PEOPLE FOR $400
Behind the scenes with Alex Trebek
By Barry Rogers
Who is Alex Trebek? The world obviously knows that Trebek is the longtime host of Jeopardy! He’s become synonymous with the game show that embodies knowledge over luck.
While you may consider Trebek a lucky man, it’s also his drive and talent that’s put him where he is today. Driven early on in life, the young Canadian landed a news and sports broadcasting job, while still in college. His skill and destiny continued to pave the way, as he went on to host Canadian TV programs, including Music Hop, Vacation Time, and Reach for the Top. Up next––American game shows.
Trebek has now been in the broadcast and entertainment business for over 50 years, but it is the last 30 that have defined his career. He set foot on the Jeopardy! stage in 1984. Audiences have tuned-in each week day since, as Trebek oversees the rapid-fire “answer in the form of a question” game show format. The formula seems to be working, as Jeopardy! continues its run, some 6,000+ shows and 30 daytime Emmys later.
Longer than Trebek’s time behind the podium on Jeopardy! is his friendship with entertainment legend Ruta Lee. The two of them co-hosted the game show High Rollers in 1974. Since then, they’ve remained loyal friends—always there for one another if called upon. In fact, he was quick to say yes when Lee asked him to do the following interview.
Q: Ruta Lee says that as a friend, you are very low maintenance. What are you thoughts?
A: I guess she means that I don’t need a lot of reassurances; a lot of coddling.
Q: Will you give us commentary on her as a friend?
A: Ruta’s a delight. She has the kind of exuberance, which I don’t always demonstrate. Together, we’re an awesome twosome in social situations. She’s also very loyal, very loving, very caring, very generous⎯plus she’s a fellow Canadian.
Q: You worked with Ruta on High Rollers in the ’70s. Can you tell us about the chemistry that you two have on camera?
A: Well, I came to the United States in 1973 to host a show called Wizard of Odds. That was replaced after one year with High Rollers. They hired Ruta to be my co-hostess and to roll the dice for the players. She was already a professional within the Hollywood community, which I was not. I’d only been here for a year.
Q: What does it take to be a good game show host?
A: I think it takes the ability to listen and to put yourself in a secondary position. When you’re hosting a game show, you have to realize that the stars of the show are the contestants and the material. If you can focus on those two elements then you will do well. You have to be on the side of the contestants. The audience will pick up on that very quickly. I have never in all the time that I have been hosting shows allowed the producers to announce me as the star of the show. It’s always, “Here is the host of the show, Alex Trebek.” It’s just a basic guiding principle that I’ve always adhered to.
Q: What TV hosts out there do you think are doing a good job?
A: Well, I don’t watch that many talk shows anymore so I’m not really a good judge. Bill O’Reilly is very good, although he is strongly opinionated. I love late night television. I think Jimmy Kimmel is excellent. I’d rank him right up there near the top, if not the top.
Q: How has your hosting style evolved over the years?
A: I’ve slowed my pacing down. When I saw the first Jeopardy! that we did, I seemed to be talking 100 miles an hour. I hope I’ve calmed down to the point, to where our viewers perceive me as a friend⎯ somebody who’s coming into their homes on a daily basis⎯a presence they enjoy, because I bring good entertainment. Also, since I married my wife, Jean, 24 years ago, people say that I’ve softened up somewhat and appear more likable.
Q: When the show started in 1984, was there any feeling that it could be a hit?
A: I never thought about it. I was just happy to be employed. I liked the show. As a matter of fact, the same is true for all the shows I’ve hosted. I was just always trying to do a good job. I didn’t worry about whether it’s going to last a year, five years, or 10.
Q: Besides intelligence, are there qualities that are common amongst Jeopardy! champions?
A: I’m not sure you can generalize about our champions. We have good people who are very exuberant. We also get people who appear to be very shy. We get those who are great conversationalists, and others who are not good at conversation. They are all bright.
Q: Outside of Jeopardy!, what other passions do you have?
A: Well, I like to fix things. I work a lot around the house. We’ve also gotten even more involved with charity work. I’ve been associated with World Vision for 30 years now. A couple of year ago, we adopted a village in Zambia and built two or three school buildings, built a medical facility, and free homes for staff. Also, we drilled eight wells. The whole village of about 1,700 had the same dirty water hole where cattle were drinking. Now the people have wells functioning throughout the village. There’s another charity I’ve been working with called WonderWork. They help children with cleft palates, and for children who are blind at birth; they help restore their site. Wonderwork also deals with children with clubbed feet and they aid burn victims.
Q: Could you tell us who some of your heroes are?
A: Mark Twain. He had a great outlook on life and he was funny too. That’s very important. Humor is one of the most important qualities that we should strive to possess.
Q: How have you learned to negotiate boundaries between yourself and hardcore Jeopardy! fans, who approach you in public?
A: I don’t have to. I think people look at me as a friend. They are very respectful. They will in passing say, “Hey, I’m a big fan of your show.” We’ll shake hands. I say, “Thank you very much. I’m glad to hear that.” Sometimes they’ll say, “My mother’s a big fan.” I then say, “Tell her hi for me. Tell her to keep watching because we need all the viewers that we can get.”
Q: What are your thoughts on aging?
A: I’m constantly the recipient of looks and headshaking when people ask me my age. They say, “You’re in really good shape for somebody who’s 73.” My mother is 92 and she’s in reasonably good shape. She’s never had a serious illness. I don’t look my age. I haven’t had any plastic surgery. Every time I consider having it done, I think, “Well, I’ll retire from show business, so there’s no need to do it.”
Q: Is there anything you wish that you could change about yourself?
A: No. I kind of like the way I’ve been aging. There’s a point I suppose where I wished I’d tried certain things in my life. But all in all, everything’s good.
For more information or to donate to the charities Alex mentioned, visit www.worldvision.org, www.wonderwork.org, and www.smiletrain.org. Check your local listing for when and where Jeopardy! airs in your market.