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The Answer is…A Biography of Alex Trebek

An A & Q with the author of a new book on the popular 'Jeopardy!' host


Answer: Despite being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer 17 months ago, he has continued to come into America’s homes each weeknight.

Question: Who is Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek?

In fact, Trebek says he is among just 18% of late-stage pancreatic cancer patients who have blown past the one-year survival rate.

“I’d be lying if I said the journey had been an easy one,” Trebek conceded in an update on his health last March. “There have been some good days but a lot of not so good days.”

Still, his ability to beat those odds has overshadowed another remarkable feat. Alex Trebek has now hosted Jeopardy! for nearly 36 years. His first broadcast was September 10, 1984.

In the decade-plus since our own three grown daughters have been out of the house, my wife and I have watched Jeopardy! during dinner. That means, over those years at least, Alex Trebek has probably spent more time in our home than our kids. No doubt, that’s true for many Jeopardy! fans reading this. Even Trebek concedes, “I’ve been on the air for fifty years [going back to the beginning of his TV career in Canada], so I’m like a member of the family.”

Alex Trebek has now hosted ‘Jeopardy!’ for nearly 36 years.

Come to think of it, my love affair with Jeopardy! goes back more than 50 years to the 1960s when Art Fleming hosted the show. I even recall going to a friend’s house at lunchtime during junior high school to watch Jeopardy! when it aired at noon on NBC. And if memory serves — and these days, not always perfectly — my friend would beat me.

Alex Trebek is turning 80 on Wednesday. To mark the occasion, two books are out this week, one an unauthorized biography of Trebek and the other an autobiography by Trebek himself or what the Canadian native calls an aperçu, a French word meaning glimpse or intuitive insight.

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you must know that Jeopardy! turns the game show format on its head, giving contestants the answer. They, in turn, must provide the correct question. So that’s how I interviewed Trebek biographer, Lisa Rogak, a fellow boomer and author of Who Is Alex Trebek?

Answer: Alex Trebek said this Canadian television quiz show was “great training” for what he wound up doing many years later.

Lisa Rogak: What is Reach for the Top?

Reach for the Top was a Canadian quiz show, launched in Vancouver, that featured high school students as contestants. It was such a success that the show was expanded to a national version, broadcast out of Toronto.

Author Lisa Rogak
Author Lisa Rogak

But it was a real precursor of Jeopardy!. Alex was a natural choice as host for the national broadcast since there wasn’t much of an age difference between him and the contestants. Alex was partial to shows that tested the intelligence and knowledge of both contestants and viewers.

He said, ‘I like shows that require the contestants to be bright — they have to know something; it’s not just a question of luck.’

Answer: This former band singer and talk show host and his wife invented Jeopardy! aboard a flight.

LR: Who is Merv Griffin?

One day in 1963, Merv and his wife Julann were on a plane and Merv was trying to come up with a new format for a game show. And his wife said, ‘Give me answers first’. And Merv said, ‘That’s what got everybody in trouble in the quiz show scandals in the 1950s.’ And his wife said, ‘No, give me the answer first, such as: The answer is 5,280. And Merv asked, ‘How many feet in a mile?’ And that’s how Jeopardy! was born.

When they took it to the network, the executives liked the idea so much they didn’t even order a pilot. But they didn’t like the title Merv suggested, What’s the Question? They said, ‘A game show can’t have all hills. You have to have valleys, too. There are no jeopardies.’ And that’s when the light bulb went off in Merv’s head. That’s how he came up with Jeopardy!

Answer: By 2014, Alex Trebek had hosted 6,829 episodes of Jeopardy!, nudging past Bob Barker for this honor that’s NOT from a brewery.

LR: What is the Guinness World Record?

On June 13, 2014, Alex Trebek set a Guinness World Record for “the most game show episodes hosted by the same presenter.” Add approximately 1,200 episodes since then, and Alex Trebek has hosted more than 8,000 episodes of Jeopardy!.

Answer: A few years ago during a meal on a cross-country flight, Trebek was served his favorite vegetable but couldn’t remember its name.

LR: What is broccoli?

Alex had been concerned about cognitive decline, the possibility of Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t come up with answers or think of things as quickly as he once did. He was regularly making errors, like reversing numbers — referring to the year 1942 when he was clearly thinking of 1492.

He was worried enough that he got a battery of tests for dementia, but each time, the diagnosis was natural cognitive decline caused by normal aging. So he ramped up his consumption of crossword puzzles.

Alex has said, ‘When it’s clear it’s time for me to go, I’ll go. I don’t have the kind of ego that would drive me to be wheeled on the Jeopardy! stage.’

Answer: The most remote, least likely place Alex Trebek was recognized?

LR: What are The Himalaya Mountains in Nepal?

Alex was exploring in Nepal in the late 1960s, and very early one morning, he had traveled up a mountain to catch the sunrise. As he witnessed the grand event, he saw a man tentatively approach him. He asked Alex if he was the same guy who hosted curling shows on the CBC. Alex was surprised to be recognized so far from home, and for curling, of all things. He nodded and the man went on his way, leaving Alex to continue relishing the sunrise, as well as finding a fan in such a remote location.

‘It’s enjoyable being recognized,’ he said. ‘It’s good for your ego.’

Answer: This tabloid retaliated when Alex Trebek, then 50, refused to allow it exclusive rights to cover his wedding to Jean Currivan, who was 24 years younger.

LR: What is The National Enquirer?

"Who is Alex Trebek?" book

There’s never been much love lost between Alex and the supermarket tabloids, though he didn’t regularly get his name splashed across the front of them. But Alex reported that The National Enquirer told him that unless he gave them the exclusive rights to cover his wedding, they’d send several helicopters to hover over the event, which enraged him. When he refused, The National Enquirer retaliated by printing an article saying that Jean was pregnant at the time of their wedding.

‘It was an out-and-out lie,’ said Alex. ‘My wife was upset, and my mother, a traditionalist, was angry.’

But on April 30, 1990, the day they were married, Trebek responded to the critical question by saying, ‘The answer is . . . yes.’ The wedding guests laughed.

Final Jeopardy: The Category is Spontaneous Exits

Answer: “I’ll do it on a whim.”

LR: How will Alex decide to do his final Jeopardy! broadcast?

Alex says one day he’ll simply tell his executive producer and director to schedule the show so there’s thirty extra seconds at the end. ‘I will say: Until we meet again, God bless you and goodbye.’

(Editor’s Note: For more on Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek and his new memoir, read the Next Avenue pieceAlex Trebek: In His Own Words.”)

Richard Harris
By Richard Harris
Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics and former senior producer of ABC News NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel. Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.

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