Alex Trebek, television’s consummate quizmaster and the host of Jeopardy! for 35 years, died Sunday morning at the age of 80 following a lengthy battle with cancer.
“Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends,” the show tweeted. “Thank you, Alex.”
Jeopardy! is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex. pic.twitter.com/Yk2a90CHIM
— Jeopardy! (@Jeopardy) November 8, 2020
Trebek revealed his pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March 2019. Despite the prognosis, Trebek vowed to continue working even as he fought the disease. “Truth told, I have to,” Trebek added, with a wink of humor. “Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years! So help me. Keep the faith and we’ll win. We’ll get it done.”
As the host of Jeopardy!, Trebek came to embody a wholly unique kind of intellectualism. He stood behind a lectern, sported a professorial mustache for years and projected a mix of wisdom and trustworthiness — a not-quite know-it-all who had all the answers in front of him, but could still get away with a sly quip if a contestant flubbed an easy one.
During his Jeopardy! tenure, Trebek won six Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Game Show Host, while the organization also honored him with a lifetime achievement award in 2011. In 2012, he accepted a Peabody on Jeopardy!’s behalf, and in 2014, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most game show episodes hosted by the same presenter (same program)” with a whopping 6,829 episodes. He has stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame, and in 2017 was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.
“Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did,” Ken Jennings, who won 75 games in a row and became a de facto ambassador for the show, wrote on Twitter. “He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him.”
Trebek’s cultural reach was vast. He appeared as himself in an array of television shows and movies, from Cheers and The X-Files to White Men Can’t Jump and RuPaul’s Drag Race. He even voiced a quiz-show host on episodes of celebrated kid’s shows Rugrats and Arthur. And of course, Will Ferrell played a famously beleaguered version of Trebek on Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” skits, enduring years of verbal abuse from dimwitted stars like Sean Connery and Burt Reynolds.
Alex Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, on July 22nd, 1940, and began working in broadcast television while still a college student in the early Sixties. For years, he was a jack-of-all-trades at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., covering news and sports, and even hosting the music program Music Hop. In 1966, he hosted his first game show, Reach for the Top, and landed his second, Strategy, in 1969.
Game shows remained Trebek’s forte as he found more work in Hollywood in the early Seventies. The first program he hosted on American television was The Wizard of Odds, with subsequent gigs on High Rollers and The $128,000 Question. Later, Trebek even served as a game-show contestant: In 1976, he appeared on Celebrity Bowling, sporting a shirt that read “Alex Trebek, What the Heck!” and in 1980, he beat a crowded field of game-show hosts in a special tournament edition of Card Sharks.
Even after Jeopardy! took off, Trebek worked at a remarkable clip. For a brief period in 1991, he became the first person to host three American game shows at the same time (Jeopardy!, Classic Concentration, and To Tell the Truth). He also hosted the Pillsbury Bake-Off for several years, served as a spokesman for Colonial Penn Life Insurance and, one April Fools’ Day, even hosted Wheel of Fortune with co-hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White as contestants. Arguably, Trebek’s least successful venture was the time he moderated a 2018 Pennsylvania governor’s debate, during which he monopolized the conversation, argued with one of the candidates, and even made an unprompted joke about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church (he later apologized).
A constant television presence for the better part of the past 40 years, Trebek remained an endearing fixture of American popular culture. Clips of him reading rap lyrics from clues or roasting unsuspecting contestants were viral manna, and the announcement of his cancer diagnosis was met with an outpouring of support from fans. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Trebek’s longevity is that, even after hosting countless episodes of Jeopardy! and its myriad offshoots, he never seemed to tire of the job.
“I have to work, but it’s work I enjoy and that still has challenges,” he told New York magazine in 2018. “I have at least two new players on each program and all new material that I’ve got to read properly. As I’ve gotten older I realize, as professional athletes do, that the difficult thing is not losing your physical skills. It’s losing your ability to concentrate. . . . We have a clue every 10, 12 seconds. I can’t dwell on the one I screwed up; I have to dwell on the next one.”
After his diagnosis, Trebek vowed to keep hosting Jeopardy! even as he began treatment (The show aired its 8,000th episode in October.) As he underwent chemotherapy, Trebek was always honest about his status and his state of mind. After proclaiming in May that his tumors had shrunk considerably and he was “near remission,” he revealed in September that his numbers had skyrocketed back to levels higher than his original diagnosis.
In an October interview with Canadian news network CTV, Trebek was blunt about where he stood, but also lucid and clear-eyed about the end of his life. “I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life,” he said. “I know that. I’m not gonna delude myself. So if it happens, it happens. And why should I be afraid of it?”