Alex Trebek, Longtime Host of ‘Jeopardy!,’ Dies at 80


At a restaurant several years ago, a stranger went up to Alex Trebek, the longtime host of “Jeopardy!” and as strangers often did, tried to stump him.

“The American flag flies here 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” the stranger said, using the quiz show host’s particular locution, in which questions are delivered as answers.

Mr. Trebek sensed that the stranger was looking for something more clever than a list of which buildings, like the White House, had been authorized to fly the flag through the night. And without missing a beat he answered in the form of a question: “What is the moon?”

The quick-witted Mr. Trebek, who died on Sunday at age 80 after a battle with cancer that drew legions of fans to rally around him, hosted “Jeopardy!” for a record-setting 37 years. He was an authoritative and unflappable fixture for millions of Americans who organized their weeknights around the program, shouting out the questions as Mr. Trebek read the answers with his impeccable diction.

One major appeal of the show, apart from its intellectual challenge, was its consistency. Over the years its format stayed reliably familiar, as did Mr. Trebek, though he trimmed back his bushy head of hair, grew grayer and occasionally sported a mustache, beard or goatee. Otherwise he was the model of a steady and predictable host — a no-nonsense presence, efficient in his role and comforting in his orderliness.

Mr. Trebek’s death was confirmed by the show’s producers. They said that episodes of the show he hosted would air through Dec. 25 and that they had not made plans for a replacement.

Mr. Trebek had announced in a video on March 6, 2019, that he had received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that week. He said that like many others with the disease, he had no symptoms until it had spread throughout his body. He delivered the news from the show’s set, wearing, as usual, a bandbox-fresh suit and tie as he spoke straight to the camera without sentiment or histrionics.

When he commanded a game, he might occasionally raise an eyebrow and say “Oooh, noooo, sorry” or repeat a clue with a whiff of condescension; he told New York magazine that when contestants missed obvious answers, he deliberately struck a tone that was meant to convey: “How can you not get this? This is not rocket science.”

Through it all, he kept the game running on its strict timetable.

He started hosting in 1984, when the show returned to the airwaves after a hiatus. Since then he has been the only host, helming every episode except one, on April Fools’ Day in 1997, when he swapped places with Pat Sajak, the host of “Wheel of Fortune.”

Mr. Trebek hosted more than 8,000 episodes of “Jeopardy!” In 2014, he claimed the record for hosting the most episodes of a single game show, surpassing the record set by Bob Barker, who had led “The Price is Right” for 6,828 episodes between 1972 and 2007.

Mr. Trebek once said he thought game shows did well because they avoided conflict.

“In this day and age, when there is so much societal tension, game shows are valuable because they’re pleasant,” he told New York magazine in 2018.

Some viewers were drawn to the sense of absolute certitude that Mr. Trebek projected.

“As we get further into the 21st century, and we become more aware of the relativism of truth, there is something satisfying about Alex telling you it’s right or wrong,” Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said in a phone interview.

“I love that there is no discussion, no panel of experts,” he said. “Just Alex with his cards.”

Mr. Trebek spurned being called the star of “Jeopardy!” He wanted viewers to focus on the material. The show derived its drama not from any antics of his, but from the contestants and the possibility that at any moment fortunes could shift, with an apparent loser becoming an instant winner, and vice versa.

“You have to set your ego aside,” Mr. Trebek said of his role. “If you want to be a good host, you have to figure out a way to get the contestants to — as in the old television commercial about the military — ‘be all you can be.’ Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association, I do well.”

The show did well. “Jeopardy!” has won more Emmy Awards — 35 — than any other game show. They included the 2017 Daytime Emmy for outstanding game show — remarkable for a program on the air for more than three decades. Mr. Trebek himself won six Emmys for outstanding game show host and an additional lifetime achievement award.

“Jeopardy!” won a 2011 Peabody Award, the first time in more than 50 years that a television quiz show had been so recognized. The citation said the award, given in 2012, was “for decades of consistently encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge.” It said that “Jeopardy!” was “a model of integrity and decorum.”

The nod to integrity was significant. Quiz shows had fallen into disrepute after cheating scandals in the 1950s; the 1994 film “Quiz Show” dramatized the deceit.

In reaction to those scandals, the idea for “Jeopardy!” was born.

Merv Griffin, the talk show host and media mogul who created the show, recounted in “The ‘Jeopardy!’ Book” (1990) that he had been talking to his wife in 1963 about how much he missed the old quiz shows. But, he said, he recognized that the format had lost all credibility after revelations that contestants on some programs had been secretly fed the answers.

Well, then, his wife, Julann, had said, Why not give contestants the answers to start with and make them come up with the questions?

It was a light bulb moment. Ms. Griffin said, “79 Wistful Vista.” And Mr. Griffin replied, “What is Fibber McGee and Molly’s address?” — a reference to characters on a long-running radio comedy.

In 1974 he married Elaine Callei, a businesswoman and former Playboy bunny. They had no children and divorced in 1981. In 1990, he married Jean Currivan, a real estate project manager from New York.


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