Alex Trebek was the beloved face of “Jeopardy!” for 36 years. The longtime host of “Jeopardy!” continued to lead the show even as he underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer.
In his memoir “The Answer is ... Reflections on My Life,” published a few months before his death on Nov. 8, 2020, the host went far beyond the quiz show to bring fans into his personal life — including his political views, his history with swearing and how he handled his cancer diagnosis.
To celebrate Trebek, who would’ve turned 81 on July 22, 2021, here are 12 anecdotes from that memoir.
Note: This story originally ran in September 2020 and has been updated to reflect Trebek’s 81st birthday.
He dropped out of military school
Trebek grew up relatively poor. His father, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a chef at a hotel in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario. After high school, Trebek applied for a military program that would pay for his college. He was accepted and sent to the Royal Canadian Air Force military academy college in Quebec.
He lasted three days.
Following two days of getting hazed by senior cadets, the final straw came when they were going to cut Trebek’s hair — “I had a good head of hair,” Trebek writes.
After getting berated by an officer —“If you don’t have the guts to stick this out, you’re not the kind of person we want in our military” — Trebek called his dad and told him he was coming home.
At the train station, Trebek’s dad gave him a hug.
“Don’t worry, Sonny,” Trebek recalls his dad saying. “Everything will be all right.”
His favorite movie is ...
Trebek loves movies about father-son relationships. Which is why “How Green Was My Valley” is his favorite film. The 1941 movie reminds him of his own father.
“He was not an educated man. He was not particularly bright. He was just all heart. He didn’t understand nuances of caring. He just poured out his love for me,” Trebek writes. “It didn’t matter what I did, I was never a disappointment to him.”
After dropping out of military school, Trebek went back to his high school for grade 13 — a transition year similar to the first year of college.
Growing up, Trebek was a good student, but he was mainly known for joking around in class. One teacher, however, recognized his potential. At graduation, that teacher told Trebek: “Alex, you’ve had a good year. Do me a favor. Never lose your love of life.”
Those words have stuck with Trebek ever since.
He’s never late
In eighth grade, Trebek got a job as a bellhop at the hotel where his dad worked. Before his first day, he went on an end-of-school-year trip with his class. He was so tired that he woke up at 11 the next morning — three hours after his shift started.
That day, he vowed never to be late to anything again.
“If I’m not where I need to be 10 minutes early, I consider myself late,” he writes. “It’s a sign of respect for the job —that you want to do it well and not leave anything to chance.”
You’d never guess it from his appearance on “Jeopardy!” but Trebek swears — though not as much as he did in his earlier days.
As he explains in his book, it was intentional.Entering the world of broadcasting, Trebek didn’t smoke, drink or do drugs. The “Jeopardy!” host said this made it hard for people to let their guard down, out of fear they’d be judged.
“I needed a vice,” he writes. “And so I decided to add more salt to my language. … But it didn’t help me become one of the guys. It just made me look like a jerk. My bad.”
“Jeopardy!” largely steers clear of politics — Trebek said he’ll get fan mail from Republicans thinking he’s a Democrat and vice versa.
Trebek actually identifies as an independent.
“I vote for the person I feel is best suited to deal with the problems at the time. Modern politics pits us against one another,” he writes. “It forces us to choose a side and has convinced us that our side is right and the other side is wrong. … There is no room for compromise. That’s unfortunate. Because most of the great accomplishments of the world have not been made by people who were certain.”
Trebek considers his second wife, Jean, to be his soulmate (he remains on good terms with his first wife and his stepdaughter from that marriage). The couple got married in 1990 and have two kids together. There’s a 24-year age difference between them, and Trebek recalled how after their engagement, his soon-to-be father-in-law told him: “I guess I won’t be calling you ‘son.’”
“With Jean it just happened. … I wasn’t looking for love,” Trebek writes. “But with Jean, I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being.”
Trebek’s chemotherapy treatment has led to hair loss. But the “Jeopardy!” host was already wearing a hairpiece even before his cancer diagnosis in 2019.
He started wearing a hairpiece in early 2018, after falling and banging his head on his bathtub. Trebek had to have surgery to remove blood clots from his brain — which left a row of stitches on either side of his scalp.
Based on his staff’s reactions, he decided it would be best to cover it up.
“In my case the hairpiece makes me look better than my real hair,” he writes. “I probably should’ve started wearing it a long time ago.”
Since his cancer diagnosis in March 2019, Trebek has often thought of “Jeopardy!” contestant Cindy Stowell, who had stage 4 colon cancer during her six-game run on the show in 2016. Stowell died just a week before her games aired — prior to that, the show sent her a DVD so she’d be able to watch herself.
“I admire how she didn’t want to make a big deal about her illness,” Trebek writes. “And how she didn’t let it keep her from achieving her dreams.”
Trebek said he sometimes regrets going public with his diagnosis because he feels like people now look to him for reassurance and strength and he doesn’t want to let them down.
“The longer I’ve lived with the cancer, the more my definition of toughness has changed,” he writes. “I used to think not crying meant you were tough. Now I think crying means you’re tough. It means you’re strong enough to be honest and vulnerable. It means you’re not pretending.”
Trebek says he has the “will to survive,” although there are days when the pain and depression is so debilitating that his optimism disappears. He also doesn’t like using the terms “battling” and “fighting” when it comes to cancer, because it implies there are winners and losers.
“You get treatment and you get better. Or you don’t. And neither outcome is an indication of your strength as a person,” he writes. “Yet I still believe in the will to live. I believe in positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope, and I certainly believe in the power of prayer.”
Trebek also said that “Jeopardy!” invigorates him. Some days, he struggles to make it to the production meeting, or in between taping episodes he’ll be in a great deal of pain. But the minute he walks out onto the set, he feels like himself.
He’s thought about retiring
Trebek loves “Jeopardy!” but he’ll leave the show if he can’t successfully host anymore. Being 80 and going through cancer treatments, Trebek said the job can be physically and mentally demanding. It’s not as easy to read the clues and it’s harder to concentrate for long periods of time.
“You can have … slip-ups in casual conversation with friends. But you can’t get away with that as the host of ‘Jeopardy!’ Whenever it gets to that point, I’ll walk away,” he writes. “And ‘Jeopardy!’ will be just fine. It doesn’t matter who’s the host. … I think ‘Jeopardy!’ can go on forever.”
I’m not afraid of dying. One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is, ‘He was taken from us too soon.’ … I’ve lived a good, full life. — Alex Trebek
Trebek also said he’s come to terms with his illness and is grateful for the life he’s led.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” he writes. “One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is, ‘He was taken from us too soon.’ … I’ve lived a good, full life.”