ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Born to a French-Canadian mother and Ukrainian immigrant father, Trebek spent his years as a young child attending Jesuit school in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He was a curious child who showed promise from an early age.
At the age of 12, he began attending boarding school in Ottawa. “Sudbury is a more distant memory,” he said, “because I was born there and raised there, but I left to go away to boarding school.”
After graduating from high school in 1957, Trebek began attending the University of Ottawa, where he studied philosophy. This was short-lived, however, as Trebek pivoted to journalism shortly before graduating university in 1961.
It didn’t take long for his on-camera talent to be recognized — he scored a job at CBC TV as a substitute reporter and news anchor even before graduating.
Trebek worked extremely hard at this time in his career — he was attending school in the morning and working through the night. “I did everything, at one time replacing every announcer in every possible job,” he said.
Trebek quickly made a name for himself — he was well-liked for his calm attitude and demeanor — something that the whole world would come to know and love him for, a sentiment one contestant would even feel compelled to share in his “Final Jeopardy” answer.
Pivoting from journalism
Even though Trebek was finding moderate success in his chosen career path, he once again decided to shift his focus. His calm demeanor and quick wit made him a perfect TV host.
His first hosting gig was on the Canadian music program Music Hop in 1963. Three years later, he’d land a job as the host for a quiz show for high school students called Reach for the Top — a show where students from different high schools would face off in a series of academic challenges. These were humble beginnings, no doubt, but it quickly became clear that Alex was a star in the making.
Game show host
Alex Trebek had found his calling. He became a full-time host for CBC from 1967 to 1970, introducing classical music performances and a weekly skating program.
In 1969, he became the host of Strategy, a game show where contestants would be placed in a maze, answering questions and setting traps for their competition as they tried to reach the center of the maze and claim their prizes.
Moving to the United States
Strategy was short-lived, lasting only six months before cancellation. Luckily for Trebek, he was quickly picked up to host another show — but it meant taking a risk.
Trebek was contacted by a fellow Canadian, the legendary game and talk show host, producer, and actor Alan Thicke. Thicke presented Alex Trebek with an opportunity, but it meant he’d have to move to the United States to host a new game show on NBC called The Wizard of Odds. But would this move pan out?
‘The Wizard of Odds’
The Wizard of Odds was a show that put audience members to the test on various statistical questions. This show fared little better than Strategy, lasting less than a year before getting the ax.
Would Alex’s career as a game show host flounder before it got the opportunity to take off?
‘High Rollers’ and beyond
Fortunately, Trebek had built up a reputation for his charisma and cool and calm stage presence by this point, and he was tapped to be the host for High Rollers, the game show that replaced The Wizard of Odds.
Trebek became the go-to man for hosting game shows, building an impressive résumé by hosting many different shows throughout the next decade, including Double Dare, The $128,000 Question, Battlestars, and several others.
A serious ‘Pitfall’
In 1981, Trebek was recruited by Catalena Productions to be the host of Pitfall, a new Canadian game show where contestants would attempt to predict the studio audience’s answers to survey questions, and then scale elevators while answering trivia questions.
After one year of filming, Catalena Productions went bankrupt. Many of the show’s contestants and staff, including Trebek, weren’t paid. Alex Trebek would later refer to the experience as “one of the great tragedies of (his) life.” Refusing to let it ruin his career, Trebek used the setback as a learning experience — the bounced check remains framed in his office. But it wasn’t until 1984 that he’d land the role he’d become synonymous with …
The host of ‘Jeopardy!’
In 1984, Trebek was tapped to host a revival of the popular game show, Jeopardy! The show’s former host, Art Fleming, who’d hosted from 1964-1975, opted not to return to the show when the set was moved to Hollywood.
As a friend of Fleming, Trebek was the obvious choice, but no one could have foreseen how massively successful this revived game show would become. In the 35 years (so far) the revival has been on the air, it’s averaged 2.5 million viewers a week — second only to Wheel of Fortune.
Attitude about success
As you might have realized by now, Trebek keeps a positive attitude about life and his career. But what does he say is the secret to his success?
“Take your job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously,” he once responded in an interview. Perhaps his cheerful attitude really has been the constant in his life that makes him successful. But even so, he’s had some serious hardships to deal with …
In 2004, Alex Trebek fell asleep behind the wheel of his pickup truck when driving alone on a rural road. He narrowly escaped a major injury after careening into several mailboxes and launching 43 feet over an embankment.
He was never cited or charged with any wrongdoing and returned to Jeopardy! just four days after the incident. In late 2007, Trebek suffered a heart attack in his home, but was able to return to work at the beginning of the next season. Five years later, Trebek was admitted to the hospital after another minor heart attack, but was able to return to Jeopardy! just over a week later.
In 2011, while staying in a hotel room in San Francisco to host the National Geographic World Championship, Trebek suffered a torn Achilles tendon while chasing down a burglar he caught rummaging through his things.
Despite the injury, Trebek hosted the competition — approaching the stage on crutches and explaining his injuries before fulfilling his duties as host of the geography bee.
Marriages and children
Trebek has been married twice — first to businesswoman, former radio host, and Playboy bunny, Elaine Trebek Kares, in 1974. The marriage lasted seven years, with Trebek becoming the adopted father to her daughter.
Since 1990, Trebek has been married to Jean Currivan, a New York real estate project manager. The couple has two children — Matthew and Emily. He and his family enjoy his sizeable net worth of $75 million with an annual salary of $18 million.
In 2019, Trebek began complaining about persistent stomach pain. Sadly, by the time he visited the doctor, the cancer had already metastasized — meaning it had spread to other parts of the body.
Trebek later said that he wished he had gone to the doctor sooner, when he had first begun experiencing pain, but he hadn’t known that was a symptom of pancreatic cancer. When caught in its early stages, the disease is much easier to treat.
Sadly, pancreatic cancer is an especially deadly form of the disease. Once a patient has been diagnosed, the overall survival rate past five years is only 7%. Once the cancer has metastasized and reached stage 4, the survival rate dips down to 1%.
The only recommended course of treatment is to undergo chemotherapy. There is no hope of curing the cancer by the time it has reached stage 4. The best the patient and doctors can hope for is to manage the symptoms and slow the spread through surgery and chemotherapy.
Sharing with the public
In March 2019, Alex Trebek announced his diagnosis to the public in a video on the show’s YouTube account. Despite the grim outlook given by doctors, Trebek remains optimistic. He also vowed to keep fighting.
“Now, normally, the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I’m going to fight this. And I’m going to keep working and with the love and support of my family and friends — and with the help of your prayers also — I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease,” he said.
A thoughtful message
At the annual Tournament of Champions, where the best Jeopardy! contestants from the last season or recent seasons are pitted against one another, Brown University student Dhruv Gaur found himself stumped on the final question. At this point in the game, competitors are required to write their answers down rather than speak them out loud.
Earlier, Trebek had shared with the contestants that he was going to have to resume treatment. So when it came time for Gaur to give his answer on “Final Jeopardy,” he decided since he couldn’t figure out the answer, he’d use his response to express his support for the beloved host.
It took Alex by surprise
In response to the question, Gaur scrawled, “What is we love you, Alex!” onto the podium. When Trebek read the answer out loud, he became choked up with emotion.
Dhruv Gaur took to Twitter and expressed his gratitude for being given a chance to compete, and express his feelings on the show. “I’m just very grateful I got the opportunity to say what I know everyone was thinking. Sending all the love. #weloveyoualex.”
Alex Trebek doesn’t just maintain a positive attitude in his professional and personal life — he tries to spread it to others as well. He’s donated a lot of the money he’s earned on Jeopardy! to various causes.
He’s a big contributor to Racing for Kids, an organization that uses motorsports to draw attention to children’s health issues; Smile Train, which provides funding for hospitals in developing nations to assist children with cleft lips and palates; and World Vision, which seeks to help impoverished children worldwide.
Visiting the troops overseas
In addition to donating to various charities, Trebek has also shown his support for the troops, both by contributing financially and visiting them overseas as part of the United Service Organizations’ entertainment initiatives.
For his contributions to and support of America’s soldiers, Alex Trebek was awarded the USO Bob Hope Award. But even with all his philanthropy and goodwill, Trebek has had a fair share of detractors …
Most would agree that Alex Trebek is a great game show host — perhaps the greatest of all time — but his track record as a debate moderator is far less celebrated. It all stems from Trebek hosting a Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate in 2018. Reportedly, Trebek agreed to host the debate, only if he could employ a conversational style in place of traditional debate moderation.
It did not go over well. Viewers complained that Trebek took up too much of the candidates’ speaking time, inserting his own opinions and making jokes that didn’t land. “What on Earth was I thinking?” he said. Trebek apologized for his performance. “My god, I’m not as bright as some of you people in the audience think I am,” he said. “This is not a game show tonight.”
The incident was out of character for Trebek — who has traditionally been very private about his political leanings. He revealed in an interview to Variety magazine that he was registered as an independent voter.
He denies being both liberal and conservative, stating that he considers himself a moderate, with some libertarian ideas. Fortunately, after admitting his faults as a debate moderator, it seems the majority of viewers have forgiven him.
A good sport (parodies)
Like any program that’s been on the air for decades, the show has been parodied and made fun of on multiple occasions. Most notably, the side-busting Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches on Saturday Night Live where Will Ferrell played Alex Trebek.
But how does Trebek himself feel about being skewered by high-profile comedians? He thinks it’s hilarious! His personal favorite rendition of himself is Eugene Levy’s impersonations as “Alex Trebel” on SCTV’s Half Wits. “I thought Eugene captured the private horror a game show host experiences trying to keep things moving on a day where everything is going wrong,” Trebek said.
In 2001, Trebek broke the hearts of fans everywhere when he showed up to the show clean-shaven. The signature mustache he’d worn for over 17 years was missing! Since then, the mustache has reappeared and vanished on several occasions.
One April Fools’ Day joke sent fans of Jeopardy! into a frenzy. In 2008, Trebek wore a fake mustache for the first half of the show before removing it, to the delight (and chagrin) of millions. He also regrew the ’stache for the show’s 30th anniversary in 2014 — and even grew a full beard in 2018, only to shave it off gradually throughout the season. What style of facial hair do you prefer?
The future of ‘Jeopardy!’
As for what happens next for the popular show and its celebrated host, the future remains uncertain. Trebek has stated that he plans to stay on the show as long as he’s physically able, all the while keeping the fans abreast of his situation.
When he made his original announcement, he joked that his contract was valid until 2022, so he was financially obligated to stay on. “I have to host Jeopardy! for three more years,” he quipped. “So help me. Keep the faith, and we’ll win. We’ll get it done.”
A new ‘Jeopardy!’ scandal?
In April of 2019, a new contestant came along that seemed to make the game look easy. James Holzhauer seemed to breeze through the game, winning 32 consecutive games before finally falling to Emma Boettcher. Holzhauer seemed so unstoppable that theories began to circulate that the show had conspired to end his reign.
Is it possible that Holzhauer was so good that Jeopardy! producers conspired to make him lose? If there was indeed foul play, how did they pull it off?
Holzhauer’s profession as a competitive sports better gave him a competitive advantage. He also took a year off work to study before auditioning for the show, not only accumulating knowledge, but training his brain to bounce between subjects quickly. It worked — Holzhauer answered 97% correctly, making high bets and breezing past the competition.
Youtube channel The Film Theorists makes a fairly compelling case that Jeopardy! rigged the last game against him in two ways, which we’ll outline in the slide below.
If they rigged the game, how’d they do it?
Allegedly, showrunners made the questions easier, thereby evening the playing field and giving other contestants a chance. They also argue that the final jeopardy question was catered to Emma Boettcher, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on Shakespeare (incidentally, the University of Chicago librarian wrote her Master’s thesis on analysis of Jeopardy! questions).
So, is it true? Did Jeopardy! really conspire to end Holzhauer’s winning streak? First, let’s run through some of the funniest and most memorable moments from Jeopardy!
Memorable moment — no football fans?
Throughout his decades as host of Jeopardy!, Alex has had some awkward, hilarious, and interesting moments transpire — and quite a broad cast of characters to deal with. Here are a few of our favorites.
People from all types of backgrounds compete on Jeopardy!, but every once in a while they have all have something in common. In this case, that thing was not having any knowledge about American Football all together. Alex gets more and more exasperated as each question goes by with no one even attempting an answer.
Buzzy Cohen on a winning streak
Who could forget this epic display of knowledge? Buzzy Cohen toppled competitor after competitor with a smile. The bespectacled gentleman was nearly impossible to stump as he breezed through five straight games.
It was quite the impressive feat, and the fact that Buzzy seemed to be really enjoying himself and hamming it up added to the excitement. But his accomplishment pales in comparison to this next contestant.
Ken Jennings, ‘Jeopardy!’ mastermind
Before 2003, Jeopardy! rules maintained that contestants could only compete five times in a row before they were dismissed. Then the rules were changed — now you can go as long as you keep winning.
In 2004, Ken Jennings did the impossible, winning 74 consecutive games before falling to Nancy Zerg in a nail-biting finish. His winning streak saw him rake in $2,522,700. To this day, he’s the second-highest-earning American game show contestant of all time.
Memorable moment — ‘immoral pleasure seeker’
Legendary contestant Ken Jennings had a clever, albeit cheeky response to this Jeopardy! question. Alex asked “the term for a long-handled gardening tool can also mean an immoral pleasure seeker,” to which Jennings responded, “what is a hoe?”
Wrong. The correct answer was “rake.” Never without a quip, Alex Trebek asked Jennings if they taught that to Jennings in school in Utah. Burn!
Memorable moment — not a fan of ‘nerd-core hip hop’
Alex Trebek is known for his razor-sharp wit, and every once in a while it cuts into an undeserving victim. The host drew some online criticism after a clip of him referring to nerd-core rap artists as “losers” went viral. The moment came when contestant Susan Cole was explaining her favorite music genre.
“It’s people who identify as nerdy, rapping about the things they love, video games, science fiction, having a hard time meeting romantic partners, you know. It’s really catchy and fun,” she said.
“Losers, in other words,” Alex responded. While most people found the quip funny. Die-hard fans of the “nerd-core hip hop” genre were furious. All 17 of them.
Susan went on to have the last laugh, however — winning $20,600. Apparently nerds are good at trivia, who’d have thought?
Enough of the fun stuff, was the game rigged or not?
OK, back to the burning question on everyone’s mind — could the game have been rigged to kick its best player off the show? Well, no — it would be illegal, let alone nearly impossible. There are federal laws that prohibit fixing game shows and create processes that ensure the games are fair.
Six rounds of Jeopardy! are written in advance. An independent lawyer visits the studio, tosses one of the rounds and shuffles the remaining rounds to appear during Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’s games at random. The contestants that challenge the returning champion are also chosen at random, minutes before taping. This ensures questions cannot be catered to a specific player. Even if they wanted to rig the game, it would be virtually impossible to execute. For an in-depth debunking of the “Jeopardy! is rigged theory, check out former champion Austin Tyler Rogers’ video on the subject.