Alex Trebek, beloved 'Jeopardy!' host, dies after cancer battle at age 80

David K. Li and Janelle Griffith and Doha Madani
·9 min read
Alex Trebek, beloved 'Jeopardy!' host, dies after cancer battle at age 80
Alex Trebek, beloved 'Jeopardy!' host, dies after cancer battle at age 80

Longtime "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, adored by generations of trivia mavens who instinctively shout out questions to answers, died Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 80.

The official "Jeopardy!" Twitter account confirmed the news, adding that he was surrounded by friends and family as he died at home in the early morning.

"Jeopardy!" executive producer Mike Richards described Trebek's death as an "enormous loss" for the show's crew in a statement Sunday. The producer said it was an incredible honor to work beside Trebek in the past year and a half as the host continued to work on the show despite his diagnosis.

"His belief in the importance of the show and his willingness to push himself to perform at the highest level was the most inspiring demonstration of courage I have ever seen," Richards said. "His constant desire to learn, his kindness and his professionalism will be with all of us forever."

The beloved host continued to film episodes during his cancer treatments and shared emotional moments with fans and contestants.

Albert Thakur, who won $20,400 in Thursday's episode, was moved to tears as he shared that he used to watch "Jeopardy!" with his grandfather and the impact the show made on his life.

"You know, here's a true story, man. I grew up, I learned English because of you," Thakur told Trebek during a post-show conversation. "And so, my grandfather, who raised me — I'm gonna get tears right now — I used to sit on his lap and watch you every day, so it's a pretty special moment for me, man."

Thakur shared a short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about death to his Twitter account following the news of Trebek's death, adding that he was "overwhelmed with emotion."

"Jeopardy!" will continue to air episodes hosted by Trebek, who was last in studio on Oct. 29, through Christmas Day, the show said Sunday. There are currently no plans for announcing a new host.

Trebek stunned fans of the high-minded game show last year, announcing he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Trebek said in a video posted to YouTube he would try to finish out this season of "Jeopardy!" despite being diagnosed with a disease that is expected to be diagnosed in 56,700 Americans this year.

Days after the announcement, Trebek addressed "Jeopardy!" fans again, telling them he was overwhelmed by the support he had received.

"Hi everyone, I just want to take a few moments to say thanks to the — believe it or not — hundreds of thousands of people who have sent in tweets, texts, emails, cards and letters wishing me well following my recent health announcement," Trebek said.

"Now obviously, I won't be able to respond to all of you individually, but I did want you to know that I do read everything I receive and I am thankful for the kind words, the prayers and the advice you have offered, and I'm extremely touched by the warmth you have expressed in your comments to me."

The iconic game show host added, “I'm a lucky guy."

Trebek would give updates to fans about his treatment, offering his audience good news through periodic video updates posted to the "Jeopardy!" social media accounts. But in a New York Times interview in July ahead of his memoir's release, Trebek was candid about the toll the disease took on him.

The game show host told the Times that if his course of treatment at the time didn't work, he planned on stopping treatment altogether.

"Yesterday morning my wife came to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ And I said, ‘I feel like I want to die.’ It was that bad,” he told the Times. “There comes a time where you have to make a decision as to whether you want to continue with such a low quality of life, or whether you want to just ease yourself into the next level. It doesn’t bother me in the least.”

A day earlier, he told fans his treatment was going well and that he was hopeful they would soon be able to film new episodes of "Jeopardy!" in a studio again. Trebek said his "numbers are good" and that he was feeling great.

Trebek had been the face of "Jeopardy!" since 1984. In October 2018, Trebek renewed his contract with Sony Pictures Television to continue as host of the quiz show through 2022.

He's best known for his calm demeanor on the show and gentle-yet-cutting manner in which he tells contestants they've answered incorrectly.

Trebek regularly tells players, "No, I'm sorry. We were looking for ..." or will pick out one small syllable of mispronunciation that will render a question incorrect, making the difference of plus or minus $200 to $2,000.

Trebek has won six daytime Emmy Awards and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2011.

Image: Alex Trebek (Reed Saxon / AP file)
Image: Alex Trebek (Reed Saxon / AP file)

Trebek's erudite air also made him ripe for satiric mockery, most famously by "Saturday Night Live" actor Will Ferrell, whose take on the "Jeopardy!" host was a huge fan favorite throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Ferrell's Trebek would usually become flustered by an over-the-top crude take of Sean Connery, played by Darrell Hammond, in an "SNL" version on "Celebrity Jeopardy!"

The host said he found those spoofs funny and to be a compliment.

"It doesn’t bother me. If they’re spoofing you, poking fun at you or mentioning you it’s because you’re part of American pop culture, and that’s a good thing, I think," Trebek told The New York Post in October 2017. "People are very polite. Nobody comes up to me or tries to insult me or test me to see if I’m as smart as I appear on TV, although that did happen quite a bit in the first couple of years, and for some reason that ended. I guess I’ve become such a part of their daily lives (that) they just take it for granted that I’m fairly well-read, fairly smart, and there’s no need to test me on that."

Fans mourned Trebek's death on social media, including world leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Trebek, born in Ontario, "an icon."

"Almost every night for more than three decades, Alex Trebek entertained and educated millions around the world, instilling in so many of us a love for trivia," Trudeau said Sunday on Twitter. "My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all who are mourning this tremendous loss."

Notable actors such as Jamie Lee Curtis, William Shatner and Armie Hammer also paid tribute. Hammer called Trebek the "greatest host of one of the greatest shows of all time."

”RIP Mr. Trebek," Hammer wrote. "Thank you for always being there at the end of the day to take my mind off things."

Curtis also thanked Trebek on Twitter, adding, "You were grace and guts and humor and deep love."

Two of the most famous "Jeopardy!" contestants, Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, also paid tribute to Trebek on Sunday. Jennings, who holds the longest-winning streak for the show, said he was thinking of Trebek's family, "which, in a way, included millions of us."

"Alex wasn’t just the best ever at what he did," Jennings said. "He was also a lovely and deeply decent man, and I’m grateful for every minute I got to spend with him."

Holzhauer, a professional gambler who became a household name as he competed to beat Jennings' record run, called Trebek "an impartial arbiter of truth and facts in a world that needs exactly that."

"It was one of the great privileges of my life to spend time with this courageous man while he fought the battle of his life," Holzhauer wrote. "You will never be replaced in our hearts, Alex."

George Alexander Trebek was born on July 22, 1940, in Sudbury, Ontario, to chef George Edward Trebek and Lucille Lagacé.

Trebek graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy before setting off on a brief career in news.

He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation covering national news and special events for both radio and television arms of the national public broadcaster.

Trebek eventually became host of Canadian game shows such as "Reach for the Top" and "Strategy."

Image: JEOPARDY!, host Alex Trebek (during 'Final Jeopardy' segment), 1984-, (C) ABC / Courtesy: Everett Coll (ABC / Everett Collection)
Image: JEOPARDY!, host Alex Trebek (during 'Final Jeopardy' segment), 1984-, (C) ABC / Courtesy: Everett Coll (ABC / Everett Collection)

Then in 1973, Trebek moved south of the border and became host of the NBC game show "The Wizard of Odds."

Even though that show had a short run, Trebek kept on landing gigs, with CBS' "Double Dare" in 1976 to 1977, NBC's "High Rollers" from 1978 to 1980 and NBC's "Battlestars" from 1981 to 1983.

His big break came in 1984 when legendary TV host and producer Merv Griffin brought back "Jeopardy!," which he originally created in 1964 and ran on NBC until 1975.

Griffin brought a new "Jeopardy!" to air and tapped Trebek as its host, with Sony Pictures Television doing the syndication. This second incarnation of "Jeopardy!" premiered on Sept. 10, 1984, and it's run for more than 8,000 episodes.

In a 2003 interview on "Larry King Weekend," Griffin said he picked Trebek on the advice of his friend, Lucille Ball, and his mother.

"He was in from Canada and he'd done a number of game shows in Canada and he came in and he just — he did it," Griffin explained. "In a way he's charming. He's professorial. He looks like he knows and he does."

In 2013, TV Guide Magazine ranked "Jeopardy!" as the 45th greatest show in small-screen history, just behind "NYPD Blue" and one spot ahead of "Barney Miller."

Trebek, a Los Angeles resident who has a star on both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Canadian Walk of Fame, was named in 2017 an officer of the Order of Canada, his native country’s second-highest civilian honor.

Trebek is survived by his wife, Jean, their adult children — Emily, a real estate developer, and Matthew, the owner of Oso, a Mexican restaurant, and Lucille’s, a restaurant and bar — and his adoptive daughter, Nicky.

CORRECTION (Nov. 8, 2020, 4:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the year TV Guide Magazine ranked "Jeopardy!" 45th on its list of best TV series. It was in 2013, not 2016. The article also misstated the relationship between Nicky and Jean Trebek. Nicky is the daughter of Alex Trebek's first wife, Elaine, not Jean.