Who Was Alex Trebek?
In the mid-1960s, Alex Trebek became the host of the Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top. His first American television gig was as host of the short-lived 1973 game show The Wizard of Odds. In 1984, he began his longtime hosting role of a revived version of the trivia show Jeopardy! In 2019, he revealed that he's battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer and passed away from the disease in November 2020.
Early Life and Career
Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Canada, a large city in northern Ontario. His mother, Lucille Trebek, was a French-Canadian woman with some First Nations ancestry, and his father, George Trebek, was a Ukrainian immigrant who worked as a chef at a local hotel. "My dad drank pretty heavily, and he never missed a day of work in his life," Trebek recalls. Trebek describes his father as a hoarder of knickknacks that had a way of proving useful years later. "His basic philosophy was don't throw out something because someday it'll come in handy," he says about his father.
A bright and curious child from a very young age, Trebek attended Jesuit schools until the age of 12, when he decided to leave Sudbury to attend the University of Ottawa High School in the Canadian capital. "Sudbury is a more distant memory," he now admits, "because I was born there and raised there, but I left to go away to boarding school."
After graduating from high school in 1957, Trebek continued on to the University of Ottawa to study philosophy. Upon graduation in 1961, Trebek decided to ditch philosophy and pursue a career in journalism. He landed his first job as a fill-in reporter and newscaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC TV. Although he quickly earned a reputation for his cool on-screen demeanor, in 1966 he decided to shift his focus from journalism to the more lucrative field of hosting game shows. He became the host of the Canadian quiz show Reach for the Top, which pitted teams of high school students against each other in academic competitions. In 1970, Trebek graduated to hosting the more prominent, nationally televised Canadian game show Jackpot.
In 1973, Trebek decided to leave his native country in favor of the place where the biggest television stars are made: Hollywood. His first American television gig was as host of the short-lived 1973 game show The Wizard of Odds. The show only lasted one season; in 1974 Trebek signed on to host its replacement, another game show called High Rollers. Trebek hosted the show through a pair of two-year runs on NBC, from 1974-76 and again from 1978-80. At the same time, he also expanded his repertoire to host other game shows such as The $128,000 Question (1977-78) and Pitfall (1981-82), which aired in both the United States and Canada.
In 1984, ABC tapped Trebek to host a game show by the famous creator of Wheel of Fortune, Merv Griffin. The show was a revival of a popular trivia competition called Jeopardy!, which aired from 1964 to 1975 in its first incarnation. Jeopardy! employed a unique format in which clues were offered in the form of answers and contestants answered in the form of questions. Trebek's version of Jeopardy! quickly became one of the most popular game shows in television history, and as its charismatic and unflappable host, Trebek became a pop culture icon, winning multiple Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Game Show Host over more than three decades on air.
Another measure of the host's iconic status in pop culture is the ubiquity of Trebek parodies — Will Ferrell played a crazed Trebek on Saturday Night Live, Eugene Levy played "Alex Trebel" on Half Wits, and Family Guy, The Simpsons, and The X-Files have all included Trebek-parodying storylines. The good-spirited Trebek thinks the parodies are hilarious, and especially liked Levy's take. "I thought Eugene captured the private horror a game show host experiences trying to keep things moving on a day where everything is going wrong," he says.
After more than 30 years hosting Jeopardy!, Trebek remained as fresh, motivated and humble as ever. Asked in an interview how he managed such a remarkable balance between professional success and personal modesty, Trebek responded, "Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously."
He also answered a question that was burning in audiences' minds ever since Trebek first began reminding contestants to state their answer in the form of a question back in 1984. How would he do as a contestant himself? Trebek answered, "I would do fairly well among senior citizens, but against a good 30-year-old I would have trouble because I cannot recall information as quickly as I used to. You used to say something and I would go, boom, right away, very sharp. Now it's like, Oh, yes, but wait a minute, uh, uh...."
During a July 2018 interview, Trebek suggested that the end of the line was approaching when he revealed that the chances of him returning to host Jeopardy! after the end of his contract in 2020 were "50/50 and a little less." He also named two possible replacements: Los Angeles Kings play-by-play announcer Alex Faust and radio host, author and legal professor Laura Coates.
Health Problems and Cancer Diagnosis
After hitting his head in a bad fall in October 2017, Trebek was diagnosed with subdural hematoma in December. He underwent surgery the following day, prompting the need to go on hiatus from his hosting duties, but Trebek soon made sure to reassure fans via a video posted to the game show's website: "After two days in the hospital, I came home to start recovery," he said. "The prognosis is excellent, and I expect to be back in the studio taping more 'Jeopardy!' programs very, very soon!"
In March 2019, Trebek dropped a bombshell with the announcement that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Delivering the news in a video posted to YouTube, the TV mainstay said he planned to finish out the season of Jeopardy! "Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this, and I’m going to keep working," he vowed.
A few months later, Trebek revealed that he was in near remission. "It's kind of mind-boggling," he told People for its June 10, 2019, cover story. "The doctors said they hadn't seen this kind of positive result in their memory … some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent." When asked why he felt he was responding so well to chemotherapy, the host credited the "positive energy" relayed by numerous well-wishers.
In mid-September, Trebek revealed on Good Morning America that he was undergoing another round of chemotherapy. The following March, he again took to social media to commemorate his reaching the one-year anniversary of his diagnosis.
'The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life'
In July 2020, Trebek released his memoir, The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life. "I started recollecting things that I had not given any thought to in many, many years," Trebek told NPR. "And it felt good. It was a way of reviewing my entire life, and that just brought me a great deal of satisfaction."
After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, Trebek passed away "peacefully" at his home on November 8, 2020, surrounded by his family and friends.
Trebek married Elaine Callei in 1974, and they remained married for seven years before divorcing in 1981. In 1990, he wed for a second time, to Jean Currivan, and they have two children, Emily and Matthew.
Trebek was an active volunteer and spokesman for organizations such as World Vision and Smile Train, which help improve the lives of impoverished children around the world. He participated in 13 USO tours visiting American troops overseas, and in 1998 was awarded the prestigious Bob Hope Entertainment Award.
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