'Jeopardy!' contestants share stories about Alex Trebek

Suzy Byrne
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
·12 min read
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 19: Alex Trebek attends 'Who is Alex Trebek? Celebrating 35 seasons of Jeopardy!' at 92nd Street Y on February 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)
There is no shortage of posthumous stories about Alex Trebek, pictured here in 2019. (Photo: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Jeopardy! watchers and non-watchers alike are hurting over the loss of host Alex Trebek, who died Sunday from pancreatic cancer. Luckily, there is a seemingly endless supply of nice stories about the popular game show host to help lessen the sting.

It seems like everybody has a Trebek story, and here are some — from contestants, other celebrities and some who witnessed his acts of generosity:

Ken Jennings, who holds the record for 74 straight wins on Jeopardy!, penned a tribute in Time and shared how it was when the show wrapped, “I would often see him in a baseball cap and dad jeans, heading for his pickup truck,” a departure from his signature suit. “Sometimes one of his kids” — he had two with wife Jean, Matthew and Emily, and one from his first marriage, Nicky — “was in tow. He was on his way home to work on one of his endless DIY projects around the house: the roof, the plumbing, the pool. Alex was a throwback to a generation of self-reliant, self-taught generalists — curious about everything, eager to try everything for himself.”

James Holzhauer, the second-highest winner in Jeopardy!, said he knew how he ranked when it came to doing press with Trebek.

Seth Wilson — a Jeopardy! contestant who won 12 consecutive times, leading to a lot of face time with Trebek — talked about how the host “would sing songs to himself as he was moving around the set.”

There was singing — and there were jokes. Contestant Jessica Cantrell recalled someone asking Trebek who would win in an arm wrestling match against Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, who was a friend. Trebek quipped that he would be the winner — by a hammer.

Jennings, who is rumored as being considered for Trebek’s successor, also wrote in Time about the humor the host exhibited when interacting with the audience, noting, “At the end of every set of shows, Alex always returned to the stage to thank the studio audience and give them a warm, funny little goodbye speech. ‘When this program airs, make sure you watch it with someone who doesn’t know you were there, and impress them by knowing all the answers,’ he might say. ‘Maybe place a little side bet.’”

David Hudson, also a contestant, detailed another funny behind-the-scenes moment after mustache-gate — when the star decided to get rid of his and it caused a big to-do.

Sathvik Namburar recalled being a contestant in 2019 amid Trebek’s cancer battle. He wrote that while Trebek was camera ready, “All was not well. He stumbled over words, and during the contestant interview session I could see that his hair was not his own. Still, he persisted, and seeing his struggle from up close gave me strength.” He also talked about Trebek being asked by an audience member what lessons he had taken from his cancer diagnosis. “I expected Mr. Trebek to discuss the struggle of living with cancer,” he wrote. “Instead, he replied with one word: ‘Kindness.’ He told the audience about how so many people had shown him uncommon decency, writing letters of support and offering to help him in ways both mundane and extraordinary. The kindness he had been shown gave him hope for the future, he concluded.”

And Louis Virtel said Trebek genuinely enjoyed seeing his contestants do their best.

Ruta Lee, who cohosted High Rollers with Trebek — prior to his 36 year run as Jeopardy! host — recalled him being just another new kid in Hollywood, though a handsome and charming one who she was happy to take under her wing, in a Los Angeles Times interview.

“I introduced him to people like Phyllis Diller and Betty White, and he loved them and they loved him,” Lee said. “He and Betty” — who, Trebek joked, would be a good replacement for him — “were good friends to the end.”

And so was Trebek with Lee, who spoke to him a day before he died. She shared, “His voice had become softer, but he was the same. We talked about family, about his kids; he was very proud of how well they were doing.”

Among the tributes from celebrities was one from Ryan Seacrest, who recalled meeting Trebek 25 years ago when he was new to Hollywood. "I remember for me, when I first moved to Los Angeles at 19 years old, Merv Griffin let me go watch him tape shows and watch him work,” he told Entertainment Tonight. “I got to see, not only the scale we see on television, but how [Trebek] handled the whole show behind the scenes. [He was] just a remarkable legend that will never be forgotten."

Radio personality Tarzan Dan Freeman also spoke about being encouraged to get into entertainment because of Trebek.

Beverly Hills, 90210’s Jason Priestley recalled how he and the his fellow Canadian, who he knew for almost 30 years, played ice hockey together.

Trebek actually appeared on Beverly Hills, 90210. Priestley’s co-star Christine Elise said she wrote that 1995 episode, called “Double Jeopardy,” and met the “lovely” Trebek.

Another Canadian, Ryan Reynolds, wrote about Trebek being “kind enough to film a cameo for our film Free Guy last year despite his battle,” with pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2018. “He was gracious and funny. In addition to being curious, stalwart, generous, reassuring and of course, Canadian.”

Loni Love said she went to the 2019 Daytime Emmys early “in hopes of meeting” Trebek — and he didn’t disappoint. “He was a gem and a gentleman.”

This writer shared a moment with Trebek at an awards show, as well.

As Priestley said, Trebek was a giant fan of the hockey, helping the Ottawa Senators announce its first draft pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. He was remembered by the NHL and players including P. K. Subban.

And Rod Gilbert.

At NHL events, Trebek was the one to see, said NHL journalist Dave Stubbs.

Reporters had stories too, including this funny one in which Trebek was asked his most absurd thought and answered, “Because I look good in white, I could be the pope.”

Apparently he liked wearing white suits — despite the risks.

And he joked being “one of the wait staff.”

Ken Craft, the president and CEO of Hope of the Valley Mission, which helps homeless, retold his story about Trebek calling him earlier this year and ultimately making a big donation.

The founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, Father Gregory Boyle talked about the star visiting and listening “with such humility to the stories of our community.”

James Hamblin, also a journalist, recalled going to the National Geographic gala one year and Trebek being a top donor to the geography bee.

On Monday’s Jeopardy!, the first since his passing, executive producer Mike Richards paid tribute to Trebek, calling him an “inspiration”:

Trebek’s episodes will air through Christmas Day. The show has not announced plans for his replacement.

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