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Alex Trebek, ‘Jeopardy!’ host and trivia master, dies at 80

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In the dazzling constellation of television game shows — word puzzles, lifelines, briefcases filled with cash — the format for “Jeopardy!” was so stodgy, so relentlessly academic, that the show had been chucked onto the ash pile of failed network programming long before Alex Trebek arrived in Hollywood.

But with his quick wit, easy smile and my-favorite-professor demeanor, Trebek drove the game show back up the ratings charts and for decades remained a comfortable television host in the living rooms of America.

Trebek became such an institution that he was parodied by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live,” played himself on dozens of television shows and was used as a narrative device on television hits such as “Seinfeld.” Even his theme music became an instantly recognizable jingle that signaled, “Hurry up, time’s ticking.”

Never far from the studio where he ruled as TV’s master of trivia, Trebek died early Sunday at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

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The game show host had suffered a series of medical complications in recent years — a heart attack in 2007 and brain surgery for blood clots that formed after he hit his head in a fall in 2018. In early 2019 he revealed he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to beat the disease, joking that he still had three years left on his contract.

But there was an urgency in his voice as well. “So help me,” he said on a YouTube video announcing the diagnosis. “Keep the faith and we’ll win.”

Alex Trebek is happy being an uncle figure in your life, and he’s not afraid to describe cancer’s personal toll. He sits down to talk about his memoir, “The Answer Is ... Reflections on My Life.”

Late in the summer of 2019, Trebek — candid and open about his fears and the wrenching pain of chemotherapy — announced that he was back at work, shooting for the upcoming season. “I’m on the mend,” he said, “and that’s all I can hope for.”

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As the cancer ebbed and then roared back from remission, audiences, contestants and viewers seemed to form a nearly familial bond with Trebek, holding up signs of support during tapings, donating to cancer research in his name, lining up just to cheer as he entered the studio. One contestant, stumped by a question on Final Jeopardy, simply wrote, “What is, ‘We love you, Alex!’” on his answer board.

Trebek’s eyes welled up as he read the response aloud. “Thank you,” he said.

Born July 22, 1940, George Alexander Trebek grew up in Sudbury, Canada, in northern Ontario, where he dreamed of becoming a hockey player. Studious as a child, Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy and became a regional authority on the controversial separatist movement in Quebec while working as a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. His ability to speak French put him at an advantage over his colleagues.

And then, on nothing more than a whim, he tumbled into the world of television game shows.

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Telegenic and thoughtful, Trebek was put to work on regional shows including “Music Hop,” “Vacation Time,” “Outside/Inside” and the long-running Canadian quiz show “Reach for the Top.”

His material caught the attention of the daytime programming czar at NBC, who was in the process of cleaning out daytime personalities such as Dinah Shore and Art Fleming and any show that fell into the dreaded fiftysomething demographic. “Jeopardy!,” then hosted by Fleming, was among the casualties.

Trebek’s first assignment was to host “The Wizard of Odds,” a game that revolved around statistical questions. When that failed to gain traction, it was shelved and Trebek was asked to host “High Rollers,” a gambling-style game. The show was a quick hit and spawned an evening version, also hosted by Trebek.

But the life of a television game show is a fickle one — much like the fate of the contestants — and in yet another sudden housecleaning move, NBC canceled “High Rollers” as audiences moved on to more frenetic scream-fests such as “Family Feud,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show.” “High Rollers” was brought back briefly and then killed for good in 1980, in part to make room for a rising TV personality named David Letterman.

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In 1984, Merv Griffin decided to revive “Jeopardy!” and pair it with “Wheel of Fortune” in an early evening time slot. On the advice of Lucille Ball, Griffin asked Trebek to be the host. And on the advice of Griffin’s wife, the format of the show came with a twist — give the contestants the answer, and let them puzzle out the question. Some thought the idea sprang from the so-called quiz show scandals of the 1950s in which contestants were given answers or asked to throw the game.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you give them the answers?’ And he said, ‘Are you crazy? That’s what got us in trouble with the government,’ ” Trebek explained to NPR’s Rachel Martin in a 2016 interview.

“And then she said, ‘The answer is 5,280.’ He said, ‘How many feet are in a mile?’ That was the beginning of ‘Jeopardy!’”

Alex Trebek in Las Vegas in 2000, showing off the new 'Jeopardy!' slot machines.
Alex Trebek in Las Vegas in 2000, showing off the new “Jeopardy!” slot machines.
(Steve Marcus / Associated Press)
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As the quiz show rolled through the decades, surviving programming shifts and upstart challengers including “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” Trebek remained a comfortable fit with audiences — fatherly, dependable, the keeper of all questions. In a 2014 Reader’s Digest poll, Trebek ranked as the eighth-most trusted person in the United States, right behind Bill Gates and 51 spots above Oprah Winfrey.

At home, Trebek said, he preferred to watch the Lakers or hockey games rather than his own show. And on weekends he liked to drift through Home Depot, looking for whatever gadget or gizmo might be handy for a home improvement project. Sometimes he and his wife would retreat to their lake house in Paso Robles, Calif., to escape the crush of the city.

In front of the camera, Trebek at times seemed as though he’d stepped straight from “Masterpiece Theatre.” He never hugged guests, kept small talk to a minimum, announced categories with grave seriousness and let contestants know their fate with a curt “Correct” or “No.”

But during breaks, he would seemingly flip a switch and become bubbly, urging those in the audience to ask him questions.

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“When are you going to retire?” someone in the crowd called out when a Washington Post reporter was watching the taping in 2016.

“When am I going to retire? Jeez. I never liked you,” he joked.

“How do you prepare for every taping?” another person wondered.

“I drink,” he replied. “And I’m going to do that now.”

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Trebek said he enjoyed hosting the show because he liked being in the company of smart people, those fluid enough to pivot from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Tupac Shakur, from the fictional kingdom of Narnia to the Curse of the Billy Goat at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

It remained a puzzle whether Trebek was an intellectual himself, though he was bookish and sometimes surprised those who visited him in the dressing room, where he would suddenly start talking about ancient Alexandria or sketch out the solar system on a piece of paper while talking about a book he’d recently read on the history of the universe.

When fellow game show host Steve Harvey questioned whether Trebek was really as smart as viewers seemed to think he was, Trebek challenged Harvey to a trivia showdown. Harvey never brought the matter up again.

A lifelong insomniac, Trebek said he would often retreat to his den and read or work on crossword puzzles until the predawn hours, when sleep finally overtook him. He admitted that he was sometimes so sleep-deprived that he would nod off while stopped at a traffic light.

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“It’s a scary way to live,” he said.

In a typical workweek, Trebek would tape up to five shows every Tuesday and Wednesday, arriving at the studio around 9 a.m. and heading back to his Studio City home a little after 6 p.m.

The schedule allowed him to spend time with his children when they were young, and then to travel with his wife when they were grown.

When he arrived at the studio for work, Trebek would retreat to his dressing room and spend several hours reviewing the 300-plus questions that researchers came up with each taping day, testing himself along the way. On average, he said, he got 65% to 70% correct.

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The hundreds of thousands of clues uttered by Trebek on “Jeopardy!” over the years are cataloged on fan websites like museum pieces, a mountain of trivia that can’t possibly be scaled. As of this month, Albert Einstein had been the subject of 311 questions, the Beatles 578 and Jupiter or its moons 352. And perhaps only Trebek pondered each one.

“My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding, and I am nowhere near having achieved that,” Trebek said in a 2012 interview with The Times. “And it doesn’t bother me in the least. I will die without having come up with the answers to many things in life.”

Trebek is survived by his wife, Jean Currivan, and three children, Matthew, Emily and Nicky. The final episodes of “Jeopardy!” will air through Dec. 25. The show has not announced whether there are plans for a new host.

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