Trebek’s last moments in the studio were on Oct. 29, less than a week and a half before he died at age 80, a year and a half after announcing he had pancreatic cancer. Although he was in pain, he was determined to continue hosting as long as he could. “Alex didn’t think that was going to be his last episode,” executive producer Mike Richards told Deadline.
So he did what he always did: He walked into the bright lights of the studio as announcer Johnny Gilbert read his introduction, and started the game. Friday’s episode featured returning champion Yoshie Hill of California, up against Cliff Chang from Illinois and Jim Gilligan from New York. It was just as easy as ever to get absorbed in the rhythm of the game and feel excited when you knew an answer (“What is Google Glass?” “Who is Otis Redding?”) and stressed on behalf of the contestants when they dropped into the red.
As usual, he bantered with the contestants. “I know the feeling,” he said to Jim, who confessed that he suffers from “tsundoku,” a Japanese term for buying more books than you’ll ever have a chance to read. “What’s the secret of being a good calligrapher? A steady hand?” he asked Yoshie, when inquiring about her penchant for calligraphy. And you could hear his distinctly Canadian accent shine through when he expressed genuine sympathy (“Ohh, sorry”) as one player mispronounced a word and lost money.
At the end of Final Jeopardy!, he teased the winner before they revealed how much they wagered, because they looked ecstatic (“Not a good poker player, I fear”) and signed off as usual. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for spending the time with us,” he told the audience. “We’ll see you again next week.”
If those words were a gut-punch, what came next was more difficult, as “Jeopardy!” producers put together a brief montage of Trebek through the ages, set to an adapted version of “Once Before I Go” from the musical “The Boy From Oz": His first seasons on the show, the later years, his wry commentary (“I do not write the clues”), a clip of him getting roasted by a child contestant (“Why do I even set them up for these things?”). In the final scene, they showed him walking off the stage one more time to huge applause.
“Dedicated to Alex Trebek. Always in our hearts. Always our inspiration,” a card read, as it has for every episode since Trebek’s death.
Trebek didn’t film a goodbye message, but on this past Monday night’s episode, he started off the show with an unexpected speech. (Friday’s episode was originally supposed to air on Christmas Day, but producers delayed this week’s batch of episodes so they would air at a time when more viewers might be able to watch.)
“This is the season of giving. I know you want to be generous with your family, your friends, your loved ones. But today, I’d like you to go one step further. I’d like you to open up your hands and open up your heart to those who are still suffering because of covid-19. People who are suffering through no fault of their own," he said. “We’re trying to build a gentler, kinder society, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’re going to get there.”
Richards confirmed on “Good Morning America” Friday that even the crew was surprised by the message. “As bad as he felt,” Richards said, “he was there with that speech trying to lift us up.”