You might say “Jeopardy!” is having a moment. Contestant James Holzhauer is on the winning streak of a lifetime: In barely a month, he’s racked up around $1.7 million on the quiz show, and made a believer out of host Alex Trebek.
Jane Pauley asked Trebek, “How soon did you realize he’s cracked the code?”
“In about his second week,” he replied. “His knowledge is so broad. There are moments in the games when I’m standing there and I’m thinking, How the hell did he know that?”
In fact, Holzhauer might’ve been the “Jeopardy!” headline of the year, were it not for a video Trebek posted on March 6 in which he discussed his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Pauley asked, “When you recorded that announcement, where were you in your journey?”
“I was at the beginning,” Trebek said. “I had just been informed.”
The news was devastating, but the 78-year-old Trebek didn’t miss a day of work, not even through chemotherapy. “It wouldn’t be right for me to walk away from this if I can possibly do it. And I managed to do it. So, what’s the big deal?”
“That’s a big deal. That’s a big deal.”
“That’s why you’re, you know …”
“‘Macho Man,'” he smiled.
He sang, “I’ll do your show. I’ll give you money. I’m Macho Man.”
Macho man, indeed. Drop in on Trebek at his L.A. home and you’ll likely find him knee-deep in a home improvement project, hard at manual labor.
So earlier this year, when he had a pain in his belly that wouldn’t go away, his doctors brought him in for tests: “And after it was over, he came to me and said, ‘Alex, you were right. There was a bulge in your stomach the size of a small fist.’ So, that was the beginning of it all.”
“There’s nothing about that story that is good,” Pauley said. “But then when they say pancreatic …”
“That caught my attention.”
“That’s a big fist.”
“Yeah. I know about pancreatic cancer. And as soon as you say pancreas, I said, ‘Oh …’ I cursed a little.
And then the news that it was stage 4. “Well, that just means it’s spread to other places. So, it sounds impressive – I’ve got stage 4 cancer, okay? Not stage 1, for sissies, that’s just beginner’s cancer. I’ve got advanced!“
When questioned about making light of the mater, Trebek responded, “Well, what else are we going to do?”
But it hasn’t been easy to laugh about. Early on in his treatment, Trebek suffered excruciating stomach cramps, on- and off-camera.
“This got really bad,” he said. “I was on the floor writhing in pain. It went from a 3 to an 11. And it happened three or four times that day while we were taping. So, that was a little rough on me.”
Pauley asked, “Were you able to excuse yourself and then go scream and writhe in pain privately?”
“No,” he replied. “I taped the show, and then I made it to the dressing room on one occasion, just barely, before I writhed in pain and cried in pain. I had 15 minutes before the next show. So, I got myself together, and spasms of that kind usually last about 10 to 15 minutes. ‘All right, here we go again.’ But I got through it. And the producers were very kind. They said, ‘Look, if you don’t wanna do the show we’ll just cancel taping.’ I said, ‘No. We’re here. We’re doing the shows.'”
Alex Trebek has been the unruffled voice of authority for 35 years. The Trebek era on “Jeopardy!” began in 1984, and he quickly stood out from his game-show peers with brain power, poise, and a mustache. “I was the first game show host since Groucho Marx to have a thick mustache, even though his was mostly makeup.”
He was a success, but it was a success he’d been building all his life. Trebek grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, and majored in philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He worked at the CBC and other broadcasting jobs, until NBC called in 1973 about a game show job, “The Wizard of Odds.” “And it happened at exactly the moment when I had made a decision that I was going to try my luck here in the United States. And things have worked out rather handsomely.”
You might say that: Trebek has hosted nearly 8,000 episodes of “Jeopardy!” and won six Daytime Emmys, including one he took home just last weekend.
Along the way he found time for a family. He and his wife Jean have two grown children.
Pauley asked, “Is she taking this as well as you are?”
“It’s very difficult in many ways for her,” Trebek replied. “What I’ve discovered in all of this is that it;s extremely difficult for the caregivers. I’ve had so many people send cards, letters, tweets, whatever, offering prayers. For 35 years I’ve enjoyed the success of the show, but I’ve never really thought about the impact the program was having on American viewers. And I’ve become part of their lives.”
And a lot of those viewers are younger than you might expect. This month, the Harvard Lampoon staged a mock “Jeopardy!” game in his honor – a tribute to a man who’s hosted the show longer than they’ve been alive.
Trebek says he’ll be back on the real “Jeopardy!” when it resumes in September.
Pauley asked, “When you recorded the ‘Jeopardy!’ segments featuring James [Holzhauer], was that before you had had your diagnosis?”
“Some of it was before, and some of it was after,” he replied. “And so, what the challenge for ‘Jeopardy!’ viewers is right now is to figure out, ‘Is that Alex’s real hair, or is that a full hairpiece?’ Because they all know that when you start chemo you lose your hair. So, which is it?”
Noticing Pauley studying his hair, Trebek said, “This is not the real me. We have the summer months off. So hopefully, my own hair will grow back. ‘Cause I like my own hair!”
Truth is, neither Trebek nor his doctors know what the next few months, or years, will look like.
Alex Trebek may not have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still win.
Pauley said, “I’m also astonished at how great you look. And that’s what everybody says; you’ve always got a twinkle. And you have not lost that.”
“Well, thank you for that,” he replied. “Good genes! My mother passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 95. So, if I have a majority of her genes, I should be okay for a while.”