• The Star Staff

‘Jeopardy!’ fans can’t imagine the show without Alex Trebek

By Julia Jacobs

For television viewers under a certain age, there was never a “Jeopardy!” without Alex Trebek.

Calm, steady and always with a twinkle in his eye, Trebek was a constant on the television screens of millions of people since he took over as host in 1984. After news broke that the game show host died Sunday after battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, there was an outpouring of sadness from fans, ex-contestants and celebrities.

“Alex Trebek was ‘Jeopardy!’,” said Monica Thieu, a contestant who won the college championship in 2012. “We have no idea what the show is going to be without him.”

Trebek, who was 80 years old, had hosted more than 8,200 episodes, and more remain to be broadcast. The show said that Trebek’s last day in the studio was Oct. 29 and that the final new “Jeopardy!” episode with him as host will air Dec. 25. The show has not divulged any plans that it has to appoint a new host.

Thieu, 26, who also appeared on the show in 2013 and 2019, said that she revered Trebek as a child, going so far as to try to compete in the National Geographic Bee when she was in fourth grade so she could meet Trebek, who for many years hosted the annual contest (now the GeoBee) in Washington. “He made it cool to be smart,” she said.

Trebek was equally admired by an older generation of contestants and game show lovers. For decades, the show has been a reliable staple in American pop culture, something viewers can turn on at the same time every weekday — and the silver-haired host was a key ingredient in that.

Richard Cordray, a five-time “Jeopardy!” champion in the 1980s who went on to become the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said that part of what made the game show such a source of comfort for so many Americans was Trebek’s consistency as host.

“In his elegant and gracious way, he always had the answer to every question,” he said.

Ever since Trebek went public with his cancer diagnosis in March 2019, contestants have been vocal about their adoration and support for their host. In a show that aired in November of last year, shortly after Trebek revealed that he had resumed chemotherapy to treat the cancer, Trebek got choked up when one contestant wrote “What is ‘We love you, Alex!’” for his Final Jeopardy response.

And at one match of the “Greatest of All Time” (or GOAT) tournament earlier this year, James Holzhauer, a record-setting “Jeopardy!” star, knew that he was too far behind to win, so he used his answer board to honor Trebek, calling him the “GHOST,” or “greatest host of syndicated TV.”

Among the ex-contestants who have spent the most time onstage with Trebek is Ken Jennings, who captivated “Jeopardy!” fans with a 74-game winning streak in 2004 and went on to win the show’s “GOAT” tournament. On Sunday, Jennings, who is a consulting producer on the current season of the show, wrote on Twitter that Trebek was a “deeply decent man” and said he was grateful for every minute that he got to spend with him.

And in a country where even pop culture icons often attract ire from people with a certain political ideology, Trebek remained far outside the political fray.

“In a time where the country feels deeply divided, Alex will be missed by everyone,” Holzhauer said in a statement Sunday.

On social media, there was a cascade of mourning from fellow television hosts and celebrities. Ryan Seacrest wrote on Twitter that Trebek was “like a family member who I watched every night.” Steve Harvey, who hosts “Family Feud,” called him “the classiest game show host of all time.” Jimmy Kimmel, referencing Saturday’s election results, quipped, “Couldn’t we have one nice weekend?”

Trebek, who was born in Ontario and who started his career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, also received recognition from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, who said on Twitter that Trebek had been responsible for instilling a love of trivia in many.

But Trebek’s celebrity was never flashy or self-centered. He had turned down offers to write a book until recently, when he published his memoir, “The Answer Is …: Reflections on My Life.” He said he planned to donate the money he got for the book.

On the show itself, past contestants remember him as a consummate professional, treating all contestants with the same interest and respect when interacting with them. (That consistency made it all the more shocking when Trebek diverged from his usual politeness, like when he poked fun at a contestant’s love for a genre of music called “nerd-core hip-hop.”)“He was so committed to the show being about the contestants and not about him,” said Emma Boettcher, a contestant who ended Holzhauer’s winning streak last year. “But for a lot of us, what we remember about the show is his presence.”

Jason Zuffranieri, who appeared as a contestant in 20 episodes of the show last year, said Sunday that it was Trebek’s understated personality on camera and his dedication to the rules of the game that helped build the show’s credibility.

“His ability to stay out of the way and always be fair elevated the audience’s impression of both the game and himself,” he said. “It takes a special person to do that.”