It’s a long-standing joke among the ancients Peril! Candidates: The first thing everyone wants to know is “How’s Alex Trebek?” How a contestant did it, what they spent their winnings on, and what it was like to participate in the most beloved game show – and maybe just TV, it was all irrelevant.
On Sunday, the host who had presided over one of television’s most beloved rituals for 36 years died of pancreatic cancer. By the age of 80, he had spent almost half of his life – and the entire lives of many Peril! fan – offering over 8,000 episodes of answers and questions. For many viewers, Peril! is something bordering on the sacred. Trebek – patient, wise and at times ironic – was unambiguously his center of gravity.
I interviewed him for the book on Peril! that I have spent the last two years reporting. He was typically humble about his role – anyone who had been on a show for as long as he had been would be revered as he was, he insisted.
Forgive me for the correction, but I think the judges will agree with me: Trebek was a singular talent and a singular pleasure, whose decades at the helm of Peril! put him in rare company. He was a modern day Walter Cronkite, as candidate Ken Jennings put it – an emblem of knowledge and sincerity and a tradition in itself. For those who grew up in the blue glow of his “We hope you’ll join us tomorrow, my friends,” he felt like a member of the family.
Part of his success came from the fact that he walked the promenade. In his early years as a host, he insisted on taking (and passing, of course) the candidate’s test every year; he kept a library full of classics in his home, and his favorite vacation spot and that of his wife John was the home of the Brontë family in England. At the end of each episode, Trebek – in his bespoke suits, forever the consummate scholarly gentleman – made his way to the contestants’ lecterns to shake hands with the new champion. Many players have told me that the conversation during those last fleeting moments in front of the camera was usually about the game’s finale: how did they work on that Final Jeopardy! index? Or worse for those who missed it: Hm, you don’t remember that in Mesopotamia … For Trebek, these things were important. Peril! It was just a game, yes, but all of these obscure facts – to him, and by proxy to the millions of people playing from their couches every night, these things really mattered.
But there was so much more to what he was doing than just reading clues. He took his job with a seriousness that you can’t expect from a game show host. On tape days it happened to Peril!‘s Culver City studio at 6 a.m. and proceeded to review the day’s game material, a dictionary by his side as he did diacritical notations to perfect his pronunciation. During matches – 22 minutes of frenzied recording that shine – he used a pencil to mark a copy of the board in front of him, watching with some occasional exasperation, especially playfully, over the years as his competitors harped on strategies of increasingly complicated, like the Forrest Bounce, which kept it on its toes. He had the talent of a sports announcer to boost games, push his players and give clues room to breathe, and – especially in recent years with players like Buzzy Cohen and Austin Rogers – playing the straight man while its competitors let go. The fact that he made it all seamless is proof of how hard he worked.
Trebek saw himself first and foremost as a performer and felt above all that it was his duty to give audiences – whether those who are physically in the studio or the millions watching from home – the best version of the movie. show he can. Peril! films five episodes each day of the band in front of a live studio audience (at least in a non-pandemic time). At the end of a match, the contestant is taken backstage to change into “tomorrow” gear, powder their face and perhaps breathe in a bag. Trebek, meanwhile, spent the intervals between games holding the pitch with the audience in impromptu Q&A, strolling along the edge of the stage and calling out whoever raised his hand.
Day after day he had the same questions. “How would he do as a candidate?” “What does he do in his free time?” “Who should be the next guest of Peril!? He replied to everyone with good humor, and his characteristic self-deprecation, as if it was the very first time: he would be hit by his opponents unless may be he was participating in a senior tournament; he tinkered with the house or – still laughing – turned to chardonnay; invariably he said Betty White should replace him.
He understood what it meant for visitors to see him, to meet him, to talk to him. He was eager to give everyone who came to his house each day their own Trebek souvenir to take with them. He was in the studio until October 29, just a week and a half before his death.
In 1992, he told a reporter that he imagines retirement – not anytime soon, but he certainly thought there would come a time when he would take off his dress shoes and relax. “In 20 years, I would like to live off the fat of the earth, watch my son jump high and slam dunks or throw the long bomb for Notre Dame,” he says.
Then Trebek continued to host, year after year. He didn’t retire when he hit that 20-year mark, and he didn’t retire when he announced his cancer diagnosis last year. He did not retire even as his treatment dragged on – choosing instead to acknowledge the pain caused by the chemotherapy, but saying he would not retire until he knew it was affecting his performance.
But of course he was Alex Trebek: his skills never faltered. Trebek confessed to me in one of our conversations that he occasionally watched Peril! at home – as he said: “I show up every now and then to see if I lose.” He was forever a perfectionist and his own harshest critic, and in this time of heartbreak it is moving that even he cannot find fault with his. Peril! performance.
There will inevitably be questions about the future. Trebek has always been the first to say that Peril! would go on long after hanging up her hat – it’s just too good not to. And that will continue – sometime after the last episode of the Trebek Era airs at the end of this year, we’ll see a new host. Trebek told me he didn’t want anything to do with choosing his successor – instead hoping that anyone could do. Peril! theirs, in the same way he did when he took the reins in 1984. Maybe Trebek will make his wish come true, and anyone and anything. Peril! Then you will just feel like another chapter from a favorite book. But this is certain: Peril! will always be synonymous with Alex Trebek.
Answers in the form of questions: a definitive story and an insider’s guide to the danger! will be released on November 10.