How do you talk to a man about the fact that he’s going to die?
Alex Trebek was on the line from his home in Los Angeles the other morning, and he seemed in an upbeat mood, relatively speaking. Of course, everything is relative these days, perhaps especially so for Mr. Trebek, whose announcement in March, 2019, that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer thrust him into an uncomfortable spotlight.
How is he feeling?
“I’m – .” He paused. “I’m hangin’ in.” Then he added: “Today is a good day.”
It was not yet 9 a.m., and he’d already brought in the empty garbage bins from the curb – eight in all, five of which are dedicated to garden waste, because the Trebek homestead is sizable and lush with foliage that always seems to need taming. That’s been about the pace of things since production on Jeopardy!, the popular evening quiz show Mr. Trebek has hosted since 1984, shut down in the middle of March because of COVID-19. “I’m pretty much quarantined, if you will, because of my age, because of my health situation,” he explained. “I don’t want to take a chance on the coronavirus having its shot at me. Because the odds of my getting through it are not very good, based on the statistics out there.”
For more than three and a half decades, Jeopardy! has been a touchstone for millions, lighting the passage through the years: from childhood visits with grandparents, where the show always seemed to be on, to a misspent youth in college common rooms, to its role as a sometime dinnertime companion in a dim starter apartment. The show’s sheer durability and cross-generational appeal made Mr. Trebek, a Sudbury native possessed of a blandly chameleonic charm, an American celebrity. And if some viewers had dropped the habit over the years, the show’s continued existence was reassurance enough. Certainly, it would always be there, like the childhood bedroom back home that still holds their keepsakes.
Then came Mr. Trebek’s bombshell and an outpouring of love from fans. And when COVID-19 hit, we recognized in his situation an acute version of our own: confronted suddenly with the unexpected prospect of our mortality, or of those we love and had taken for granted. And so here we are now, prompted by the illness of a man who hosts a TV show venerating trivia to consider some of life’s most profound questions. Strange days.
Even stranger, Mr. Trebek is throwing aside a lifelong, cultivated caution to reveal for the first time his political beliefs. In blunt terms during this telephone interview, he risks the public goodwill he has accrued over decades to raise an alarm about his adopted country and, especially, its current President.
If he’d had his druthers, Mr. Trebek may not have begun talking at all. He had turned down numerous requests over the years to write his memoirs, even after his diagnosis. But early this year, Simon & Schuster told him it had heard another publisher was intending to put out an unauthorized biography on July 21, the day before his 80th birthday, titled Who Is Alex Trebek? Perhaps, Simon & Schuster suggested, it might be a good idea for him to write his own.
When Mr. Trebek was diagnosed last year, he went public with a video announcement to pre-empt the tabloids from publishing what he called “overblown or inaccurate reports regarding my health.” Now, he was facing similar pressure, and the clock was ticking.
“It was kind of a rush job,” Mr. Trebek conceded over the phone, speaking of the process that led to the publication of his own memoirs, The Answer Is... (Reflections on My Life) on the same day as the unauthorized version. What was he afraid might be uncovered by the other author? “This will sound Canadian,” he began. “I can’t think of anything they’re going to dig up that hasn’t already been dug up. I mean, I haven’t led a wild and exciting life. They’re not going to discover anything that’s sensational.”
It’s true, The Answer Is... doesn’t contain much in the way of scandal. But then, you can only work with the material you’ve got. What juice do you expect to hear about a man who delights in telling studio audiences that his favourite beverage is low-fat milk and, if he’s feeling frisky, he may have a single glass of California Chardonnay?
The book, he writes, is intended as “an aperçu of Alex Trebek, human being. What is he like? What has he done? How did he screw up? Things like that.” It is flecked with humility and what feels like Canadian self-effacement. (Indeed, though he mentions he made a donation to his alma mater, the University of Ottawa – its Alumni Hall is named after him – it takes digging through news reports to discover he gave the institution nearly $10-million.)
The Answer Is... begins in Sudbury, with the arrival in the late 1930s of George Edward Terebeychuk, a hard-working, hard-drinking Ukrainian immigrant who married Lucille Lagace, a local French-Canadian woman. Their son, George Alexander Trebek, was born July 22, 1940, about seven months after their wedding. Two years later, the couple had a daughter, Barbara. By the time Alex was in his teens, the couple had separated.
Alex bumped around at school, unsure of his life’s direction. At the University of Ottawa, he majored in philosophy because the morning classes enabled him to work the rest of the day to earn his tuition and living costs. Soon, that work included shifts as a radio announcer at CBC Ottawa, where he was prized for his polished delivery and bilingual skills. After graduation, the CBC transferred him to Toronto, where, as one of the youngest on staff, he was tapped to host a weekly afternoon TV variety program called Music Hop. (A March, 1964, column in the Toronto Star, not mentioned in the book, praises his smooth delivery and notes that producers were getting 500 requests a week for photos of the show’s regulars, including Mr. Trebek.) He was insatiable, adding other TV and radio gigs atop one another, including the high-school quiz show Reach For the Top, which he hosted for a number of years. In 1973, L.A. came calling.
After moving to the United States, Mr. Trebek hosted a succession of shows, including Wizard of Odds, High Rollers, The $128,000 Question and Battlestars, most of which are now remembered for their awesome ’70s set design and wardrobe. (One of the pleasures of The Answer Is..., which features dozens of photographs, is tracking the evolution of Mr. Trebek’s moustache and bushy ‘do.) In September, 1984, Jeopardy! hit the air. Mr. Trebek writes that he insisted on being introduced as the host, rather than the star, since he believes the contestants are the stars of the show; it is his job to help them perform at their best.
In The Answer Is..., Mr. Trebek offers glimpses behind the scenes of those early years and of some of the show’s most successful contestants, such as Ken Jennings, who won 74 straight games. (Mr. Jennings was recruited to help narrate the audiobook of The Answer Is..., since Mr. Trebek was concerned his voice would give out.)
And he writes movingly about other noteworthy contestants, such as Eddie Timanus, the show’s first blind contestant, who won five games and “became an inspiration to all.” But, perhaps not surprisingly, considering the backdrop against which it was written, the book is also studded with loss. Mr. Trebek writes of Cindy Stowell, a contestant who, in 2016, won six games despite extraordinary pain from Stage 4 colon cancer; she died at the age of 41, before her shows aired.
Mr. Trebek’s own father died of cancer a few years before Jeopardy! began (his sister died of cancer in 2007), and as he reminisced about his dad over the phone, he began to choke up. He took a moment to collect himself, then explained: “I get more emotional these days because of the chemo and the immunotherapy I’m on.” He said the doctors have told him they’ve noticed patients with pancreatic cancer sometimes are more likely to become emotional than others. “Some days are good. Some days, it doesn’t take much to set me off.”
In The Answer Is... Mr. Trebek writes that, “the longer I’ve lived with the cancer, the more my definition of toughness has changed. I used to think not crying meant you were tough. Now I think crying means you’re tough.” Over the phone, he explained: “I suppose [crying] unleashes more of your personality. If you go through life saying, ‘I’m never going to shed a tear – grown men don’t cry’ – you are restricting one aspect of your being. You are withholding that from the public. From your friends. From your acquaintances.”
This is a profound social shift from the thinking that used to predominate, Mr. Trebek added. But then, he said with a gruff laugh, “there are a lot of things that used to be that we are discovering in this day and age are no longer valid.”
He elaborated, to ensure the point was not lost. “We’re going through troubled times. The United States has never been very good at looking at itself in a negative way. We’ve just kind of ignored all the negative things we’ve done throughout our history – going back to when we first set foot on these shores.”
“I’ve never understood that, coming from Canada. What’s wrong with acknowledging that you did some bad things? As long as you’re not continuing to do bad things now? I can’t be responsible for what my ancestors 250 years ago did. But I can sure as hell be responsible for what I’m doing now, to help society or to hinder society.”
Mr. Trebek himself hasn’t always responded as magnanimously when critics have pointed out Jeopardy!‘s own failings. In 1995, Maya Angelou told the PBS interviewer David Frost that, despite her own work sometimes being featured on the show, she couldn’t recall when she had last seen a Black contestant. It rankled Mr. Trebek. “I said to Maya, we’ve advertised in Black newspapers, in Black magazines, and [Black] people don’t come out to take the [qualification] test. Now, that has changed quite a bit over the years, because as I’m sure you’ve noticed we have a lot of Black contestants, and they’ve done extremely well.”
Mr. Trebek also warns in the book of the dangers of climate change, noting that, having grown up in the polluted moonscape that was Northern Ontario near Sudbury, he speaks from experience.
These should be uncontroversial statements, but in the current political climate they represent an extraordinary break from Mr. Trebek’s lifelong practice of staying above the fray. America’s tendency, as he sees it, to react after a disaster has hit, rather than to prevent one in the first place, “has always disappointed me,” he writes, pointing directly to the coronavirus pandemic.
And now the galling behaviour of the current U.S. President has pushed him over the edge. Mr. Trebek has spent decades, after all, celebrating the pursuit of knowledge. He is distressed by Donald Trump’s disdain for facts, for objective truth.
“I don’t want to pile on by saying, ‘the lies,’ but they’ve been well documented,” Mr. Trebek said. “And yet there are people out there – and I don’t understand this – who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve never heard him tell a lie.’ ”
“He is so extreme in so many ways,” he added.
Mr. Trebek acknowledged he is concerned about speaking up: “I’ve been told to be careful.”
Still, he explained, some years ago Reader’s Digest conducted a poll of the 100 Most Trusted People in America. “Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, I think, were at the top of the list. Bill Gates was number seven. Melinda Gates was number nine. I came in at number eight.”
If he can use that influence to open people’s minds, he believes it would be capital well spent. “I’m apolitical, really. I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican. I hope people will understand that I’m coming from a position of love for America, not a position of, ‘Let’s beat the crap out of Donald Trump.’ We can all do that if we want to. He has given us so many opportunities. But if you approach them in an intelligent manner and let them make up their own mind, I think that goes a long way toward keeping them from being alienated.
“I want you to look at him carefully, that’s all.”
Mr. Trebek writes that being in the public eye places “some responsibility on me that I feel I’m not deserving of.” And so, in the final stretches of The Answer Is..., he is bracingly forthright about his own medical setbacks: the pain of the cancer, the disorienting effects of the treatment. He tells other cancer patients that no one should judge them if they decide to stop treatment. “Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for dying,” he writes.
He also, toward the end, takes a moment to celebrate the core of his life’s work: the acquisition of knowledge. “I have a standard motto, and it’s very short: ‘A good education and a kind heart will serve you well throughout your entire life.’ The more you know, the more knowledge you acquire, the better off you are in dealing with other people – the more you develop an understanding for other people.”
If all goes according to plan, Mr. Trebek should be back in the Jeopardy! offices soon, perhaps as early as next week. Producers have been working with authorities to develop protocols for shooting shows safely: Contestants will be physically distanced from each other, and there will be no live audiences. Even with the risk of catching the virus, Mr. Trebek said he can’t wait to return.
“There’s an interesting factor that applies to people like me: If you’re not taping shows, they’re not paying you,” he said with a laugh. “I miss the excitement of it all. And, as opposed to my situation now, it gives you something to do. It’s a routine.”
In the meantime, he is keeping himself busy with other tasks, including, as the euphemism goes, getting his affairs in order. In The Answer Is... he writes that he recently sat down with his wife and two children to tell them that he had made a final decision regarding his cancer. “I’m going to stick with this current protocol, then that’s it. If it doesn’t work, I’ll probably stop treatment. It wasn’t an easy conversation, and it isn’t any easier writing these words.”
The phone conversation turned to Mr. Trebek’s love of literature. (He and his wife, Jean, have travelled frequently to Haworth, England, the birthplace of the Bronte sisters, most recently last fall, in what reads in his memoirs like a final pilgrimage.) Mr. Trebek’s favourite novel is The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 tale about a man who drops out of society and travels the world, seeking knowledge and enlightenment.
“It’s about a young man, searching for truth, searching for God, searching for – whatever, a reason for living,” Mr. Trebek explained. “I went through that, and in many ways I’m still going through that. It’s always struck a very receptive chord in me.”
In fact, he is actually rereading the book now. “I don’t sleep well,” he said. He was up during the night, from 2:30 until a little before 5 a.m., and he spent the time putting a few more chapters behind him. “I’m having a good time. I’m familiar with the story.” He chuckled. “I know where it’s going. I know how it’s going to end!”
If you read the novel now, it is hard to not hear echoes of Mr. Trebek. At one point, the protagonist, Larry, is visited in Paris by his resentful fiancée, Isabel, who tries to persuade him to give up his sophomoric pursuits and return with her to America. He explains that he has been attending lectures at the Sorbonne, and has been learning French, Latin and Greek.
What, Isabel asks Larry, does he hope to achieve with all of his studying?
“The acquisition of knowledge,” he smiled.
"It doesn't sound very practical."
“Perhaps it isn’t and on the other hand perhaps it is. But it’s enormous fun. You can’t imagine what a thrill it is to read the Odyssey in the original. It makes you feel as if you only had to get on tiptoe and stretch out your hands to touch the stars.”
The answer is ... as told to Simon Houpt
TREBEK ON FEMALE CONTESTANTS
“In the beginning, we always had two male contestants and one woman. Now, we get more women than men. Because women discovered, ‘Hey! I’m just as bright as these clowns I’m watching right now!’ The only area in which women traditionally have not fared as well is in wagering. I used to joke that they behave as if they’re wagering the household money, and if they lose it, they won’t be able to buy groceries for the family. They’re more cautious. But in terms of knowledge, as I point out in the book, I stopped underestimating women when I was about 15 years old.”
TREBEK ON PHILANTHROPY
“I just don’t want to sound as if I’m bragging or whatever. I’ve donated to a lot of other charities over the years. I’m sitting here at my desk right now with a cheque for $750,000 made out to World Vision, to help that girls’ school in northern Kenya, to save them from female circumcision and being married off at the age of 13 or 14. You know, if I were to start enumerating all of the things we’ve donated to, I worry it would just sound immodest. It’s enough to say, ‘We support this charity or that charity.’ If people want to find out how much, they can do some research. But I don’t think it’s that important. Suffice it to know that we try to give back ... in hopes that it will be an inspiration to other people.”
TREBEK ON THE ADORATION OF HIS FANS
“So many of us in showbiz never get a complete reaction from the audience about where we stand with them. And because of the announcement [about my cancer diagnosis], there was this outpouring of sympathy and prayers and advice, and I had never realized how much of a factor I am in the lives of many Canadians and Americans. It’s been an eye-opening experience and very humbling to suddenly realize, Gosh, these people are really taking it to heart.”
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