Monday, November 16, 2020

Fond Farewell - The Answer: "A Class Act"

The Question: "Who was Alex Trebek?" The carousel of horror that is 2020 has brought about yet another demise of someone we adored. This blog has looked more like an online obituary column that a source of entertainment lately...! Sorry about that. I don't post about game shows quite as much as I once did, but they have always been a considerable part of my life. As such, so has Mr. Alex Trebek. It goes without saying that he was the longtime host of Jeopardy, but he was familiar to many of us ol' geezers long before that. Today we take a gander at some highlights.

Handsome George Alexander Trebek was born July 22nd, 1940 in Ontario, Canada to a bilingual French-English household. Industrious and intelligent from the start, he began work as a bellhop at 13 and eventually was graduated from the University of Ottowa with a degree in philosophy in 1961. He had his eye on a career in broadcast news and was an excellent debater. He did indeed go to work for the CBC announcing special events, news and sports. (Needless to say, he also perfected his exceptional enunciation during this period.)

In 1963, he'd earned a spot as host on a television series called Music Hop, introducing visiting musical guests and presenting songs as played by the house band. His life at this point was a whirl of radio announcing, sports coverage and, in 1969 a game show called Strategy.

In 1971, Trebek was denied the chance to become the new host of Hockey Night in Canada because one of the network executives didn't want to give the job to someone with a mustache (by which time Trebek was sporting in a big way!)

Presumably such a thing mattered less to American TV execs and so in 1973 Trebek moved to the States and served as host of a new game show called Wizard of Odds, involving audience members playing for money based on probabilities and statistics of a given situation.

Let's get a better look at that shit-bird wheel with handwritten names on it (and that suit he's wearing!!) Things were only going to be getting better from here, though.

Producers in the game show world rolled the dice once again on Mr. Trebek and he found himself hosting a moderately successful new show (which retains a following today among enthusiasts.)

High Rollers had contestants vying for prizes at a large dice table and he was paired with the endearing and sultry Ruta Lee (who seems to have things in hand here!) This publicity photo is benign enough until you see it in color and realize we were in mid-'70s fashion heaven (or hell, if you have a dissenting viewpoint! Ha ha!)

Quasimodo's Esmeralda never had this many colors going on at once!

Mr. T had one hellacious (and enviable) head of hair, but his on-screen wardrobe was a sort of stylish-staid combination.

Off-screen he was a chest-baring stud with all the era's hallmarks such as gradient-tinted shades, shirts almost-buttoned and gold necklace in place! He married in 1974 for the first time (to an ex-Playboy bunny turned talk show host), which lasted until 1981.

One blip on Trebek's extensive resume was the show Double Dare.

The show pitted contestants against one another in pods that suddenly closed up and became sound-proof. Likewise, the bonus round had three experts who were placed in sound-proof booths who were trotted out to make educated guesses that might ruin a contestant's chances at the big money.

He hosted a couple of short-lived shows from Canada's The $128,000 Question to Battlestars to Pitfall. And he was fast-becoming associated with the game show format as one of its premier personalities. Thus, he joined Peter Marshall, as seen here, as a celebrity contestant on Art James' The Magnificent Marble Machine (which involved a giant pinball machine!) and popped up on Celebrity Bowling as well. Things were about to become considerably more permanent for him, though.

Merv Griffin had opted to re-launch a chestnut that had first aired from 1964-1975. Original helmsman Art Fleming was invited to host, but disliked what he perceived to be a dumbing-down of the format which coincided with the move to California from New York. Thus, the job fell to Alex Trebek. This 1984 gig would last until Trebek's death on November 8th of 2020!

This is how our Alex looked on that first broadcast.

What once consisted of manually sliding panels now went "high tech" with television monitors (and neon lighting around the categories.) Of course, now, even this looks archaic in the digital age...!

These were the first three contestants and, despite Art Fleming's protest that the clues gave away too much of the answer, they were not exactly rocket scientists!

The show, very often paired with Wheel of Fortune as its lead-in, became a great success and at last Trebek had found his niche. Jeopardy made him a household name.

Even so, he continued to work on other programs such as a re-vamped Classic Concentration. Keep in mind that game shows often film one week's worth of episodes in a single day, thus a month's worth can be completed in four days...!

Classic Concentration paired him with the icily pretty model Diana Taylor (who was later replaced by Mark Goodson's daughter Marjorie, who brought rather goofy fun to the proceedings -- while they lasted.)

He also found himself filling in on a troubled revamp of To Tell the Truth. Original host Gordon Elliott had to depart due to a contract issue and his replacement Lynn Swann was woefully inadequate for the job. So a last-ditch effort was made with Trebek.

He endeared himself to me when he made a special point on his first episode to thank and pay personal tribute to one of my all-time favorite people, Miss Kitty Carlisle.

In between the end of his first marriage and the beginning of his second (in 1990), Trebek was a highly eligible man. For a time, he dated Susan Sullivan, who portrayed the heroine of Falcon Crest. By now, he'd earned a reputation as a bit of a know-it-all after his constant (albeit necessary) corrections of players on Jeopardy, sometimes with a chiding tone - which isn't fair since he had the answers right in front of him! With Sullivan demonstrating classy authority (based on... what??) in a long-running series of Tylenol commercials, I thought they were the ultimate in intellectual yet attractive couples, but it wasn't to be...

Eventually, a yearly Celebrity Jeopardy tournament was held (glittering Donna Mills was among the first participants) in which various names demonstrated their smarts (or worrisome lack thereof...!)

This led to some popular parodies on Saturday Night Live. For the record, I never thought that Will Ferrell had the slightest thing to do with Alex, nor did I faint over Darrell Hammond's Sean Connery impression, but they were a hit together. I include this today as an ironic twist on the fact that we lost both Alex and Sean within about a week's time of one another.

As the years pressed on, the curly-haired, mustached Trebek mutated into an elegant, clean-cut, older, silver gentleman before our eyes.

Mr. Trebek won Outstanding Game Show host Emmys in 1989, 1990, 2003, 2006, 2008, 2019 and 2020. In 2011, he received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy and he holds the Guinness World Record for the most episodes of a game show hosted by the same person (a position previously held by Bob Barker.)

The world was given a nasty surprise in 2019 when Trebek revealed that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer and was going to undergo intense chemotherapy in an attempt to beat it. (He was given an 18% chance of living beyond one year.) He did live well beyond a year and, more importantly, kept working! Despite pain and fatigue, Alex Trebek was filming new episodes of his beloved show just two weeks after undergoing surgery and just two weeks before he passed away at age 80.

The day after Trebek's passing, the producer of Jeopardy presented a brief prologue and tribute to the show's brave host just before the show came on, explaining that Alex would want his remaining episodes to air. It was a heartfelt, yet utterly tasteful message that sent legions of his fans grabbing for the Kleenex. 

The set (newly rebuilt and reconfigured thanks to COVID19) was then shown empty...

...before going dim altogether. And it's certainly no stretch to suggest that an era has passed and that the show will never be the same again. When Mr. Trebek's final filmed episode appears (on Christmas Day... oh the humanity!), it's safe to say there will be more Kleenex in use around the country.

We dearly loved Jeopardy (scarcely missed it) and dearly loved Alex Trebek. I don't think there are too many other men out there who left this earth in a more graceful fashion, maintaining his perspective, his dignity and his integrity (even his sense of humor) right up until the inevitable final answer.


Dan said...

For years, when the phone rang right at 8 pm, we knew it was my mother calling to brag that she got Final Jeopardy and none of the contestants did. (She was a pretty sharp cookie). We happened to be watching on her first birthday after her death and I jokingly said, "Wouldn't it be funny if no one got the Final Jeopardy? - and no one did.
The next year we watched again - and again, no one got the Final!
The curse somewhat abated the third year when everyone missed it two days before her birthday - since then it has lifted entirely.
So now, whenever we get the Final and the folks on TV don't, we yell out, "Call Marie!"

BrianB said...

Alex will be missed by many and Jeopardy won't be the same without him. I can remember the first version of the show with Art Fleming. He was an OK host but kind of Bob Barker lite. Brylcreem hair and stiff suits.

Mom and us kids loved High Rollers right from the start! Talk about anti-Brylcreem and that moustache! Alex was like no other game show host at the time. I always liked Ruta but the way she would hang all over Alex I wanted her to get her mitts off my man! But they had a fun rapport which was different than you saw on any other game show as well.

I haven't watched Jeopardy in decades (and who would think that it lasted so long that the phrase isn't exaggerated!) and when I read how he could be a little condescending to the contestants about the answers I couldn't remember that about him at all. Maybe after all those years he couldn't hold it back!

That picture of him looking like Giorgio Moroder is a hoot! He looks like an ad in After Dark magazine! I don't even mind him in the plaid suit, it's the way he's holding those greenbacks that make him look like a used car salesman.

My sister in law was a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid years before we met her. She didn't win or anything but her biggest memory of the experience was how tiny the set was. She said there were so many wires snaking around the floor you could hardly walk. Then you see the set for Jeopardy at the end of your post and it's as big as a float in the Tournament of Roses parade!

We'll miss Alex.


joel65913 said...

What a nice tribute.

I respect Trebek's work ethic and his dogged commitment to keep going no matter how debilitated he was. He was the kind of uber professional it's often hard to find. All very admirable and I love Jeopardy but stopped watching regularly several years ago because of the smugness you mentioned that became more pronounced as the years passed. Towards the end of my regular viewing I found myself all too frequently yelling at the TV "Cut out the superior crap you have the answer right in front of you!" until I'd just had enough.

But I had seen him on many other shows. I used to watch High Rollers and remember Ruta Lee on there with him. She always seemed like she'd be fun to talk to while at the same time being way over the top in terms of makeup and that cyclone of hair on top of her head. It seems to me that Elaine Stewart was also on the show for a while tossing those huge dice!

I also remember his time on Concentration which I wasn't as fond of, though when I was just a very wee one I would watch the earlier Hugh Downs version with my Nana which in my mind was a better show.

I didn't know he dated Susan Sullivan! Her I adore and always have!! Years before Falcon Crest she was Lenore on my Mom's (and eventually mine) soap Another World, always exuding a strong intelligence and sharp acting skills. No matter how many years it's been or how many other parts I've seen her in (and she has been quite prolific-I remember those Tylenol commercials, she was a good fit-smart but not condescending) including her fun turn as Nathan Fillion's saucy Mom on Castle my first thought when I see her is "Oh good, it's Lenore!" Ha! I'm not alone in this either my mother does the same thing. :-)

Back to Alex Trebek. I did watch the first show they ran after his passing and saw that tribute by Mike Edwards, dignified and classy. Along with their honoring Trebek's wish to run the rest of his episodes it gives me the impression that they'll be careful in choosing his replacement and keep the show on a refined path.

Shawny said...

I loved Alex. Such a standard bearer. Alas, he is no longer in Jeopardy. I will definitely tune in to the final episode. Wow.
Btw, I played him in a work presentation. I sprayed my hair silver, wore some 70’s frames and a gray blazer. No one recognized me in the audience. I had the theme song cued up, stood up right when it started, walked up to the front (in a slightly rigid walk)and pulled the sheet off of the game board. Man it was a huge hit. The answers were all relating to workplace ergonomics, but everyone was shouting the questions. It actually got to be too much and I couldn’t call out the ones who got the right questions. But I had several people come up to me after and say that my Alex was really good. One guy said I captured him somehow, and everyone was laughing hysterically. My skit created such a madhouse I couldn’t take it all in. It was over before I knew it. Good times.

Poseidon3 said...

Dan, I love your memories of mom & Jeopardy! I think the 1-2 of WOF & Jeopardy was (and remains) a cornerstone of many families' evening TV viewing habits. So many people grew up watching Pat, Vanna and Alex (and many of them mention to the hosts how they learned to spell & speak English as a result, etc... One recent J contestant attributed his enunciation skills to Alex on air and it choked me up!) That is so neat that your family could have a couple of years in which your mother's presence could be felt like that...! For myown part, I was such an effing nerd at one point that I played along at home with a calculator and would blurt out answers. If I was wrong, I'd subtract from my total!! Sometimes I would remain quiet, obviously. It was always my goal to try to match the winner or beat him/her at the end, and sometimes I did.

BrianB, I have only the very, very slightest memories of the old Jeopardy. It was on at my grandparents' (while it lasted!) and, of course, made no sense to me as a tyke! I also missed High Rollers at the time it aired. I can get you with the jealousy about Ruta. She had a very Vegas moll/lucky charm aspect to her body language. A really great gal, though. I don't want to misrepresent Alex re: condescension. He would just sometimes act a little perturbed or put out if no one could answer something and he'd state the answer as if, "hello???" (especially anything Canadian!) as if he'd have known it without it right there before his eyes... I think he sort of improved on this, especially when it began to made fun of on SNL. Game show sets are apparently very deceptive looking on TV. I've had several people tell me how teensy the Price is Right set (and audience area) was, even though it seemed like a barn to me on TV as a kid. Thanks!

Wow! See, Joel, you picked up on the attitude issue that some others don't seem to have noticed. I guess it's our own senses of perception and what we find appealing (or not.) Ruta's look has rarely changed since the 1960s. I find it sort of endearing that she has always basically stepped out the door as if there are movie cameras awaiting. LOL Oh, my mother could not possibly stop herself every time Robin Strasser appeared on anything: "There's RACHEL!" even though Victoria Wyndham played the part far longer and then Robin went on to play Dorian on OLTL for so long! Ha! I totally get it. I truly wonder if I will be able to watch the show after Alex. I know that if Ken Jennings is the host, I am OUT. A little of him goes a loonnnngg way for me.

Shawny, that is so neat!! Coworkers are nearly always very excited when one of their own can entertain and break up the monotony. I didn't do anything like that for work, but I held a Match Game party in my home (complete with the elongated mic!), devised a version of Hollywood Squares for a theatre conference (and, yes, I was in the center square!) and did a version of The Weakest Link (in drag, yes) at a theatre fundraiser. All of them were very fun and memorable experiences. My friend and I were asked over and over to repeat the Hollywood Squares games, but somehow we were never able to do it even though I have the large glittery X's and O's in the basement still...! Thanks!! said...

A Wonderful Tribute, Poseidon!

You covered Alex' career and curls most thoroughly, as usual!

Except for the fact that plaid was practically a color back in the '70s, Trebek was a cutie in the '70s with his big head of curls and 'stache.

Speaking of Ruta Lee, when I watched "Witness for the Prosecution" for my latest review, I was shocked that the moderately attractive little brunette on Tyrone Power's arm at the finale was Ruta, who I grew up watching as a brassy, likeable blonde on TV!

So many older friends and family members in my life watched "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" back to back. My late partner's Mom made it very clear that if anybody called her during that time, it better be an emergency!

Thanks for another lovely tribute,

Gingerguy said...

Lol on Esmarelda, you are hilarious. I love Ruta by the way. Gosh he was handsome and even looked good in that eye popping plaid suit. I was a very peripheral watcher of Jeapordy but really felt he elevated it to something almost mystic with his Zen delivery. One unexpected thrill this year was going to San Simeon/Hearst Castle last year and he did a precorded narration on the drive up the hill on the bus. Such a distinctive voice and a class act for the ages.

joel65913 said...


I sympathize with your mother, I do the same thing with Robin Strasser but I say "It's Dorian! I vaguely remember her playing Rachel on Another World but she left before she really locked herself into my head in the role but she was Dorian foreverrrr. Perhaps it's just those I watched when I was really young because two fine actresses Ann Wedgeworth and Constance Ford who had significant careers outside of soaps will always be Lahoma (not a typo that was her actual name!) and Ada from Another World. But it doesn't hold true for everyone, Ray Liotta started out on AW as Ada's stepson Joey Perrini but I never made the connection when he rose to prominence, same with Sigourney Weaver who started out on Somerset. I guess it's just how you connect to the particular performer and the role.