Alex Trebek is thinking back on his life and work. The 79-year-old Jeopardy! host has penned a memoir, The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life, in which he delves into his childhood, early work, marriages, family, Jeopardy! hosting gig, and his cancer diagnosis.
Candid and heartfelt, as well as funny and inspirational, Trebek’s memoir gives the reader insights into everything from his favorite celebrity encounter to how he hopes to spend his final moments.
Before diving into the book, read on for the seven biggest revelations Trebek shares within its pages.
Queen Elizabeth II forgot who he was overnight
Trebek counts his 1967 introduction to Queen Elizabeth II as his most memorable celebrity encounter, but that thought is most certainly one-sided. Trebek met the monarch after hosting a variety show in honor of Canada’s centennial year, which the queen attended with her husband, Prince Philip. When the queen approached Trebek after the show, she said, “Good show. Please tell me your name, and where you are from.”
Because Prince Philip hung back for a bit, Trebek and the queen had a longer conversation than expected, about five minutes.
“You’re not supposed to lead the conversation with the queen. She loved horses, and once she found out I was hosting the Canadian Triple Crown of racing, we spent much of our discussion on that,” he writes.
Trebek’s friends later marveled about how long the queen spent with him to which he not-so-humbly replied, “Well, you know, we just got along.”
The next day, Trebek once again found himself in a line getting ready to meet the queen after an event.
“As she approached me, I was thinking, Here comes my new best friend. I wonder what we’ll talk about today?” he recalls. “I stood a little taller. My chest swelled up. I smiled. And when she got to me, she said, ‘Good show. Please tell me your name, and where you are from.”
His one experience with drugs was entirely accidental
Trebek attended a dinner party in Malibu shortly after moving to California in the ’70s and partook in a few chocolate brownies that were offered to him.
“I had four or five of them. I did not realize they were hash brownies. Mr. Naive here,” he quips. “The party was on a Friday night. The drugs knocked me out so much I spent the weekend laid out in their guest bedroom and didn’t leave their home until Monday morning.”
“Talk about embarrassment,” he adds, before captioning a photo of himself at the time, “I may have looked like a hippie, but I wasn’t cut out for the lifestyle.”
He coached his kids’ sports teams with Bryan Cranston
With Jeopardy! only filming two days a week, Trebek made it a point to attend and even coach his kids’ games.
“I was able to go to all of Matthew’s baseball games, for instance. I learned how to keep score, and I have all of those scoresheets saved. I have the baseball from his first over-the-wall home run as well as the ball that earned him his seventh RBI in the championship game,” he writes of his son, who’s now 30.
“I’d go to all of Emily’s basketball and volleyball games,” he continues of his 27-year-old daughter. “Bryan Cranston and I helped out as assistant coaches.”
Trebek feels “lucky” that he got to spend that time with his kids, and even extended that to include nightly dinner with them and his wife of 30 years, Jean.
“It was always dinner at the same time every night,” Trebek writes. “I don’t think that was an intentional choice. I don’t think I was reacting to the way I was raised and consciously trying to do things differently. To be honest, I followed Jean’s lead on parenting. She is the calming influence.”
He credits the audience’s love of nostalgia and competition for Jeopardy!‘s success
For Trebek, Jeopardy! has been on-air for almost a half-century because of how deeply it became embedded in daily life.
“A lot of young kids at home and college students would watch the show on their lunch breaks. They grew up with it,” he writes. “So when we brought it back in 1984, they were nostalgic for it. And then they raised their own kids on the show… There’s something ritualistic about it.”
A less sentimental reason for Jeopardy!‘s success is something that’s tantamount in American culture — competition.
“That competition exists within families too. Brothers and sisters. Children and parents. And grandparents — we have material that probably only grandparents, people of that generation, may know the correct response to,” he writes. “… There’s information regarding pop culture that the parents and grandparents don’t know. So there’s something for everybody.”
“And for one or two moments — and you only need a couple of moments — these opportunities to shine exist in our program,” Trebek continues. “That makes you feel good about yourself and inspires a little bit of awe in the other members of the family who maybe never looked at you as being particularly sharp.”
The overarching explanation for the show’s longevity, though, is simply “the comfort that it brings.”
“Viewers have gotten used to having me there, not so much as a showbiz personality, but as an uncle,” he writes. “I’m part of the family more than an outside celebrity who comes into your home to entertain you. They find me comforting and reassuring as opposed to being impressed by me.”
Despite the comfort that both he and the show bring, Trebek doesn’t think he’s essential to Jeopardy!
“You could replace me as the host of the show with anybody and it would likely be just as popular,” he writes. “Hell, after 36 years with me, it might be even more popular. The show might be even more appreciated than it is with me as host.”
Growing — and shaving — his iconic mustache both happened on a whim
Before coming to the U.S. in the ’70s, Trebek grew his mustache for reasons he can no longer remember, but credits it to possibly being his version of a “rebellious streak.” When he arrived in L.A., he received mixed reactions to the look, but informed producers that he felt “very strongly” about keeping it.
“I wore that mustache for nearly 30 years. Then, in 2001, I decided to shave it. It was pure whim. We were about to tape our fifth and final show of the day. I went into the makeup room, sat in the chair, and I said, ‘I’m going to shave my mustache.'”
After shaving it away, his family didn’t immediately recognize the change.
“Matthew, who was around 10, started to cry. It was such a big shock,” he recalls. “You do not mess with your children’s lives in that way.”
Trebek writes that he was “surprised” and “appalled” by the amount of press his lack of facial hair received, before eventually growing it back in 2014. After that, viewers voted that the mustache should be shaved off once more.
His next experience with facial hair came a few years later when he grew a full beard. This time, his wife made the decision that the beard should go.
“Once again, we put the vote to fans on whether I should keep it,” he writes. “The winner was… my wife, Jean. She voted for me to be clean-shaven.”
Yes, Celebrity Jeopardy! is easier than Jeopardy!
The celebrity edition of Jeopardy! was made to be easier in an effort to convince guests to appear on the show, something that “isn’t easy” because many “don’t want to embarrass themselves.”
While most celebrities should be grateful for the easier games, Trebek lists a number of people who could’ve competed in real Jeopardy games.
“There have been some contestants who might’ve held their own in regular games. Usually they come from the news media. Those folks have a good grasp of current events. The actors Michael McKean and Jodie Foster are two other fierce competitors who come to mind,” he writes, before listing other impressive celeb contestants.
“Other celebrities who I feel could definitely compete on the regular version of Jeopardy! would have to include Aaron Rodgers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anderson Cooper, Andy Richter, and Joshua Malina,” he writes.
How he wants to be remembered
While Trebek isn’t giving up hope following his stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he has decided to cease all treatment if his current protocol fails.
“I sat down with [Emily], Matt and Jeanie, and told them I had made my decision,” he writes. “I’m going to stick with this current protocol, then that’s it. If it doesn’t work I’ll probably stop treatment. It wasn’t an easy conversation, and it isn’t any easier writing these words. Quality of life was an important consideration.”
Trebek writes that his family “had a good cry” following his announcement, but, after “they had a chance to absorb the news,” he has come to peace with his decision.
“I’m not afraid of dying. One thing they’re not going to say at my funeral as part of the eulogy is, ‘He was taken from us too soon,'” he writes. “I’m about to turn 80. I’ve lived a good, full life, and I’m nearing the end of it. I know that. The only thing that might bother me is if I pass on before I get to have grandchildren. (Hint, hint.)”
“But when death happens, it happens,” Trebek continues. “Why should I be afraid of it? Now, if it involves physical suffering, I might be afraid of that. But, according to my doctor, that’s what hospice is for.”
As for how he’d like to be thought of after his death, Trebek writes, “I’d like to be remembered first of all as a good and loving husband and father, and also as a decent man who did his best to help people perform at their best.”
“If that’s the way I’m remembered, I’m perfectly happy with that,” he adds.
The Answer Is… Reflections on My Life is out now.