On Aug. 14, 1984, a mustachioed Canadian with a demeanour somewhat less fizzy than normal for a game-show host stepped in front of television cameras and read this answer: “These rodents first got to America by stowing away on ships.” The correct response, which was worth $100, was “What are rats?”
The host, Alex Trebek, would go on to read hundreds of thousands of answers and set a world record for the length of his tenure hosting the world’s most beloved television trivia show, Jeopardy!, which has just begun its 37th season.
More than nine million viewers tuned in each night, perhaps shouting at their television sets, as Mr. Trebek calmly read the clues to three contestants poised over their buzzers. None of the contestants could buzz in until Mr. Trebek had finished reading each clue, a sign of his sway over the game. In the early days, before the show and its host became pop-culture sensations, contestants might win “delicious low-calorie meat” from Mr. Turkey, or Tinactin Antifungal Cream.
Mr. Trebek would quiz participants about a range of facts, from world capitals to literary history to the ingredients in a sidecar, each clue taking an average of 12 seconds to read. Almost always he maintained a serious, wry approach to his job, except when he didn’t – rapping the clues to a hip-hop category, for example, or appearing at the beginning of a Tournament of Champions episode wearing no pants.
As the Washington Post’s Dan Zak wrote in 2012, “He creates, on a sound stage, a safe Trebekian world where everyone is competitive but kind, where the only politics is a category of honest-to-goodness facts, where we pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge, where he keeps America off thin ice, at least for 30 minutes every weekday night.”
Mr. Trebek’s Zen-like calm and faintly amused detachment (the result of “heavy drugs,” he joked to one interviewer) made him a pop-culture favourite. On Saturday Night Live and SCTV, Will Ferrell and Eugene Levy offered comic portrayals of Mr. Trebek as a tightly wound taskmaster brought to the edge of desperation by idiotic contestants. Mr. Trebek enjoyed both parodies, but preferred being impersonated by his fellow Canadian, Mr. Levy: “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 and you just have to smile past disaster.”
As Jeopardy! became a pop-culture phenomenon, Mr. Trebek was always its public face, whether he was making cameos on The X-Files and The Simpsons, picking up numerous Daytime Emmy Awards for best game-show host, or accepting a Peabody Award in 2011 for Jeopardy!’s role in “encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge.”
The idea that his show was an oasis of learning and a safe space for facts in an increasingly polarized landscape was particularly important to Mr. Trebek. “Even if you are learning facts that you are not going to be able to use in your daily life, it enriches you,” he wrote in his memoir The Answer Is…: Reflections on My Life, published in July. “The fact itself just enriches you as a human being and broadens your outlook on life and makes you a more understanding and better person.”
In March, 2019, at the age of 78, Mr. Trebek announced he was suffering from Stage IV pancreatic cancer. “I’m going to fight this,” he announced in a videotaped statement on the game show’s set in Los Angeles. “With the love and support of my family and friends, and with your prayers also, I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease.” And then he added, with the dry humour his fans had come to love and expect: “Truth be told, I have to. Because under the terms of my contract, I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years.”
Mr. Trebek died on Sunday at the age of 80.
George Alexander Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ont., on July 22, 1940, the son of George, a Ukrainian immigrant, and Lucille Lagacé, his francophone mother. Mr. Trebek had what he described as an “idyllic childhood” in a town famous for nickel mining. He spent his free time watching molten ore being poured on slag heaps, or throwing snowballs at girls, which resulted in being “whacked by the nuns” who taught at his Catholic primary school. Mr. Trebek, known to family and friends as “Sonny,” credited his work ethic to an early part-time job as a bellhop in the hotel where his father was a chef – a big tip was a quarter, although more often he got a dime.
Mr. Trebek’s parents divorced when he was still in school; after Mr. Trebek made his fortune in California, Ms. Lagacé moved in with him. In the 1980s, Mr. Trebek discovered he had a half-brother – his mother had had a son after she left his father. “Because of the way things happened, I had a kind of a resentment for my mother,” he wrote in his memoir. “But we settled all that."
At the age of 12, he left for Ottawa to study at a Catholic prep school run by the Oblates of St. Mary. The school was located on the campus of the University of Ottawa, so it was not far to travel when he enrolled in the university and began studying for a degree in philosophy. (In between these two educational periods, Mr. Trebek was briefly enrolled as a cadet with the Canadian air force, a position he abandoned when he was asked to chop off his luxuriant pompadour.)
While still at university, Mr. Trebek began working for the CBC, reading news and weather reports from the Ottawa studio on the top floor of the Château Laurier hotel. Because he was bilingual – and perhaps also because he had the kind of sonorous voice that broadcasting loves – Mr. Trebek secured plum on-air jobs, and went to work for CBC full-time after he graduated from university in 1961. Two years later, he was hosting the teen dance show Music Hop, and the CBC’s publicity department was introducing the country to its new talent: “Behind the fresh-faced verve and breezy identification with youth, there’s a solid citizen.”
Mr. Trebek hosted sports and cultural events, but it was in 1966 that he found his calling, with a set of note cards in hand and a group of nervous contestants in front of him. The show was Reach for the Top, and it required Mr. Trebek to lob general knowledge questions (“in which country would you find a wombat?”) at teams of Canadian high-school students.
This, it turned out, was a marketable skill. In 1973, Mr. Trebek’s friend Alan Thicke asked him to come to the United States to audition for the job of host on a game show called The Wizard of Odds. The show was short-lived and not particularly memorable – years later, on Jeopardy!, Mr. Trebek misremembered it as The Wizard of Oz – but the Canadian expatriate had found a new home and a new vocation.
Mr. Trebek had flirted with other game shows, and Jeopardy! had had a previous host when it aired from 1964 to 1974, but in 1984 the new host met the freshly rebooted show and magic struck. Producer Merv Griffin and his wife, Julann, had developed the idea for Jeopardy! on an airplane, when she suggested, “What about a quiz show in reverse?” (Mr. Griffin also wrote, and made a fortune from, the show’s famous theme tune.)
“I had no sense that Jeopardy! would last,” Mr. Trebek told The Globe and Mail in 2006. Trivia-mad TV fans proved him wrong, and as Jeopardy! grew in popularity and was syndicated around the world, Mr. Trebek settled into a routine. He would arrive at Sony Studios on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when five episodes were taped each day. For an hour and a half, he would pore over clues in categories such as Potent Potables and World Capitals, making notes to himself on pronunciation and occasionally suggesting changes to the wording.
He would then go out and introduce himself to the studio audience, a familiar experience that would become part of his healing process after his cancer diagnosis: “There are days when I’m just a basket case before we tape. …” he wrote. “[But] I get out onstage, it all changes. I’m myself again.”
Some of the contestants on Jeopardy! would become almost as famous as Mr. Trebek himself. Ken Jennings, a computer scientist from Utah, broke records with his 74-game winning streak in 2004 (and later lost a famous match-up with the IBM computer called Watson). Sports gambler James Holzhauer revolutionized the game by risking everything on large bets. Another champion, Arthur Chu, annoyed viewers with his ruthless style of play. Former contestant Bob Harris wrote a book called Prisoner of Trebekistan about his time on Jeopardy!, in which he noted that the show’s host “is always rooting for every contestant to do well.”
The host did strive for fairness, keeping his interactions with contestants to a minimum lest he be accused of favouritism. But that didn’t keep Mr. Trebek from minor controversies, most of which sprang from the stilted conversations he held with contestants between the game’s two rounds. His dry humour did not necessarily translate when he told one contestant that her music hobby was for “losers” and laughed at another’s story about her dead goat. (“Alex, that’s insensitive,” the woman protested.) Some of the most memorable Jeopardy! answers were the ones that went disastrously wrong: One clue read, “this term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker.” Mr. Jennings, the champion, responded, “What is a hoe?” Mr. Trebek deadpanned, “Whoa! They teach you that in school in Utah?” The correct answer, of course, was, “What is a rake?” Another clue, about the sex droughts suffered by flamingos, prompted the host to ad lib, “Flamingos and I have a great deal in common.”
By the time Mr. Trebek entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2014 for “most episodes of a game show hosted” (that would be 6,829), the show had firmly lodged in the public consciousness. Its question-as-answer format was familiar even when Mr. Trebek wed his second wife, Jean Currivan, in 1990 and gave his vow in the Jeopardy! format: “What is yes?” The couple would have two children, Emily and Matthew. Mr. Trebek leaves his wife and children. (Mr. Trebek’s first marriage, to Elaine Callei, ended in divorce after seven years. Mr. Trebek adopted her daughter, Nicky, whom he also leaves.)
In between hosting Jeopardy! and its various offshoots, such as the Tournament of Champions, Mr. Trebek found time to return home and host Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, in which young leadership hopefuls were quizzed about their leadership plans for the country. The boy from Sudbury revealed that he too had once dreamt of becoming prime minister.
Mr. Trebek became an American citizen in 1997, but still returned to Canada to be feted: In 2015, the University of Ottawa named the Alex Trebek Alumni Hall after him, and in 2017 he was named an officer of the Order of Canada for “iconic achievements in television and for his promotion of learning, notably as a champion for geographic literacy.” A dedicated world traveller, Mr. Trebek was the honourary president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He was also an ambassador for the children’s development charity World Vision.
The news of his diagnosis with stage IV pancreatic cancer in March, 2019, was met with an outpouring of shock and affection. Mr. Trebek continued to tape Jeopardy!, but he was open about the pain of his illness and the rigours of chemotherapy treatment. “I’m used to dealing with pain,” he told Good Morning America, “but what I’m not used to dealing with is the surges that come on suddenly of deep, deep sadness, and it brings tears to my eyes. … There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m really depressed today and I don’t know why.’”
Two months after announcing his diagnosis, Mr. Trebek revealed that he was in “near-remission” in an interview with People magazine. He believed that his successful response was owing to his doctors’ treatments, but also the messages of support he’d had from fans. “I’ve got a couple of million people out there who have expressed their good thoughts, their positive energy directed toward me and their prayers.”
In his memoir, Mr. Trebek wrote candidly about the toll the disease had taken on him. He suffered from pain and exhaustion and depression and memory lapse, “little moments of delirium” in which he would forget not just the facts he loved so much but even the names of loved ones. Despite his illness and the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Trebek managed to write and publish his memoir, in which he described himself as reserved but silly, an abstainer who preferred milk to booze and drugs (although he’d accidentally once eaten several hash brownies). His worst vice? Swearing. His favourite animal? The muskox.
Toward the end, he spent time with his family, and worked on his beloved DIY projects around the house. One of those projects involved sewing a cover for his garden swing, on which he liked to sit and contemplate the two artificial Canada geese that sat near his pool. “I’ll be perfectly content if that’s how my story ends,” he wrote. “Sitting on the swing with the woman I love, my soul mate, and our two wonderful children nearby.”
Mr. Trebek often fielded questions about when he would retire from what he called the world’s greatest job. His answer was always some form of, why on earth would I do that? As he wrote: “My life has been a quest for knowledge and understanding and I am nowhere near having achieved that. And it doesn’t bother me in the least. I will die without having come up with the answers to many things in life.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect year for Mr. Trebek becoming an American citizen.