Alex Trebek, whose wit, pronunciation panache and steady hand for 36 years helped to make the quiz show Jeopardy! into a juggernaut, has died at the age of 80.
The beloved TV host died early Sunday morning, according to TMZ.
A spokesperson for the show told the outlet: ‘Jeopardy is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends.’
Trebek revealed a stage four diagnosis for pancreatic cancer in March 2019.
Starting out in radio and television in his native Canada, Trebek did a slew of game shows in Hollywood before landing the revival of Jeopardy! in 1984. Packaged with the Wheel of Fortune and syndicated throughout the country, the show became ‘part of the fabric of American life,’ Trebek wrote in his 2020 autobiography.
‘Viewers have gotten used to having me there, not so much as a showbiz personality but as an uncle. I’m a part of the family more than an outside celebrity who comes into your home to entertain you.’
Trebek, whose family called him ‘Sonny,’ grew up in the nickel-mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. He studied philosophy out of necessity to make his way through college. Bilingual, Trebek spent 12 years announcing and hosting on radio and TV for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in English and French before moving to Los Angeles to host The Wizards of Odds in 1973.
He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Jean, and their two children, Matthew and Emily. Trebek was close with his first wife’s daughter, Nicky. He married Elaine Callei in 1974 and they divorced in 1981.
Despite numerous awards and accolades, the host, whose facial hair or lack thereof has caused speculation and news coverage, stayed humble, remarking is his memoir, ‘I have never seen myself as anything special.’
Alex Trebek, above on the set of Jeopardy!, has died at the age of 80. Trebek was born and raised in Canada, worked in radio and television for 12 years in his native country before moving to Los Angeles in 1973 to host The Wizard of Odds. It took about 10 years and many shows for him to land Jeopardy! in 1984. Trebek hosted the popular quiz show for nearly 8,000 episodes over 36 years and won numerous awards for his work
Above, Trebek with his family at the Emmys Awards in June 2011. Next to Trebek is his wife of 30 years, Jean, his daughter Emily, his first wife’s daughter, Nicky, and his son Matthew. Trebek was married to Elaine Callei from 1974 until they divorced in 1981. ‘My relationships with Elaine and Nicky remain strong. Though I never adopted Nicky – her biological father was alive at the time – I refer to her as my daughter by osmosis,’ he wrote in his autobiography The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life. Trebek married Jean Currivan in April 1990
In the late 1920s, his father, George Edward Terebeychuk, left Ukraine and made his way to Canada. After changing his last name to Trebek to match his cousin, George started working and cooking in kitchens first in Toronto and then in Sudbury, a town known for its nickel mining in Ontario.
In Sudbury, George was the co-head chef at the Nickel Range Hotel and he met Lucille Lagace. They got married in December 1939 because Lucille was pregnant. George Alexander Trebek was born on July 22, 1940 in what, he wrote, was a ‘little shack of a house just behind my grandparents’ home. There was no doctor.’
His sister, Barbara, was born on October 14, 1941, and Trebek recalled a childhood surrounded by his extended family in Sudbury and for a time in Toronto. He often watched his uncles, who were in construction, as they built and painted. He also spent a lot of time with his father as he worked as chef, and wrote that ‘the kitchen became a second home to me.’
As his mother was French Canadian, Trebek was bilingual and he described himself as ‘a good student in primary school. Got good grades. Little bit of sh** stirrer.’
Growing up, his family called him Sonny and by his late teens, he was using his middle name Alex to avoid confusion with his father, according to his autobiography, The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life.
‘I never thought about whether we were poor. We existed, same as everybody else. My friends and I were all just lower-middle-class kids from lower-middle-class families. We played every sport: hockey, baseball, softball, basketball, football. I blew out my knee playing football. Some parents owned their house. Some parents rented. We were all part of the same community.’
And while his parents cared deeply for each other, Trebek noted that they were ill-suited: ‘Dad was a smoker and a heavy drinker. Mom was a teetotaler, and she was brighter than he was. Divorce was almost unheard of in our community, but they separated, which caused me no end of grief.’
Trebek spoke both English and French during his childhood in Sudbury, a town known for its nickel mining in Ontario. His Ukrainian father immigrated to Canada in the late 1920s and his mother was French Canadian. Being bilingual helped his career in broadcasting when he first started out in radio and TV as he could announce in both languages. He worked in Ottawa for two years before being transferred to the Toronto headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, known as the CBC. There, he hosted the Canadian equivalent of American Bandstand, a show called Music Hop, and Trebek is seen above on the show in the 1960s
Trebek stayed with the CBC for 12 years and was a jack-of-all trades, covering sporting events such as curling tournaments, introducing orchestras and ballet performances, and hosting quiz shows like Reach for the Top where Canadian high school students competed for scholarships, according to his autobiography. He then began thinking about a career in America. Through fellow Canadian Alan Thicke, Trebek got a job hosting The Wizards of Odds in 1973 and moved to Los Angeles. Trebek, above, on one of the shows he hosted during the 1970s called High Rollers, in which dice were thrown
A producer who worked with Trebek on High Rollers told him: ‘Alex, never turn down a job. You never know if another offer is going to come along,’ according to his autobiography, The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life. ‘For a long time, as long as I was able to, I did not turn down jobs. And I never doubted my talent either. I never took it personally when a show got canceled. I knew I was good. Because I had experience.’ Trebek, above, in 1984, the year he started hosting Jeopardy!
Luck and timing played a role in Trebek getting Jeopardy!, he wrote. He once filled in for Chuck Woolery, who was then the host of Wheel of Fortune. This favor was remembered by Merv Griffin who produced Jeopardy! and was thinking about reviving the show. Jeopardy! was originally hosted by Art Fleming and first aired from 1964 to 1974 and then for six months in 1978, according to Trebek’s memoir. Julann Wright – Griffin’s wife at the time – was the one who came with its format: the contestant is given the answer and has to respond with the question. Trebek, above in 1990 in New York City at a book signing, also produced Jeopardy! for the first three years
When his parents separated, Trebek was sent to boarding school at the University of Ottawa and he began acting out. His behavior was ‘so unruly,’ that he and his father had to beg the principal to let him stay at the school. Afterwards, Trebek was a well-behaved and good student, according to his memoir.
He tried the military to pay for college, but rebelled at its rules. Back in Sudbury and without any money, he did what is called a ‘matriculation year’ or the equivalent of first year university in Canada. He went to prom, but Trebek wrote he ‘was very shy with girls. I was not forward at all. You would have to throw me into a girl’s arms and she would have to accept me willingly for anything to happen.’
Trebek studied philosophy at the University of Ottawa because it allowed him to work part time in order to pay for his education. ‘Growing up, I wanted to be either a pilot, a doctor, or the prime minister of Canada,’ he wrote, adding that he considered medicine at one point as well. But once he discovered broadcasting, all those professions fell by the wayside.
It took him a bit of time before he broke into the business. He auditioned well, Trebek recalled, but was not hired because of his lack of experience. ‘Maybe my rebellious streak kept me from taking no for an answer,’ he wrote and then applied to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, known as the CBC. ‘I still have the audition tape.’
He was hired for a temporary summer position and then filled in during other holidays. The CBC offered Trebek a full-time position, which he accepted but with condition that he finish university first.
After graduating, he worked in Ottawa for two years before being transferred to the CBC’s national headquarters in Toronto in the early 1960s. He hosted the Canadian equivalent of American Bandstand, a show called Music Hop. The program was his first taste of ‘celebrity,’ he recalled. He had done live TV in Ottawa, but wrote: ‘No matter how much experience you have, live TV is always challenging. If you mess up on TV – which I did – you better learn how to redeem yourself…
‘Messing up on live TV taught me an important lesson about show business: learn to laugh at yourself.’
For 12 years at the CBC, Trebek was a jack-of-all trades, covering sporting events such as curling tournaments, introducing orchestras and ballet performances, and hosting quiz shows like Reach for the Top where Canadian high school students competed for scholarships, according to his memoir. He began thinking about a career in America.
Enter fellow Canadian Alan Thicke.
Trebek met Thicke when he hosted a variety show called After Noon and Thicke appeared on it. Thicke, best known for playing Jason Seaver on the hit TV show Growing Pains during the 1980s and early ’90s, was also a songwriter who composed TV theme songs and produced several shows. Thicke, now living in Los Angeles, called up Trebek about a new game show he was working on called The Wizard of Odds.
In 1973, Trebek was hired to host The Wizard of Odds but only resigned from the CBC after it was picked up for another 13 weeks. He moved to LA. ‘I wasn’t sad about leaving Canada,’ he wrote, adding that his sister, Barbara, lived there as well. ‘Back then it really did feel like a small town…
‘I was in hog heaven. I was where things happened. The center of the entertainment industry. Not making a whole lot of money but enough to survive comfortably in a new apartment. I was having a great time.’
‘With Jean it just happened. Sometimes you know. Sometimes you look at something, you look at someone, and you know. I mean, you’ve heard stories of people who meet and decided within half an hour, “I knew this was going to be the person I’d end up with.” And with Jeanie, that’s how it was. I wasn’t looking for love. But with Jean, I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being,’ Trebek wrote about his wife Jean in his memoir The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life. The pair was married for 30 years, traveled the world and had a charitable foundation together. They are seen above at an opening of a show in Hollywood in May 1990
When Trebek met Jean Currivan, he was already the host of Jeopardy! and divorced. Currivan was bookkeeping for one of his friends on the weekend when they were introduced. ‘She was the most charming person I had ever met; not only polite, but exuding a warmth that showed character and spirituality as well. And she was drop-dead gorgeous.’ When his friend invited Trebek to a dinner party, he asked Currivan be included as well. ‘After that, we started dating. I don’t know if Jeanie was as instantly certain about me as I was about her. I think at first she might’ve thought I was a bit of a jerk,’ he wrote. The couple, above, in 1995
The couple married in April 1990 and had their first child, Matthew, that year. Their daughter, Emily, was born in 1993. ‘We always had dinner together, which is very different from what I grew up with,’ he wrote. ‘To be honest, I followed Jean’s lead on parenting. She is the calming influence. She has a more understanding personality than I am. She’s not rigid.’ He recalled in his book how after dinner his kids would go do their homework or play games. ‘They didn’t watch Jeopardy! very often. It was not must-see television for them. They knew their father was the host of a television quiz show.’ Above, the couple in 2014
In The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life, Trebek wrote: ‘The most challenging thing about fatherhood is that it introduced an element of fear into my life. When you’re a bachelor, you do all kinds of dumb, daredevil things. You don’t fear for your life too much. You don’t worry about anything. But when you’re married and have a family, you worry.’ Above, Matthew, Emily, Trebek, Jean and Nicky, his first wife’s daughter
Trebek, now 33, was the ‘talented newcomer in broadcasting,’ making connections and attending dinner parties. In his memoir, he wrote about how he didn’t have a vice: no smoking, drinking or doing drugs. ‘I don’t really drink that much. Having seen the way my father drank, it never interested me,’ he recalled.
So he decided to ‘add more salt’ to his language, Trebek wrote, quipping in his memoir about the ‘revelation’ that he swears.
The Wizard of Odds, which focused on math, lasted for a year. In 1974, Trebek was hosting a show called High Rollers, a game about throwing dice. He also got married that September to Elaine Callei, a former Playboy Bunny he had met in Toronto.
‘She hosted a couple of television programs, including a daily talk show that was groundbreaking for how frankly it addressed sexual topics. She had been married before and had a daughter named Nicky. She was around six when Elaine and I got together, and cute as all get out,’ he wrote.
The newlyweds bought a house on Mulholland Drive, and Callei invited Trebek’s mother, Lucille, to live with them on the property and help raise Nicky. Trebek wrote that it was a ‘marvelous arrangement.’
Trebek and Callei were married until 1981. ‘I didn’t know what was expected of me as a husband. Elaine and I were both too reluctant to give up our respective points of view, nor were we willing to compromise,’ he said, according to an unauthorized biography, Who is Alex Trebek?, by Lisa Rogak.
Trebek wrote that their divorce was amicable and his mother, Lucille, continued to take care of Nicky. He brought a house across the street from them. He noted in his memoir: ‘My relationships with Elaine and Nicky remain strong. Though I never adopted Nicky – her biological father was alive at the time – I refer to her as my daughter by osmosis.’
Professionally, Trebek was struggling for a steady gig in the 1970s. ‘My career during those early years in Los Angeles was a bit erratic and unusual. I was being offered hosting jobs for all kinds of shows.’
In addition to The Wizard of Odds and two stints of High Rollers, he hosted Double Dare, a show where PhDs competed against each other while in isolation booths, Battlestars and Pitfall.
‘This was a difficult time in my life. My father was sick with cancer, and Elaine and I had just divorced. I needed the money for my new house. The job was supposed to pay me $49,000, which was a nice amount of dough back then,’ he wrote about Pitfall, which aired in the early 1980s.
He was paid for the first 13 weeks of the show, but his second check for the next chunk of time, didn’t clear. He mounted that check on the wall behind his desk.
‘In case you’ve lost count by now, that’s seven jobs in ten years. I never felt frustrated by the lack of continuity during those years. That’s just the business. For all the shows that are hits, there are dozen more that aren’t. I was just happy to have a job. There’s a lot to be said for being gainfully employed in the entertainment industry…
‘So when I got invited to host yet another show, this one called Jeopardy!, I was ready.’
Trebek recalled in his memoir a childhood surrounded by his extended family in Sudbury and for a time in Toronto. He often watched his uncles, who were in construction, as they built and painted, and spent time with his father, who was a chef, in the kitchen. At the University of Ottawa, Trebek studied philosophy because classes were held in the morning, freeing up the afternoons and evenings to work. He wrote: ‘I had no money, and neither did Dad, so I had to pay my way through school with part-time jobs, such as processing tax forms for the Canadian Revenue Agency.’ Above, Trebek in an undated photo likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s
While in college, he worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and after graduating had a full-time position. After 12 years with the CBC, he moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to host The Wizards of Odds. In September 1974, Trebek married Elaine Callei, a former Playboy Bunny he had met in Toronto. ‘She hosted a couple of television programs, including a daily talk show that was groundbreaking for how frankly it addressed sexual topics. She had been married before and had a daughter named Nicky. She was around six when Elaine and I got together, and cute as all get out,’ he recalled in his memoir. Above, the couple in an undated photo. They got divorced in 1981
Throughout the years, Trebek has been asked about retirement and who should replace him as host. He wrote: ‘Jeopardy! will be just fine. It doesn’t matter who’s the host. It’s a quality program… There are other hosts out there who can do equally as good a job as me. I think Jeopardy! can go on forever.’ Trebek has joked that Betty White should replace him. The audience wants ‘somebody younger, somebody funnier. Betty and I have been friends for a long, long time,’ he told Good Morning America in July 2020. Above, Trebek and White in 1982
Luck and timing played a role in Trebek getting Jeopardy!, he wrote. While he was hosting Battlestars – a show where celebrities competed and akin to Hollywood Squares – he agreed to fill in for Chuck Woolery on Wheel of Fortune. Woolery, who hosted the show from 1975 to 1981, was in the hospital. Pat Sajak has been hosting Wheel of Fortune since 1981.
This favor was remembered by Merv Griffin, famed talk show host whose production companies were the forces behind both Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!. Griffin was looking to revive Jeopardy!, which first aired from 1964 until 1974 and then again for six months in 1978, according to Trebek’s memoir.
Jeopardy! was to be coupled with Wheel of Fortune. Trebek took the job and the first episode with him hosting aired on September 10, 1984. Trebek recalled the challenges of those early years and how the show ‘struggled getting people to watch.’
By the time Trebek met Jean Currivan, Jeopardy! was on firm footing. Currivan was bookkeeping for one of his friends on the weekend when they were introduced. ‘She was the most charming person I had ever met; not only polite, but exuding a warmth that showed character and spirituality as well. And she was drop-dead gorgeous.’
When his friend invited Trebek to a dinner party, he asked that Currivan be included as well. ‘After that, we started dating. I don’t know if Jeanie was as instantly certain about me as I was about her. I think at first she might’ve thought I was a bit of a jerk.’
The couple married in April 1990 and celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2020.
‘In my office, near that framed check from the game show producer who stiffed me, I’ve got another framed image. Jeanie gave it to me. It’s a line from our favorite movie, Wuthering Heights: “Whatever our souls are made of yours and mines are the same.” That’s the way I look at our relationship. We are one soul in two bodies.’
Soon after they were married, they had their son, Matthew, in 1990, and then there daughter, Emily, in 1993. He wrote: ‘The most challenging thing about fatherhood is that it introduced an element of fear into my life. When you’re a bachelor, you do all kinds of dumb, daredevil things. You don’t fear for your life too much. You don’t worry about anything. But when you’re married and have a family, you worry.’
He noted in his book that because Jeopardy! taped for two long days a week, he had the opportunity to spend time with his family. And they always had dinner together, which was unlike how he grew up.
His father, George, died after Trebek’s divorce from his first wife in the 1980s, and his younger sister, Barbara, died of breast cancer in 2007. His mom, Lucille, who lived with Trebek on his property, died at the age of 95.
Trebek made his cancer diagnosis public in early 2019 and he wrote that there were moments he wished he hadn’t. Nonetheless, he was touched by the amount of support he received from Jeopardy! viewers about the illness and throughout the decades. ‘I really can’t say enough how grateful I am for our show’s fans. I try to show that gratitude as much as possible,’ he wrote.
After hosting nearly 8,000 episodes of Jeopardy! and being honored with several awards including Emmys, he wrote that he would like to be remembered ‘first of all as a good and loving husband and father, and also as a decent man who did his best to help people perform at their best. Because that was my job. That is what a host is supposed to do.’
‘Our writers and researchers have been with Jeopardy! for so long, I’ll often joke that working for the show is an annuity. They are constantly working on questions,’ he wrote The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life. ‘The writers, God bless them, are really sharp. They’ve won a lot of Emmys, and they deserve them. They can take a mundane fact and make it very entertaining.’ The show has won 35 Emmys. Above, Trebek on set for the 28th season of Jeopardy! in September 2011
For the two long days Trebek taped the quiz show. He wrote he was at the studio at 6am and went through all clues for that day’s five shows. He circled any clues that he wanted to talk about at the 9am production meeting. After that, it was makeup and putting on his suits. ‘Before the show starts, I’ll stand backstage and try to think of what I’m going to say when I walk out. Because I don’t want to be repetitious with regard to the opening of the show, I try to come up with different ways of welcoming the audience… Your job is to keep it fresh, keep it alive, keep your viewers interested in what’s going on,’ according to his memoir. Trebek, above, in April 2006 at the 33rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles
Trebek disclosed that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2019 and wrote about chemotherapy in his memoir. Above, he and Jean on ABC News talking about the diagnosis and its difficult treatment. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without her,’ he wrote about Jean. ‘What I’ve discovered in all of this is how extremely difficult it is for caregivers, and for loved ones looking after those who are sick. Jean doesn’t complain, but I worry about the toll it is taking on her. I worry how it’s affected Matthew and Emily too’
Trebek with his family: his son Matthew, Nicky, his first wife’s daughter, and his daughter Emily. In his memoir, he wrote: ‘I’m the typical product of my generation: a hardworking breadwinner who looks after his family; does all the repairs he can around the house; enjoys watching television; and thinks a simple dinner of fried chicken, broccoli, and rice is just fine, thank you very much’
Alex Trebek, above, in 2012. The host has volunteered with non-profits, donated to causes and universities, and had a charitable foundation with his wife, Jean. He wrote: ‘Curiosity has always been a very important factor in my life – about all subjects. It’s a thirst for knowledge. I have a standard motto and it’s very short: “A good education and a kind heart will serve you well throughout your entire life.” In his memoir, he wrote that he wasn’t afraid of dying. ‘I’ve lived a good, full life, and I’m nearing the end of it’