One final time last Friday, George Alexander “Alex” Trebek eloquently, and as always with perfect pronunciation, presented clues on Jeopardy! for his contestants to respond to in the form of a question.
According to Jeopardy!’s Twitter account, Trebek died at home early on Sunday morning Nov. 8 surrounded by family and friends. Soon thereafter, thousands of former contestants organized mass messages of support. Twitter was also bombarded with kind comments from Trebek’s fans.
Since Trebek’s first Jeopardy! episode aired on Sept. 10, 1984, he became a welcome fixture in millions of American homes.
Trebek though, was born in Greater Sudbury, Canada, in 1940. Greater Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger said of the famous Sudburian, “When meeting him, you truly felt like he was an old family friend,’ adding, “An amazing ambassador for Greater Sudbury.”
As a twist of fate would have it, Trebek indirectly got the Jeopardy! job because of a person born in Ashland in 1941.
“I got a call one day from Bob Murphy, who was vice president of Merv Griffin Enterprises. About a year before this phone call I had received another phone call from him saying, ‘Alex, you don’t know me. I’m Bob Murphy, I’m the executive producer of Wheel of Fortune. Chuck Woolery was supposed to tape the shows this weekend. We have a special tournament and he’s in the hospital,’” Trebek said on “Objectified” in 2018. The day after that last phone call with Murphy — Griffin’s best friend since the sixth grade — Trebek was hosting the tournament.
Woolery, from Ashland High School’s Class of 1959, attended Morehead State University, was a two-year Navy veteran, WCMI DJ, winner on WHTN Channel 13’s “Talent Hunt” and a Columbia Records recording artist. Woolery was the original host of “WOF” and spun the iconic wheel from Jan. 6, 1975 to Dec. 25, 1981. Like Trebek, Woolery went on to become one of the most successful hosts in game-show history.
On Dec. 28, 1981, Pat Sayjak, another former DJ in Kentucky at Murray’s WNBS, was shown on NBC hosting “WOF” for the first time.
“They (MGE) decided, ‘why don’t we try to get a one hour package of Wheel and something else, how about we bring back Jeopardy!, and who are we going to get to host it? Who? That guy Trebek that helped us out on Wheel over a year ago,’” Trebek said.
Just like all of the trivia on Jeopardy!, a former resident of Waverly, Ohio, has become the correct response to, ‘Who was the winner on Alex Trebek’s first episode of Jeopardy!?’
Greg Hopkins was a confident guy that now says, “My attitude from the get-go was, I got your answers, you got my money, let’s go!
“It was the grace of God that I ended up on the first show,” Hopkins said. He had tried more than 40 times to get on a game show. “At one of the game-show tryouts, someone said, ‘hey, did you know Jeopardy! was coming back?’ I go, you’re kidding! That’s my favorite.”
When Trebek asked contestants about themselves, Hopkins had one of the most memorable responses ever.
“What does an energy demonstrator do?” Trebek asked.
Hopkins grabbed a balloon. “Well, we do things like this. Let’s imagine this balloon is a uranium atom. (He blew air into the balloon and tied it into a knot.) We take the atom, (Hopkins said, while turning his hand into a pistol) and we shoot it with a neutron. Bang! It pulsates, vibrates and it splits into two separate atoms in a reactor, gives us energy,” Hopkins said, while holding what became two balloons, and then throwing them up in the air. The audience erupted with applause and Trebek jokingly said to Hopkins, “Try and relax,” followed by laughter from the audience.
“You have to admire someone with that kind of courage and professionalism,” Hopkins said, of Trebek’s positive attitude while battling cancer. According to Hopkins, that professionalism in the last 18 months of Trebek’s life was nothing new. “When he walked out that first time and started, it was like he had done that show already for 10 years. He was a stone-cold professional as far as his talents as a game show host.”
Hopkins said Trebek and his staff were very caring. Hopkins won $8,400 (worth $21,058 now). Hopkins lost in his second game, but he’ll always be remembered as Trebek’s first champion. Another prominent Greg in Waverly is Mayor Greg Kempton. The mayor reminisced that Hopkins was pretty active in Waverly. Kempton also said that Hopkins grew up there and attended Waverly High School. Hopkins is an author and now lives in Huntsville, Alabama.
Trebek had other health scares before he announced in March 2019 that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In 2004, he avoided serious injury after a crash in his truck. In 2007, he had a minor heart attack. After falling in 2017, he had surgery for blood clots on his brain.
Legendary announcer Johnny Gilbert, 96, has been Jeopardy’s! announcer since Trebek’s first show. Trebek convinced Griffin to hire Gilbert, and Trebek asked Gilbert to introduce him like this, “‘And now here’s the host of the show,’ not the star of the show,” Trebek said. “The game is the star, the contestants are the stars.”
Trebek was hilariously impersonated 14 times by Will Ferrell on “Saturday Night Live’s” sketch “Celebrity Jeopardy!,” even making a cameo appearance.
“I loved them,” Trebek said. Trebek, though, said “Eugene Levy did the best Alex Trebek ever.” Levy went by Alex Trebek while doing Trebek impersonations on “Second City Television (SCTV).”
Trebek was nominated for more than 20 Daytime Emmy Awards for Jeopardy! and won seven.
Trebek’s first game-show gig was hosting the Canadian show Strategy in 1969. In 1973, Trebek moved to America and hosted The Wizard of Odds.
Trebek also hosted High Rollers, Double Dare, Pillsbury Bake Off, The $128,000 question, Battlestars, Pitfall and The New Battlestars. In 1991, Trebek became the first person to host three American game shows simultaneously, with Jeopardy!, Classic Concentration and To Tell The Truth.
Jeopardy! information says Jeopardy! is shown in 33 countries.