Alex Trebek hosting Music Hop
Alex Trebek hosting Double Dare
Alex Trebek hosting Jeopardy!
The obituary for Alex Trebek that The New York Times published in November 2020 called him "an authoritative and unflappable fixture for millions for Americans."
He was surely that, and so much more. For most Americans, their fixed date with Trebek was weeknights at the dinner hour, when they tuned into Jeopardy!
Trebek hosted the quiz show from 1984 until his death and during that time won eight Daytime Emmys for outstanding game show host. In 2011, he was honored with the Daytime Emmy lifetime achievement award. That same year, Trebek and Jeopardy! received a Peabody Award for "decades of consistently encouraging, celebrating and rewarding knowledge."
Over the years, Jeopardy! fans grew close to Trebek, though they probably didn't know much about him. Serving the show — not himself — was his mission. Though, if pressed, viewers would probably mention his love of learning — and of a good joke — and perhaps his Canadian roots.
The son of a Ukrainian immigrant chef, Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy in 1961 and began his broadcasting career in his native country. In 1973 he moved to the U.S. and in 1998 became a naturalized U.S. citizen while retaining Canadian citizenship.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019, Trebek raised funds for research and awareness of the disease, but he was active in philanthropy throughout his career. Among the many nonprofits he supported was World Vision, which aids children in poverty around the world. And at his alma mater, he funded the Alex Trebek Forum for Dialogue, which seeks to expose students to a wide array of views through lectures and events.
In the Los Angeles area, he donated seventy-four acres of open land in the Hollywood Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. And in 2020 he and his wife, Jean, helped fund a housing facility for the L.A.–area's unhoused population with their donation to the Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission.
Though he became a widely loved celebrity and was hailed as a model of iintelligence and decorum, Trebek kept the Jeopardy! spotlight on the contestants. As the host, "you are there to make the players relax enough that they can demonstrate their skills," he said. "They're the stars of the show."
Trebek was survived by his wife and three children. He was interviewed in August 2007 by Barrie Nedler for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be screened at TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews.
Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: A pilot, a doctor or the prime minister of Canada. I realized in college that I could be a pilot no matter what occupation I was pursuing — all I had to do was take flying lessons — so I pushed that aside. A friend was urging me to go into medicine, but I said, "Nah, I can't do it." And I abandoned politics because I got into broadcasting.
I applied for a summer job to help pay for my junior year at college, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They said, "We have an opening on our permanent staff. Would you be interested?"
I said, "I'll take the job if I can finish my senior year." They said sure.
They assigned me to do station breaks, news, weather and sports on the radio station from six to midnight. I'd go to school during the day, go to work in the evening. I graduated and then stayed with them as a broadcaster.
Q: How did you move from radio to TV?
A: It was understood that if you were a staff announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, you did both radio and television. As soon as I graduated, they sent me to do television. I was twenty-one and a fresh face. And when I transferred to Toronto, I hosted the first live teen-music show on the air.
Q: What was it called?
A: Music Hop. If you messed up — and it was easy to mess up because we had no cue cards — you didn't worry about it. It's very important in show biz to learn to laugh at yourself. Don't laugh at the job. Laugh at yourself.
Q: Your next hosting gig was Reach for the Top....
A: Yes, that was a high school quiz show: two schools competed at a time, four students on each team. It gave bright students an opportunity to show their stuff and work together, and it inspired SCTV to do some marvelous takeoffs over the years. Eugene Levy, I maintain to this day, did the best Alex Trebek impression ever.
Q: Better than Will Ferrell?
A: Better than Will Ferrell. He looked more the part, too. He had the dark hair and the black mustache. And on SCTV, John Candy, Catherine O'Hara and the rest of the cast played the students. It was so funny.
Q: You enjoyed the parody?
A: I loved it. The same is true today. People always ask me, "How do you feel about the Saturday Night Live takeoffs of Jeopardy!?" I love them. It means you've arrived. If you do a takeoff of somebody, you believe your audience will immediately recognize who you're poking fun at. And that means there must be a lot of people who have watched your show and know immediately what the reference is.
Q: How did you come to the U.S.?
A: Among my many duties as a staff announcer in Toronto, I was the host of an afternoon variety show called, logically enough, Afternoon. We had Alan Thicke and his [singing] partner at that time [Brian Russell] on the show. When they moved to California, Alan wound up at a new game show, Wizard of Odds, at NBC. They were having trouble coming up with a host, and Alan recommended me.
I went to L.A. to do the pilot. I had a full head of hair and a pretty big mustache, and that was one of the reasons they liked me, because I was different. I was the first Alex Trebek hosting Music Hop... game show host since Groucho Marx to be on the air with a mustache.
As I walked into NBC, the executive producer, Burt Sugarman, came to me and said, "I like the mustache." Then I ran into Lin Bolen, who was head of daytime for NBC, and she said, "How do you feel about your mustache?" I said, "Very strongly." And that was the end of that.
When I went back to Toronto, they informed me that we'd been picked up by NBC. I resigned [from the CBC], put my house up for sale, moved down here and became a U.S. resident.
Q: After Wizard of Odds, you did a couple of stints on NBC's High Rollers, and in between you hosted Double Dare for CBS. What was that like?
A: Mark Goodson produced Double Dare. That was the first time that I hosted a show in the U.S. that was intellectually very challenging. The show was probably too cerebral — it didn't last very long. But working for Mark Goodson was enjoyable.
Q: Did you learn something significant from him?
A: Yes, I learned that it doesn't matter who comes up with a good idea. If it's a good idea, it's a good idea. Don't let your ego get involved and say, "I won't accept that idea because it came from a stagehand." Mark was great at that.
Q: What led to the decision in 1984 to revive Jeopardy!?
A: Wheel of Fortune had been put into syndication, and they wanted another show to go with it. Merv [Griffin, who created Jeopardy!] thought Jeopardy! was too classy for syndication, but they talked him into it. He turned it over to his executive vice-president, Bob Murphy, and Bob hired me. I was the producer for the first three years. Little by little, we began to find our audience and expand our staff.
Q: Did you audition for the hosting spot?
A: No, they were familiar with my work. I had hosted Wheel of Fortune for a week on the network, replacing Chuck Woolery. People at the Griffin company remembered that I had worked for them and offered me the job.
A: Yeah. At the beginning we weren't certain how long it was going to last. We were getting feedback saying, "It's too tough." I told them, "I'll ease up on the material." But I didn't ease up, and people started to enjoy the program.
Q: The music of Jeopardy! defines the show.
A: Our theme song, of course. People ask me, "Do you ever get tired of it?" No. I enjoy it when it's played at a baseball game when a manager goes to the mound or at a football game when the referees are going to the video replay. It's part of Americana.
Q: How would you describe your hosting style?
A: Kind of laid back. The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself — I should not get in the way of that. That doesn't prevent you, however, from coming up with funny tidbits from time to time or having fun. You want to keep it light because it is fairly serious. It's a quiz show, not a game show. People take those intellectual pursuits more seriously than rolling dice or playing with a big pinball machine.
And you have a responsibility as host to be the on-camera producer and director. You have to enhance the game when it needs enhancing, and you have to pull back when it's cruising along. It's a balancing act.
Q: How does the studio audience figure into that?
A: The people who come to a taping are entitled to something special. One of the biggest laughs I ever got was, I think, at Ohio State when we were on the road for college championships. I was walking around in the audience, and a young lady raised her hand. And all she said was, "Boxers or briefs?" Got a big laugh. Everybody quieted for a moment. I looked at her and said, "Thong." That got a bigger laugh. I loved it.
Q: You changed your look a while back. What prompted you to shave your mustache?
A: Pure whim. On a tape day, we were about to tape our fifth show. I went into the makeup room, sat in the chair. I said, "I'm going to shave my mustache." I didn't tell the producer.
What amazed me afterwards was the amount of press it got. It made newspapers and magazines everywhere. I was surprised and to a certain extent, appalled by this. This is a television quiz show host shaving his mustache. Look at what's going on in the Middle East! Look at this natural disaster! And they're asking about my mustache! Values are a little off sometimes.
Q: In 2003, Jeopardy! repealed the five-show win limit....
A: Big moment for us. That was [executive producer] Harry Friedman's decision, and it was a marvelous decision to make. Immediately we had contestants who won six, seven, eight games. And then along came Ken Jennings. In 2004, Ken won seventy-four games. I spent more time with Ken than I did with my wife in that period. We were together for four-and-a-half months. Ken was the perfect contestant. He was bright. He understood the game. He knew how to wager. And he was funny.
Q: What do you see as the future for Jeopardy!?
A: I think Jeopardy! can go on forever. If it were in your pantry, it would be on the shelf labeled "staples." Every home should have access to Jeopardy! And there are other people who could host it. When I'm gone from Jeopardy! there are other hosts who could do an equally good job. Different, but equally good.
Q: What is the show's legacy?
A: A respect for knowledge. There's nothing wrong with being bright. There's nothing wrong with comporting yourself in a decent manner, being an okay kind of human being with a sense of humor. Respect for your fellow individuals. We poke fun, but not in a nasty way. We don't take cheap shots at people, in our clues or on the program. That says a great deal about us.
Q: In 1996, you carried the Olympic torch through Jacksonville, Florida....
A: That was fun. I was worried beforehand, thinking, "How far do I have to run?" But it was only a half-mile. I could handle it. That was special — one of the perks of being on the air as the host of
Jeopardy! for so long.
Q: And you're the longtime host of the annual National Geographic Bee....
A: That's a lot of fun. We get bright kids. Ten-, eleven-, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who know a lot about geography. And they understand the value of that knowledge. We now have the international geography competition every two years, and the kids develop friendships that hopefully will make for a more peaceful world.
Q: What is your proudest professional achievement?
A: I have never thought of my life in those terms. I'm just a guy who goes out and does his job. I enjoy the moment I'm in. To me it's a whole experience, not isolated moments. It's been a hell of a nice run.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: As a decent guy who did his best to help the contestants perform at their best. Because that's really what a host is supposed to do. You are there to make these players relax enough that they can demonstrate their skills. They're the stars of the show. So put the emphasis on the players. If you do that properly, the viewers will look on you as a good guy. If that's the way they remember me down the line, I'm perfectly happy with that.
The contributing editor for Foundation Interviews is Adrienne Faillace.
To see the entire interview, go to: TelevisionAcademy.com/Interviews
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue #3, 2022.