Alex Trebek was a part of “Jeopardy” for nearly 37 years, and in spite of his diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer revealed in the spring of 2019, the longtime host of the famed quiz show remained steadfast in his professional commitments until the very end.
In a new episode of the podcast “This is Jeopardy! The Story of America’s Favorite Quiz Show” this week titled “So Long, Everybody!” several members of Trebek’s family as well as longtime colleagues remembered the last year and a half of his tenure on the show, leading up to his death in November 2020.
“Alex, from the very beginning, said, ‘This is not going to affect anything, I plan on fighting this. Let’s get back to work,'” longtime “Jeopardy” producer Lisa Broffman recalled when Trebek first told her team the news.
His attitude was the same at home. “There was no possibility of him not working,” Trebek’s daughter, Emily, said. “That was never an option.”
What followed was a period of intense challenges and deeply rewarding moments, as those close to Trebek rallied around him as his disease progressed.
“The way Alex looked at it and perceived it was very much in alignment with his personality,” his wife, Jean, said, going on to detail that his outlook was, “‘We’ll just deal with it, I’m not going to make it more than it is or less than it is.'”
“I think he just liked being around life,” Jean continued. She noted that at home, their lives started revolving around doctors appointments, medicine and how he was feeling. “So when he got to ‘Jeopardy,’ when we got to the studio, it was more about the studio, and the show.”
“Jeopardy” producer Rocky Schmidt recalled that nonetheless, Trebek’s illness was taking its toll.
“You could watch him and think, ‘he’s not going to make it to the conference room table,'” Schmidt said of the daily morning meeting they held at the studio. “And then he would sit through the meeting and get through it, and then he would leave and go to get made up and ready for the show, and everybody would look at each other and go, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be taping today.'”
But “somehow, he rallied,” Schmidt continued, even if Trebek was facing excruciating pain.
“I’d go in and knock and just walk in, and find him on the floor, crying in pain,” he said, remembering how he would tell Trebek, “We can cancel taping, we can go home, we’ve already taped three shows Alex!”
But the host would reply, “Just give me a minute. Just give me a minute,” and soon enough he would emerge ready for the cameras.
“There are a couple of times when I started to introduce him on the show, I wasn’t sure he was going to come out on stage, I really didn’t know,” Johnny Gilbert, the show’s longtime announcer, said. “But the bottom line is, he always did. And when he came out on the stage, he was Alex Trebek.”
“Sometimes we were backstage before we’d get started for the show, and he’d say, ‘OK Johnny, introduce me!’ so I knew he was looking forward to that, which made me want to do it even more, with even more vigor, more excitement,” Gilbert continued. “And he always came out.”
The “Jeopardy” team worked tirelessly to prolong Trebek’s work experience and make it as comfortable as possible. “We would have done anything,” Schmidt said. “We’d have followed him anywhere. So if he wanted to tape, we were going to try.”
The podcast also detailed how his makeup artists and hairstylists made every effort to maintain Trebek’s appearance, even when his treatments caused his pallor to change, or his hair to fall out.
“He had a routine way of doing things, and if that routine was interrupted, it was uncomfortable for him,” Trebek’s stepdaughter, Nicky, who worked at the show, recalled.
But one thing that “buoyed him,” according to his wife, was the love and support he received from family, friends, colleagues and “Jeopardy” viewers alike.
“The easiest and best part of it – of this whole process with Alex – was seeing the people’s reactions,” Schmidt said. “I would go to the house with boxes, banker’s boxes of letters and cards and blankets and prayer cards, and we would go through that stuff.”
“If you sent him a card, if you even had a good thought about him, sent him a blanket, teabags, whatever it was, he got it,” Jean said. “It did not land on deaf ears. He received it, and it was really beautiful.”
From the announcement of his illness in March 2019 all the way until October 2020, Trebek continued on as host of the beloved game show, in spite of mounting difficulties with his health. At the end of that October, he was to undergo surgery and had planned to go back to work after.
However, after his show on October 29th, Nicky recalled driving him home and asking, “Are you going to go back?”
“I don’t think so, Nick,” he responded.
Trebek passed away a little over a week later, on November 8.
Since his passing, various guest hosts have honored him, with former champion and current host of the show Ken Jennings saying during a late 2020 episode, “Sharing this stage with Alex Trebek was one of the greatest honors of my life. Not many things in life are perfect, but Alex did this job pretty much perfectly for more than 36 years, and it was even better up close.”
Mayim Bialik, another host of the show, called following in Trebek’s footsteps “a huge emotional responsibility.”
“Alex was so beloved and is so beloved, and was such a magnanimous, generous person,” she said. “So there’s that knowledge that this stage is alive with his memory.”
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