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Society

Alex Trebek, Long-Running “Jeopardy!” Host, Dies at 80

November 8, 2020

LOS ANGELES — Alex Trebek, who presided over the beloved quiz show "Jeopardy!" for more than 30 years with dapper charm and a touch of schoolmaster strictness, died Sunday. He was 80. 

Trebek, who announced in 2019 that he had advanced pancreatic cancer, died at his Los Angeles home, surrounded by family and friends, "Jeopardy!" studio Sony said.

The Canadian-born host, who made a point of informing fans about his health directly, spoke in a calm, even tone as he revealed his illness and hope for a cure in a video posted March 6, 2019.

In the video, Trebek said he was joining the 50,000 other Americans who receive such a diagnosis each year and that he recognized that the prognosis was not encouraging.

But Trebek said he intended to fight it and keep working, even joking that he needed to beat the disease because his "Jeopardy!" contract ran for three more years. Less than a week later, he opened the show with a message acknowledging the outpouring of kind words and prayers he'd received.

"Thanks to the — believe it or not — hundreds of thousands of people who have sent in tweets, texts, emails, cards and letters wishing me well," Trebek said. "I'm a lucky guy."

An outpouring of grief from former contestants and the wider public quickly followed news of his death.

"Alex wasn't just the best ever at what he did. He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I'm grateful for every minute I got to spend with him," tweeted "Jeopardy!" champion Ken Jennings. "Thinking today about his family and his Jeopardy! family — which, in a way, included millions of us." 

"Jeopardy!" bills itself as "America's favorite quiz show" and captivated the public with a unique format in which contestants were told the answers and had to provide the questions on a variety of subjects, including movies, politics, history and popular culture. 

They would answer by saying "What is … ?" or "Who is …. ?" 

Trebek, who became its host in 1984, was a master of the format, engaging in friendly banter with contestants, appearing genuinely pleased when they answered correctly and, at the same time, moving the game along in a brisk no-nonsense fashion whenever people struggled for answers.

He never pretended to know the answers himself if he really didn't, deferring to the show's experts to decide whether a somewhat vague answer had come close enough to be counted as correct. 

"I try not to take myself too seriously," he told an interviewer in 2004. "I don't want to come off as a pompous ass and indicate that I know everything when I don't." 

The show was the brainstorm of Juann Griffin, wife of the late talk show host-entrepreneur Merv Griffin, who said she suggested to him one day that he create a game show where people were given the answers.

"Jeopardy!" debuted on NBC in 1964 with Art Fleming as emcee and was an immediate hit. It lasted until 1975, then was revived in syndication with Trebek. 

Long identified by a full head of hair and trim mustache (though in 2001 he startled viewers by shaving his mustache, "completely on a whim"), Trebek was more than qualified for the job, having started his game show career on "Reach for the Top" in his native country. 

Moving to the U.S. in 1973, he appeared on "The Wizard of Odds," "High Rollers," "The $128,000 Question" and "Double Dare." Even during his run on "Jeopardy!", Trebek worked on other shows. In the early 1990s, he was the host of three — "Jeopardy!", "To Tell the Truth" and "Classic Concentration." 

"Jeopardy!" made him famous. He won five Emmys as its host, and received stars on both the Hollywood and Canadian walks of fame. In 2012, the show won a prestigious Peabody Award. 

He taped his daily "Jeopardy!" shows at a frenetic pace, recording as many as 10 episodes (two weeks' worth) in just two days. After what was described as a mild heart attack in 2007, he was back at work in just a month.

He posted a video in January 2018 announcing he'd undergone surgery for blood clots on the brain that followed a fall he'd taken. The show was on hiatus during his recovery.

It had yet to bring in a substitute host for Trebek — save once, when he and "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak swapped their TV jobs as an April's Fool prank.

In 2012, Trebek acknowledged that he was considering retirement, but had been urged by friends to stay on so he could reach 30 years on the show. He still loved the job, he declared: "What's not to love? You have the security of a familiar environment, a familiar format, but you have the excitement of new clues and new contestants on every program. You can't beat that!"

Although many viewers considered him one of the key reasons for the show's success, Trebek himself insisted he was only there to keep things moving. 

"I'm introduced as the host of 'Jeopardy!,' not the star," he said in a 2012 interview. "My job is to provide the atmosphere and assistance to the contestants to get them to perform at their very best," he explained. "And if I'm successful doing that, I will be perceived as a nice guy and the audience will think of me as being a bit of a star."

"But not if I try to steal the limelight! The stars of `Jeopardy!' are the material and the contestants," he said.

In a January 2019 interview with The Associated Press, Trebek discussed his decision to keep going with "Jeopardy!"

"It's not as if I'm overworked — we tape 46 days a year," he said. But he acknowledged he would retire someday, if he lost his edge or the job was no longer fun, adding: "And it's still fun."

Born July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, Trebek was sent off to boarding school by his Ukrainian father and French-Canadian mother when he was barely in his teens. 

After graduating high school, he spent a summer in Cincinnati to be close to a girlfriend, then returned to Canada to attend college. After earning a philosophy degree from the University of Ottawa, he went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Co., starting as a staff announcer and eventually becoming a radio and TV reporter.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1997. Trebek's first marriage, to Elaine Callel, ended in divorce. In 1990 he married Jean Currivan, and they had two children, Emily and Matthew. Trebek lived with his family in Los Angeles' Studio City section, not far from Hollywood. 

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