“It was the emotional peak.”
“As far as the contestant experience goes, he was the cherry on top of the ‘Jeopardy!’ sundae.”
When the longtime “Jeopardy!” host died on Nov. 8 at 80, tributes poured in worldwide as fans mourned the loss of a television icon. But those who competed on the show hold a special connection to Trebek, whom they describe as “everyone’s Canadian uncle,” and “someone who feels like a close family friend or neighbor,” and “a politely encouraging, firm-but-fair teacher.” He valued curiosity and knowledge and was a comforting, steady presence on TV, forming a close bond with both players and the viewing audience.
We talked to nearly 30 contestants from the past four decades — ranging from a player in the first episode to one whose winning moment went viral just earlier this month — about how Trebek became America’s most beloved game-show host.
When the Trebek-hosted “Jeopardy!” started airing in September 1984 (two previous iterations that aired in the ’60s and ’70s were hosted by Art Fleming), the 1950s quiz-show cheating scandals still loomed over the TV industry. Producers were consequently adamant that Trebek — the affable Canadian newscaster who had been hosting short-lived American game shows for a decade — steer clear of the contestants on filming days until cameras started rolling in the Los Angeles studio. But even though players only got to speak to him during the quick “contestant chat” segment and as the credits rolled, Trebek was a towering presence from the start.
Elise Beraru, 1984, the show’s first five-game champion: I lived in L.A., so I was always looking for game shows that I could try to be on. And I saw a blurb in the paper that “Jeopardy!” was returning. . . . When we went for the first round of tests, Alex was there and actively working with the production team at the beginning. He was always very hands-on.
Ric Moser, 1984: I was coming to L.A. to test for “Tic-Tac-Dough” . . . but when I got to LAX, I got a copy of the L.A. Times and I noticed a classified in there for “Jeopardy!” So I thought, “What the heck?” and tested for “Jeopardy!” instead. You didn’t have to make an appointment then; you could just show up. I saw Alex briefly, he popped in to say hello to those who got through the initial bit of testing.
Lois Feinstein, 1984, on Trebek’s debut “Jeopardy!” episode: That first show took about 2½ hours to tape because things were going wrong and he kept stopping. But he maintained calm through the whole thing.
Beraru: Alex was very, very concerned about the quality of the show. Every so often someone would write a question with a very hard-to-pronounce word. He went up to [the clue writers] and he said, “If you ever do that again, you’re fired.” . . . I don’t know [if he was joking]. I honestly don’t know. But I didn’t see another unpronounceable question for the rest of the show.
Jim Tompkins-Maclaine, 1989: There was a little boy in the audience, maybe 8 or 9, and when Alex asked a question the kid shouted out the answer and they had to stop taping. Alex, at first, was irritated by it, but then he realized who had done it. So he talked to the little boy, and the whole audience fell in love with Alex Trebek at that moment. He was so kind. . . . I’m a schoolteacher and that’s how I scold people now. I think, “What would Alex Trebek do?”
Judith Seeger, 1987: He had an intense, focused interest on all the players. He paid attention to what they said, he was curious about what they did.
Sandra Gore, 1987: Whether you knew it or not, he would read the question in a way to make sure you understood: “Here’s what you need to think about if you’re not overtaken by flop sweat. Just listen to me, and I will lead you down the right path.” He wanted people to win money.
Doug Molitor, 1987: After my first game, I asked him, “Are you aware that Eugene Levy is playing you on SCTV?” Unlike Alex Trebek, “Alex Trebel” would get furious at his idiot contestants. Alex chuckled dryly, as always — he was not an effusive man. He said, “Yes, I have seen that.” I could tell he was amused but didn’t want to admit it. . . . His stardom transcended the show after a while, yet he never got too big for the show.
Trebek’s unflappable professionalism, combined with a genuine kindness and a hefty dose of deadpan wit, made him a star. He won the Emmy Award for outstanding game show host in 1989 and 1990, and would win five more times over the course of his career. He had cameos on shows from “Cheers” to “The X-Files,” and in 1996, Will Ferrell unleashed his famous Trebek impression on “Saturday Night Live.” But on “Jeopardy!,” contestants were pleased that his down-to-earth demeanor on camera was the same behind the scenes.
Fritz Holznagel, 1994: Most people who were on in the ’90s still remembered Art Fleming. When Alex took over, a lot of people were hoping they would bring back Art Fleming . . . but [Trebek] clearly gained a level of fame and belovedness.
Melizza Zygmunt, 1998: There was a sense that he was special: He made being knowledgeable and well-versed in a variety of topics cool. He made having a philosophy degree cool. He made being a Canadian cool.
Janine Menhennet, 1997: On my third game, the guy who eventually won kept correcting Alex on how to say “vegan.” And actually, the guy was saying it wrong (“VEH-gen”) . . . I was like, “Nobody corrects Alex!”
Derek Lowe, 1995: The show was run extremely tightly and everyone involved seemed to know their job perfectly. And it all centered around Trebek . . . who was just flawless and a pleasure to watch.
Holznagel: I think most people who try to do that job [for so long], your eyes would glaze over eventually during the contestant chat . . . but that never happened with him.
Menhennet: My opinion, I guess, shifted, because he can come across as kind of know-it-all-y sometimes. But he’s such a regular guy in person.
Holznagel: Final Jeopardy! was a triple stumper about the title of a Sean O’Casey play “The Plough and the Stars.” After, he said, “I’m surprised none of you got that one. No Sean O’Casey fans here?” He was plain-spoken, not in a mean way. Just in an honest way.
Leszek Pawlowicz, 1991: The minimal times we interacted, he was so friendly and gracious. He talked about his kids — he had just had one of his first kids with his wife, Jean — and whether Los Angeles was a good place to raise a kid.
Lowe: Everyone associated the show with him. By this time, he had just became a big part of American culture.
At first, it looked like the biggest story for “Jeopardy!” in the new millennium might be that Trebek shaved off his mustache in 2001. (“Get a life,” Trebek responded when his hairless upper lip caused a minor media meltdown.) Then in 2003, the producers instituted a new rule that a contestant could win an unlimited amount of games, unlike the previous restriction that capped winning streaks at five. And then, well . . .
Matt Ottinger, 2004, Ken Jenning’s 14th game: I believe [Trebek] said, “What’s been happening is we start the show, Ken wins about $30,000, and then we end the show.” He was experiencing it along with us.
Ryan McClarren, 2004, on Ken Jennings’s 21st game: In the segment where Alex talks to contestants, while talking to Ken — and it was unprecedented, because they never had someone go this long — he said something like, “Ken, do you have any questions for me? Because I’m running out of things to talk to you about.” I thought that was a cute way of addressing that issue without making too big of a deal out of it. He asked Alex what he had for breakfast. I think he said he doesn’t usually have breakfast, maybe a Diet Coke.
Rob Kimbro, 2004, on Ken Jennings’s 74th and final winning game: Final Jeopardy! was a really convoluted question, and I did make Alex break and laugh while reading my answer. That made me happy, because he’s such a pro and I got a chuckle out of him. . . . Then, [in the next game], in a stunner, Ken lost and it was pandemonium.
McClarren: I remember Alex telling the audience a story [during a commercial break] about when he was in college and drinking so many liters of beer . . . You could just see that the audience really loved that interaction, to get to see him not just as the “Jeopardy!” person, but as the full human.
Kevin Keach, 2001: He put the contestants at ease . . . He was always very pleasant and talking to us at the end while the credits were rolling.
Celeste DiNucci, 2006: His focus was on the game. There wasn’t a sense of Alex as a personality outside the show; he was very quiet and very private. But when he was there, he was there for everybody — for studio audience and for broadcast audience.
More than two decades into the show’s run, Trebek wasn’t only a pop culture icon, but a comforting nightly TV figure on par with Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson. In 2013, a highly cited Reader’s Digest poll of “the 100 most-trusted people in America” listed Trebek at No. 8. Yet he always stayed humble. For millions of viewers, the show was a half-hour during which you could tune out the anxiety of the world and be soothed by trivia and Trebek’s meticulous, dulcet tones.
Adam Marshall, 2011: I think to some extent, he may sort of be grandfathered in from a time when media consumption wasn’t as polarized.
Eric Brach, 2014: All game shows are apolitical, it’s people trying to enjoy a friendly competition with stakes from a distance. People don’t watch game shows to get riled up — it’s escapist, fantastical fun.
Marshall: He really rarely made any sort of mistakes. The entire time I was there, I think they had to back up maybe once. Which is really remarkable because he’s pronouncing a variety of languages and proper names, but didn’t miss a beat.
Caitlin Peruccio, 2013: He said something like, “Phil Seymour Hoffman played [blank] in this movie.” In the commercial break, the producer said, “You read the clue wrong.” And then, not that he berated himself, but he was [clearly upset] he misread it. “Ah, I know his name is Phillip Seymour Hoffman!” . . . They reshot it, and unless you were there, you would never know he reread the question. It was little things like that. Some people think it’s a pretty easy job, but he did a lot of reading and he took it really seriously.
And with the rise of social media, Trebek learned what it meant to “go viral” — not that he participated in that particular culture.
Arthur Chu, 2014, who made headlines for his aggressive strategy: Alex, to his great credit, never created a Twitter account or Instagram account. He never did social media things.
Brach, who was in the viral clip of Trebek reading rap lyrics: It was great. You think of this guy and he’s always been silver-haired ever since you’re a child . . . then he’s up there throwing some Beastie Boys at you and some West Coast rap. It’s like, “You are a kindly old Canadian grandpa whose favorite movie is ‘How Green Was My Valley,’ what are you doing?”
Chu: He was aware of his image and he would poke fun at it. He understood it was funny for him to reveal things that didn’t seem to fit with his game-show host persona, like you were running into a teacher outside of school. . . . They haven’t tweaked the formula of the show in years — they never turned it into a jazzed-up reality TV version of “Jeopardy!.” I think Alex Trebek being an icon has a lot to do with that.
In March 2019, fans were devastated when Trebek announced he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He kept viewers updated on his prognoses and chemotherapy treatments, and was candid about the brutal nature of his illness. Still, he continued filming, and no one was more upset than him when the show went on an unexpected hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. His final day in the studio was Oct. 29, less than a week and a half before he died.
Dhruv Gaur, 2019, who wrote “What is: We love you, Alex!” as his Final Jeopardy! answer: Everyone there could see Alex was having a hard time with his cancer and was feeling a little bit discouraged. I just wanted to express to him how it’s not just me, but all of us who are fans of the show and who have been on the show, love and appreciate his presence.
In a rare moment, Trebek visibly choked up. “That’s very kind,” he said. “Thank you.”
Gaur: I really wasn’t expecting that. You see Alex Trebek on TV and in real life, and he’s the most composed, consummate professional. He’s very smart and very witty, but you don’t see that super emotional side of him too often. I was really surprised and a little taken aback that what I wrote had that impact.
Burt Thakur, 2020, whose win went viral after he teared up when he told Trebek “I learned English because of you”: I thought it was a personal moment; I didn’t even know the cameras were on. It was actually after the show, he just came over and asked a quick question and when I told him that, I thought I was just telling him . . . He was intertwined with my memory of the United States, my childhood memory of coming here for the first time. There’s a saying that whenever you meet your heroes, don’t have many great expectations because you’ll be disappointed. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Gilbert Collins, 2018 and 2019: The love Alex had for what he did, the love he had for meeting contestants and making things enjoyable for people in the studio and people watching at home — he did this while fighting through real, real pain.
Devin Rossiter, 2020: It wasn’t just about being able to see Alex on that stage — it was being able to see him as he was going through the greatest fight of his life, as well as the surrounding circumstances with covid.
Cory Barger, 2020: We all got covid tests within a week of being on the set and we were really distanced; everyone wore masks except for when cameras came on. We couldn’t get very close to Alex or shake hands or anything like that. It was very important to make sure he was as safe as possible. . . . But it was very exciting to just be in the same room, and kind of overwhelming.
Kristin Hucek, 2020: He made some comment off-air about how divided things are politically. But whatever his personal political feelings were, he saw it as his job as host of “Jeopardy!” to kind of put that aside and focus on something that everyone can enjoy that isn’t divisive.
Thakur: From a cultural standpoint, it was more than a quiz show, more than a game show. For a lot of people, it was an introduction into Western culture itself. . . . As immigrants, we got to understand the cultural zeitgeist of the Western world. Whoever that next host will be will not only have big shoes to fill, but I hope they realize how much of an impact that show has had on so many people.
Collins: He just wanted everyone to enjoy the show, enjoy learning and the experience of “Jeopardy!.” It’s one of the many things that makes it so hard that he’s gone.
Interviews and statements have been edited and condensed for clarity.