Most people knew him as the host of the popular game show, Jeopardy, but that barely scratched the surface of what he was. To identify him merely as a game show host was akin to labeling Michael Jordan as just a basketball player. Technically, it was true, but, as you will see, he was so much more.
George Alexander Trebek was born on July 22, 1940 in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. His father had emigrated from Ukraine as a child; his mother was a native-born French-Canadian. The family was bi-lingual, French and English. The original family name was Terebeychuk. Like many immigrant families the name was shortened at some point in order to facilitate their assimilation into their new home country. New country, new start, new name.
Alex was an industrious child. He began working at the age of 13. His first job was as a bellhop at a local hotel where his father was employed as a chef. After high school he attended the University of Ottawa from which he graduated in 1961 with a degree in philosophy. At that time his career goal was to work in broadcast news, a difficult field to break into. Actually, Alex began his career even before he earned his degree. In his words, “I went to school in the mornings, and worked at nights. I did everything … every possible job.” His first job in his chosen field was in 1963 on a Canadian music program called Music Hop.
In 1973 Alex emigrated to the US. (He became a naturalized citizen in 1996.) He secured a job with NBC as host of a new game show called The Wizard of Odds. That was soon followed by a bunch of other shows. For example, how many of these old and largely forgotten shows do you remember: High Rollers, Double Dare, the 128,000 Question, and Battlestars? Alex was very prolific. At one point, he was one of only two persons to be hosting shows in both the US and Canada, simultaneously. (The other was Jim Perry.) In 1991 he went one better, becoming the only person to host three game shows simultaneously.
Alex’s big break came in 1984. The game show, Jeopardy, was being revived as a daily syndicated show. The original daytime iteration of Jeopardy aired from 1964 to 1973. Art Fleming, the original host, had declined to emcee the show due to “creative differences.” Alex auditioned for the role and got it, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Alex remained the host until his death – 36 years. Contestants came and went. The show endured. The one constant was Alex. To many viewers, he was the show. Its popularity was astounding for a game show. Renowned author Linda Fairstein wrote it into each of her novels. Regardless of where they were, the main characters would make it a point to seek out a tv to watch the Final Jeopardy question. In the movie Rainman Dustin Hoffman’s character just had to watch it, and he drove Tom Cruise’s character crazy looking for a tv. In 2013 TV Guide published a list of the greatest American tv shows. Jeopardy ranked #45.
Like many other game show hosts Alex made a slew of guest appearances on other tv shows. But, Alex took it to another level. All told, he appeared on over thirty game shows and in over 50 movies and tv shows. There’s more. In 1996 he was honored as an Olympic torch bearer for part of the torch’s journey through FL In 2014 Guinness World Records recognized Alex as the record holder for hosting the most episodes of a game show – 6,829. Obviously, at the time of his death he had added to that record considerably. In 2018 he served as moderator in a debate between two candidates for the governorship of PA. He probably did a better job than some of the debate moderators we have suffered through this year.
Alex married twice. His first marriage ended in divorce. He had two children with his second wife, Jean. He owned a 700-acre ranch in CA on which he bred and trained thoroughbred racehorses.
As I said, Alex was much more than just one of the most successful game show hosts ever. He was a huge philanthropist and activist. For example, over his lifetime he donated some $10 million to his alma mater, the University of Ottawa, which honored him by naming its alumni hall in his honor. In addition, he donated $100,000 to Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in LA. Furthermore, he was very active in other charities such as World Vision Canada and the US Service Organization for World Trade, which focus on the needs of people in developing nations, particularly children.
Alex was the recipient of numerous awards and honoraria. For example, he was honored with a star on both Canada’s and Hollywood’s Walks of Fame; he won seven Emmys for “Outstanding Game Show Host;” and he was the recipient of a Daily Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Alex bravely fought through various health problems. In 2007 he suffered a “minor” heart attack; in 2011 he injured his Achilles tendon while chasing a burglar who had broken into his hotel room; in 2017 he developed a subdural hematoma, which required him to undergo brain surgery to remove some blood lots from his brain; and in January 2019 came the big one, pancreatic cancer. The initial symptom had been fairly innocuous, a persistent stomach ache. Alex fought bravely and hard, undergoing chemotherapy and surgery, but to no avail. Eventually, the cancer won.
Alex passed away on November 8 after a nearly two-year battle with the dreaded disease. Rest in peace, Alex. You lived your life with class and dignity, right to the end. As I said at the outset, many of us knew you as a game show host, but you were much, much more than that, and you will be sorely missed.