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Alex Trebek, beloved 'Jeopardy!' host, dies at 80

Host Alex Trebek poses on the set at

Host Alex Trebek poses on the set at Sony Pictures in Culver City, California, for the 28th season premiere of "Jeopardy!" on Sept. 20, 2011. Credit: Getty Images/Frederick M. Brown

Alex Trebek, longtime host of "Jeopardy!" and one of the best-known figures in the history of television, has died following treatment for stage four pancreatic cancer.

Trebek, who was 80, began chemotherapy in March 2019, then later announced to viewers in September that he had begun a second round of treatment. He died at his California home, surrounded by family and friends, "Jeopardy!" studio Sony said.

At 10 p.m. Sunday, ABC will air a tribute to the iconic host, "Alex Trebek, Remembered: A ‘20/20’ Special."

One of those rare meta celebrities of American pop culture, Trebek was a "game show host" in the same way Oprah Winfrey and Walter Cronkite were "talk show hosts" or "anchors."

World-famous for their day job, they were also symbols who transcended those roles and ultimately became ambassadors for them. Other people had hosted game shows, but Trebek was the game show host.

Cronkite had become "most trusted" for a time. Trebek was among the most trusted in his time too (or at least number 8 on a list recently compiled by Reader's Digest, right after Microsoft founder Bill Gates.)

As master and commander of "Jeopardy!," overseer of countless categories since 1984, he became, like Oprah, a figure some viewers thought they knew intimately, except he gave out clues instead of cars or hugs.

Trebek also seemed like the smartest guy on TV because he knew the answers before all the smart contestants did. As he would frequently point out, that was an advantage to having those answers on a piece of paper in front of you.

He seemed like the nicest too. Contestants were never upbraided for mistakes, although they might on occasion earn the slightest you've-disappointed-dad wince. There was no smirk in his demeanor nor swagger in his step. It was that radiant calm, night after night, year after year, that belied the very nature of the game show he hosted.

You could be rich after the first commercial break, then dead broke after the last, but Trebek somehow made losing seem all right, or at least bearable. His "Jeopardy!" was never about the punishment, but the reward.

That too made him something of a rarity on a medium characterized by a great divide over the last 20 years, split into ideological camps and filled with talking heads who yelled as often as they talked. Though deeply and ineradicably Canadian, he had also spent most of his adult life in the United States (he took on dual citizenship in 1998), where it was almost impossible for public figures of his stature not to take political stands.

Trebek never did. Largely a political cipher, he always described himself an independent and when pressed on his views said he didn't like either major party. That didn't mean he had a puckish sense of humor about the subject, however.

Asked in a 2018 interview by New York Magazine how he thought President Donald Trump would do on "Jeopardy!," Trebek volunteered that "he might not agree that any of the correct responses are correct."

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, a small city some 40 miles north of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, in 1940, his father was a chef of Ukrainian heritage, his mother of French Canadian heritage.

As a child, he spoke French and was taught by the Jesuits, whose famous mandate — "go, and set the world on fire" — was to become his own. He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy, telling The Associated Press: "I had no money for my junior and senior years and all the philosophy courses were taught in the mornings, which enabled me to get a job in the afternoon and at night to pay for my tuition."

He had no intention of becoming a philosopher. The part-time job he landed was at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which after graduation led to a full-time position there as announcer, newsman and on-air host of various shows.

In 1973, he moved to California, bounced around various game shows during the TV game show boom of the '70s and '80s ("Wizard of Odds," "The New High Rollers," Concentration" and "To Tell the Truth") and in 1984 landed the franchise job.

Merv Griffin had decided to relaunch another version of a show he had created in the early '60s, which had embraced the famous answers-first format as a reaction to the game show scandals of the preceding decades (if contestants already knew the "answer," the show couldn't be accused of giving it to them beforehand, went the reasoning.)

The assembly-line nature of "Jeopardy!" would soon consume only part of his time — five tapings every Tuesday and Wednesday, from noon to 6:30 — leaving plenty of time for the rest of his life. His first wife, Elaine Callei, had been a Playboy bunny in the '60s and was a Canadian talk show host. He married Huntington-raised Jean Currivan Trebek in 1990. They have two adult children, Matthew and Emily.

As Trebek became world famous, the trappings of fame followed — celebrity golf tournaments, hosting other trivia contests, guest starring roles ("The X-Files," ''How I Met Your Mother," ''Hot in Cleveland.") His personal life drew attention. He shaved his mustache in 2001, after having worn one for 35 years, to the consternation of fans. (He briefly grew a full beard a few years ago.) His health became an ongoing fan concern too, notably a subdural hematoma suffered in 2017.

Trebek worked the talk show circuit too, and hosts always wanted to know what he did in his spare time. (He owned a 700-acre ranch in California where he bred racehorses.) Invariably he'd get around to talking about fixing his lawn sprinkler system at his Studio City home.

Usually he was asked how he had endured so long (36 years, 8,000+ episodes).

"My job," he said in an interview some years ago, "is to provide the atmosphere and assistance to the contestants to get them to perform at their very best. 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 might have added, although the Canadian in him would have never allowed, that viewers saw in him a little bit of the best of themselves — a fundamental decency, an aversion to self-promotion, an embrace of learning, of sanity.

Longtime announcer Johnny Gilbert's "This is Jeopardy" opened each Trebek edition the last 36 years, at 7 p.m. weeknights, and for a fleeting second, the turbulent world seemed calmed. Alex was on. What could possibly be wrong?

With The Associated Press

ALEX TREBEK

  • Born July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
  • Graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy, and worked for the Canadian Broadcast Corp. as a reporter
  • Hosted game shows such as “The Wizard of Odds” and “To Tell the Truth” during the 1970s.
  • Became host of the “Jeopardy!” revival in 1984
  • Hosted more than 8,000 episodes over 36 years.
  • Survived by his wife, Huntington-raised Jean Currivan-Trebek, and adult children Matthew and Emily

Source: The Associated Press

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