When Alex Trebek leaves Jeopardy, the quiz show he’s hosted since 1984, he says his producers will find out about his departure the day he tapes his final program.
“I made this decision a long time ago. What I would do, it would be the same as when I shaved my mustache. I would do it on a whim,” Trebek said. “On that particular day, I will speak to Harry [Friedman, executive producer], and I will speak to Clay [Jacobsen], our director, and tell them, ‘Give me 30 seconds at the end of the program. That’s all I need to say goodbye, because it’s going to be the last show.’”
Now, he will probably give them a little more notice than that, I would hope. But Trebek seems intent on doing the job as long as he can, while keeping an eye on both his age and his health. In 2019, Trebek revealed to the public that he was battling stage IV pancreatic cancer. So far, his cancer has not gone into remission, though he continues to pursue aggressive treatment.
Trebek spoke to reporters at the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour on Wednesday, at a panel about Jeopardy’s “Greatest of All Time” tournament. The tournament is a best-of-seven showdown between James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter, three quizmasters who became household names after long runs on the program; new episodes will air on ABC this week and next, as long as they are necessary. (If one competitor sweeps all three games this week, he will win the tournament.)
Trebek has been a fixture of American television for so long that it seems unusual to imagine there will ever come a day when he won’t be. And Jennings, who also spoke to reporters during the press tour, said part of his desire to return for the “Greatest of All Time” tournament stemmed from wanting to play the game with Trebek hosting one last time.
“If anybody is irreplaceable on TV ... it’s this guy right here. And the fact that we got to play with him one more time was very special,” Jennings said. “You wonder, ‘How’s he doing?’ Then you get there, and he’s Alex Trebek. He never fumbles a word. He’s still the last of the great old-school broadcasters.”
Trebek says he doesn’t have any imminent plans to stop hosting Jeopardy, but he acknowledges his health is such that he has some good days and some bad days. Should the bad start to overwhelm the good, he may need to step down sooner than he’d like.
But Trebek seems happy to reminisce over a long career that went well beyond Jeopardy. At the press tour, he talked a bit about the delight of appearing on a now-famous episode of Cheers nearly 30 years ago and found out after the table read that the writers had decided to give him more lines.
“We read through that script and then went home. And shortly afterward, a few hours later, a script arrived with a number of changes that were added lines for me. They had discovered that I could handle lines, and so each day they added a few lines,” Trebek said.
He also discussed the general furor that greeted his choice to shave off his once-renowned mustache in 2001.
“I was backstage, and I said, ‘I think I’m going to shave my mustache.’ And I shaved half of it. And I approached Harry, and I said, ‘What do you think? I’d like to come out this way.’ And he said, ‘No. You’re going to shave the whole thing,” Trebek said. “And it came off, and the press coverage following that blew my mind. There were wars going on in the Middle East, and I said, ‘And you guys are focusing on my mustache? Get a life, please.’”
But mostly, Trebek and the others on the Jeopardy panel talked about the host’s long legacy on television — with Trebek downplaying it and the others bolstering his rapidly growing legend.
“He symbolizes learning and knowledge to now, what, his second or third generation of North Americans. And it’s just touching. People were sending me pictures of their kids last night watching the Greatest of All Time match, and I was getting choked up. This is what Alex has done for millions of us,” Jennings said.
Count me among those bolstering the legend. I’m always glad to have been able to watch Alex Trebek, one of the greatest game show hosts ever to live, do his thing. Long may he reign.
Correction: Alex Trebek announced his cancer diagnosis in 2019, not 2018. The error has been amended above.