Alex Trebek might be the best example of an understated star. The Jeopardy! host stumped just about everybody over the past few decades, though he rarely let down his guard in front of the cameras.
America’s favorite game show emcee never shared his personal struggles with his audience until the biggest challenge of his life forced him to ask for help. Would this be the one question the trivia guru couldn’t answer?
On certain mornings, when Alex Trebek sat alone in his dressing room, he contemplated just how far he had come. Many fans would call him the most successful game show host in history, but none quite realized just how hard it was for him to keep it up.
Always filled to the brim with intellectual curiosity, the young Canadian studied journalism at the University of Ottawa. Rather than enter academia, however, he chose to pursue the exciting and rapidly evolving world of media.
Straight journalism bored Alex, but luckily he made for a natural host. In 1963, he got his career started in earnest as the presenter for Music Hop, a variety show that was essentially Canada’s answer to American Bandstand.
Moving away from teenybopper programming, Alex sought out gigs in the lucrative game show genre. He became the face of the Canadian program Reach for the Top, but after a few years, the budding star knew he needed to move elsewhere to succeed.
After reaching the ceiling of Canadian TV, Alex reached out to all his American contacts. Fortunately, he found plenty of work, with hosting jobs on network shows like Wizard of Odds and High Rollers. By 1984, though, an interesting offer surfaced.
NBCU / Ron Tom
NBC was mulling over a revival of Jeopardy!, an old trivia competition where contestants received the answers instead of the questions. They wanted the smooth and personable Trebek to helm it.
Alex took that gamble, and the new Jeopardy! emerged as an instant hit. Armed with his deadpan wit and signature ‘stache, the host waltzed his way to the top of the ratings. Soon, Alex Trebek became a household name.
Over the years, Alex won over legions of fans. TV viewers couldn’t get enough of his riffing between questions, while audience members loved how he chatted with them during commercial breaks. He was truly a star of the people.
Alex’s celebrity grew so much that he began making regular cameo appearances, usually as himself. He popped up in everything from Seinfeld to The X-Files, where he played a Man in Black alongside wrestler Jesse Ventura.
He even earned his own Saturday Night Live parody — a true pop culture milestone. But besides winning over audiences across generations, Alex felt he was doing truly important work. As it turned out, he wasn’t the only one who held that opinion.
Aside from a slew of Emmy awards, Jeopardy! pulled in the coveted Peabody Award in 2012 for “encouraging, celebrating, and rewarding knowledge.” Alex had just about everything he could want. But he never expected that it could all be snatched away.
Moffitt Cancer Center
By 2018, Trebek had already contemplated leaving television behind. But his passion for Jeopardy!, along with a two-day work week and hefty salary, convinced him to extend his contract. However, his career wasn’t quite as stable as he thought.
Just months later, Alex learned that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. With the doctors discovering the disease at a pretty advanced state, the famed host had to decide how he would face his future.
Vulture / Ryan Pfluger
Surprisingly, he never had any doubts about whether he would continue with his job from there. In a video sharing his medical news with Jeopardy! fans, Alex promised he would fight the odds and go on with the show.
With his sense of humor as strong as ever, Trebek quipped that he had no choice but to keep on hosting, as his new contract bound him until 2022. Alex said he was up for the arduous road ahead, but some fans thought he was just saving face.
Historically, the rate of survival for Alex’s type of cancer is low. Of course, he’d faced pain and injury before, but this was different. He feared that the immense sadness alone would be enough to take him down. Alex had to dig deep.
Always a fighter, Alex chose to undergo as much chemotherapy as it would take. He had to cram it in between seasons of Jeopardy!, as he didn’t want the treatment to affect his hosting. Fortunately, someone came along to draw attention away from Alex’s health.
In spring 2019, pro gambler James Holzhauer went on an epic tear, raking in far more money over single games of Jeopardy! than anyone else before him. Alex got so excited by the streak that he was left completely unprepared for a phone call that would leave him in tears.
Tears of joy, that is. Though it was still too early to determine whether or not Alex’s cancer had entered remission, he was responding incredibly well to chemotherapy. Cautiously, Alex began thinking about the future again.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling. The doctors said they hadn’t seen this kind of positive result in their memory,” Alex gushed. “Some of the tumors have already shrunk by more than 50 percent.”
Would he be able to beat the odds? That still was the most difficult question the trivia host has had to answer. But at least he could hold on to hope. As he passed the time during his treatment, Alex also reminisced with loved ones about the show’s most epic moments.
WireImage / Kevin Winter
For one thing, we all know the host of Jeopardy! is Alex Trebek, but this wasn’t always the case. Art Fleming presented the show before the daily syndicated version premiered in 1984. Fleming even played the part in Airplane II: The Sequel.
The show has run for 35 seasons so far. That’s a total of over 7800 episodes! Four hundred other game shows came and went but thanks to Jeopardy!’s endless run, Alex Trebek holds the record for most episodes hosted by the same presenter.
Jeopardy! is watched by an average of 25 million viewers per WEEK! That means about 5 million people watch it every night. It’s actually still the second-ranked in syndication, as Family Feud takes the cake.
The longest winning streak in Jeopardy! history belongs to the super smart Ken Jennings. In 2004 he went on a 74-game streak, wherein no smarty pants competitor was able to unseat him as the standing champion.
Despite Ken Jennings’ historic success, he’s still not the highest earning contestant. That title goes to Brad Rutter, who won a pretty substantial fortune in his 14 years of competing on Jeopardy! Rutter’s total winnings come out to $4,385,702.
Snatching a spot on Jeopardy! is no child’s play. Apparently, the acceptance rates are about 0.4%, and that’s only of those who’ve aced a difficult, timed entrance exam of 50 questions in less than 15 minutes. You’re more likely to write a New York Times bestseller!
People who have appeared on any nationally broadcast game show of any format in the past year are ineligible for Jeopardy!, as are people who’ve been on three such shows within the past 10 years and those who have competed on Wheel Of Fortune — at any time.
A whole week’s worth of episodes is actually shot all in one day, so the participants are asked to bring 5 changes of clothing and wreck their brains all day playing one game after another. Oof!
If you’ve ever wondered why Alex Trebek is known to have over 100 suits, there’s a reasonable explanation for it: he’s not obsessed, he has to switch outfits 5 times a day for filming!
Merv Griffin’s wife Julann came up with the game show while on a plane in 1963. When Merv pitched the idea to NBC executives, they thought it was such a great idea that they bought the show even without looking at a pilot. Way to go, Julann!
Griffin scrapped the original show title What’s the Question? after network executive Ed Vane rejected the game concept saying, “It doesn’t have enough jeopardies.” We wonder where he got the idea for the new title…
Alex’s stoic behavior is not just his personality — a lot of thought has gone into creating the perfect game show host attitude that is non-judgmental and likable to almost anyone. Will Ferrel created a hilarious adaptation of his stoicism on SNL.
You can totally win Jeopardy! with $1. Yep, using that last wager to win double or nothing may sound great, but it’s always good to keep at least one buck on hand so you can still win the game while your opponents lose it all!
Knowing the right answers isn’t enough to win Jeopardy: you need to be the first to buzz! Unfortunately, people used to buzz so early that Alex couldn’t even finish reading the questions. Now the buzzers are set so they don’t work until he has finished (and they don’t make an obnoxious noise anymore either).
No, not everyone who competes on this show has the handwriting of a 4-year-old. According to past competitors, the screen is really small while the stylus is rather large. It has been described as using an icicle to write on a tiny picture frame. Yikes!
When celebrities participate in the game, they’re not really looking to win more money for themselves. Instead, they donate all the money to a charity of their choosing. After all, a few thousand dollars is pennies to someone like Anderson Cooper.
Some of the celebrities that have played Jeopardy! are Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper, Sean Connery, Ashton Kutcher, Jodie Foster, and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt!
Say hello to the Clue Crew! This small team of 14 masterminds travels the entire globe to come up with clues for the show. This helps clue ambassadors Sarah Whitcomb Foss, Jimmy McGuire, and Kelly Miyahara put together the heart of the show.
To ensure fairness to the participants, the show has hired a panel of judges who decide whether certain questionable answers were still correct or thrown right out the door. No one is allowed to make eye contact with them.
You know the theme song of the show, “Think!”? Well, it was written by the show’s creator, Merv Griffin himself. He originally wrote the music as a lullaby for his son, but on the show, it doesn’t really relax anyone… it gets the adrenaline pumping!
How come all Jeopardy! participants seem to be exactly the same height? Well, they’re not. They actually stand on adjustable platforms, and it’s not just because it looks better — feeling tall can boost confidence. To even the score, everyone matches!
The only time Alex ever missed Jeopardy! is when he pulled an April Fool’s prank in 1997. He and Pat Sajak from sister show Wheel Of Fortune switched places for the day and acted like nothing was amiss. In 2005, he pranked viewers again by not wearing any pants (or did he simply forget?)
There used to be a kid’s version of your favorite game show called Jep! but it no longer exists. After switching from the Game Show Network to Disney Channel, it was eventually dropped and replaced by kids week on regular Jeopardy! so these WizKids can still compete.
The show has received at least 33 Emmy awards AND a Peabody Award. It is so popular that it’s been adopted all over the world, including Canada, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Russia, Israel, Denmark, and Australia.