Alex Trebek of 'Jeopardy!' dies at 80 after pancreatic cancer battle

Bill Keveney

Game show legend Alex Trebek, the beloved "Jeopardy!" host who showed dignity and perseverance in dealing with a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in March 2019, died Sunday. He was 80.

" 'Jeopardy!' is saddened to share that Alex Trebek passed away peacefully at home early this morning, surrounded by family and friends. Thank you, Alex," according to a statement from "Jeopardy!"

Trebek was synonymous with longtime top-rated "Jeopardy!," the brainiest of TV quiz shows, which he hosted since its syndicated revival premiered in 1984 (Art Fleming hosted an earlier NBC version from 1964 to 1975.). Will Ferrell's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation both underlined and burnished Trebek's exalted cultural status.

The Sudbury, Ontario-born host, who gained U.S. citizenship in 1998, enjoyed a substantial game show career before taking on "Jeopardy!," hosting shows such as "The Wizard of Odds," "Double Dare," "High Rollers," "Battlestars," "Classic Concentration" and "To Tell the Truth."

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"Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek on the set in September 2011, in Culver City, Calif.

But Trebek, who won seven Emmys, will forever be remembered as the erudite, sharply dressed presence who offered an air of dignified formality to a scholarly quiz show that turned answers into questions and transformed Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer from brainiacs to rock stars.

Trebek had a rare dual gift. He conveyed a reserve that put him at a dignified distance above the contestants and the audience, even causing some fans to think he knew all the correct responses. At the same time, he had an ability to bond with viewers through a quip – he deftly threw shade – a knowing glance or the ability to calm a competitor nervous about being on the national stage. 

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For many years, game show host Alex Trebek, seen here in 1988, sported a signature mustache.

When a contestant proposed marriage and his girlfriend accepted without hesitation during a 2018 taping, Trebek joked: “I was about to say we’ll have the answer to that question right after this commercial break.”

The man had such a hold on his audience that even his facial hair choices sent shock waves, as when he shaved a trademark mustache or grew a beard during a summer hiatus in 2018. 

When Trebek received the staggering cancer news, he shared it with the public in an online video that didn't sugarcoat its serious nature but still conveyed hope and determination: "Just like 50,000 people in the United States each year, this week I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Now normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this and I'm going to keep working."

He was back at work less than a week later. Most recently, Trebek hosted the start of the show's 37th season in September. Trebek's last day in the studio was Oct. 29, and episodes hosted by Trebek will air through Christmas.  

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Trebek's ability to connect, multiplied by more than 30 years of familiarity, made his cancer feel personal for millions who never met the host. And those who knew him, including champ Jennings and fellow hosts Pat Sajak of "Wheel of Fortune" and Chris Harrison of "The Bachelor," immediately offered support when he announced the news.

Jennings recounted a "perfect moment" with Trebek after he lost a "Jeopardy!" tournament in 2014.

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"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek receives his six Emmy for outstanding game show host at the 46th annual Daytime Emmy Awards in May 2019.

"I went into the after-party a little bit shellshocked. As Alex was on his way out, he walked by me and I just wanted to say, ‘Hi, thank you,’ and how much he meant to me. So I said, 'Alex, I don’t know what to say.' I literally couldn’t say anything from my mouth," he told Vulture. "He just looked at me with that reassuring, avuncular gaze and put a hand on my shoulder and went, 'I know, I know.' Like, 'We’re men, you don’t have to say how much me and "Jeopardy!" mean to you, I understand what you mean.'"

Trebek acknowledged the public support in a video: "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."

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"Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, right, shares a moment with the brainy quiz show's recent long-running champ, James Holzhauer.

He bravely dealt with illness, sharing the ups and downs, acknowledging waves of "deep, deep sadness" and joking about wigs in interviews. He set an example of how to deal with serious illness.

Trebek is survived by his wife of 30 years, Jean, and children Matthew, Emily, and Nicky. The family has announced no plans for a service, but gifts in Trebek's  memory could go to World Vision.

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