,” she says. “Let’s hope the next one is better.”
She can’t quite believe Trebek is gone; indeed, she refers to him exclusively in the present tense.
On “High Rollers,” their relationship was one of easy, occasionally teasing, friendship. When, during a July 4 episode, a set of lights descended too quickly and hit Lee in the head as she entered, Trebek remarked (after he had made sure she was all right), “They said do something a little different for the Fourth of July, but you’re taking it too literally.”
Off-screen, Lee says, Trebek was just the same.
“He was gracious and in his quiet way very loving, very supportive,” she says. “Two things in my life were the most fun: Being the leading lady of ‘Sergeants 3' with Frank Sinatra because I got to laugh and scratch with Frank and Dean [Martin], Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. And the other was going to work on ‘High Rollers’ with Alex. We would do five shows in a day — three, then a dinner break and then two. Usually wine was served with dinner so the last two were more fun. Imagine getting paid for that!”
“High Rollers” was shot in a studio right next to “The Tonight Show,” Lee says, “so I would find out who Johnny Carson’s guests would be — Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Lucille Ball, whoever — and I’d go grab them and ask them to come say hi to the ‘High Rollers’ audience. Sometimes we would get it on camera. Alex loved that.”
The last “Jeopardy!” episode hosted by Alex Trebek will air in December. Meanwhile, fans want to know who will replace him as speculation builds.
“High Rollers” ran from 1974 to 1976 and 1978 to 1980; Lee says she and Trebek were close from the beginning. “His beautiful first wife, Elaine, became my best friend. Then they divorced [in 1981] and when she met someone who made her happy, Alex walked her down the aisle at the wedding. And I thought, ‘Aren’t we the most sophisticated Hollywood group?’”
When Trebek met and married his second wife, Jean, in 1990, “Life became very beautiful for him,” Lee says. “Jean is an angel of a woman, and the two had the most wonderful life together.”
For many years, Lee has lived in the Hollywood Hills, “just down the street” from Trebek, she adds, and saw him at least once a month for dinner. “Alex has the best sense of humor, always has the most wonderful jokes.”
Indeed, the last time she saw Trebek was last month when she had dinner with him, Jean, Elaine and Elaine’s husband. “Just a fivesome,” she says, “and he was great. Which is why this seems so sudden.”
She never spoke with him about his illness because she thought “there was already so much pain, though I did talk to Jean about it.” Instead, Lee and Trebek’s conversations focused on friends, family and daily life.
“One thing many people probably don’t know about Alex is that he was an ‘I can do it’ man. ‘I can put the tiles on the roof, fix the leaking toilet or the fence around the property.’ And he could too. When a local hardware store was going out of business, he bought everything, so he owns every tool you could think of. If you needed a size 16 ½ whatever, Alex has it.”
He also managed, in his final months, to write a foreword to the autobiography Lee recently completed.
“He had tremendous loyalty,” she says. “If you were his friend, you were his friend for life. I’ve asked Alex to do a lot of things in life — I work with the Thalians and other charities — and he always did. I will always be grateful to my maker for putting Alex in my life.”
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