TV Legend

Local ‘Jeopardy’ Contestants React to Alex Trebek’s Big News

The longtime host, now fighting cancer, did not want to be asked about his mustache.

By Margaret Seiler March 12, 2019

Alex Trebek is alive and kicking and appearing on KATU every weeknight at 7, as the host of Jeopardy!. Since the 78-year-old’s March 6 announcement that he’s starting treatment for stage IV pancreatic cancer, past Jeopardy! winners, cancer survivors, and others have shared support, appreciations, advice, and tributes. And now we’re adding our own.

It’s hard not to feel a connection to a man who has been a daily presence in many of our lives since 1984, even if it’s just on a TV screen. But some Portlanders have met Trebek in the flesh as Jeopardy! contestants. I’m one of them. I lost my game in 2008 (alas, when I saw categories pop up I know next to nothing about, like German composers and NASCAR, I knew I was doomed), but being on Jeopardy! was still a singular life experience. Bonus: appearing on national television while six months pregnant turned out to be a great way to let friends I hadn’t seen in a while know I was expecting.

In the decade since, when people learn I was once on Jeopardy!, the reaction is often less “Wow, you were on a game show” than “Oh my god, you met Alex Trebek!” I talked to a few other Portland contestants, some who won (and thus had more banter with the host in their multiple appearances) and some who didn’t. We all reported the same curiosity among our friends: Did we meet the real Alex or just his public persona? Probably the latter. But here’s what we remember. 

Did you talk to him much when you were on the show? 

Denis Theriault (two shows in 2011, Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services communications coordinator): Because my name is French Canadian, he wanted to call me “dah-NEE,” so my mother-in-law still calls me that, because of Alex Trebek. I remember speaking a little bit of French to him. I fumbled it, I’m sure, but he was a little warmer to me than I was expecting. I imagine we’re just like a stream of faces, and we all blend in.

Jim Laden (one show in 2000, nonprofit professional and busy grandfather): There was very little interaction. There were all the rules and separation after the quiz show scandal, since he had the answers. My first time talking to him was on the actual show, I think. The producers and I had rehearsed my story [the biographical detail Trebek would ask about] from when I was in the Peace Corps and ended up playing nursemaid to a baby chimpanzee. We had edited out the detail that its mother was killed by a hunter. But then Alex Trebek asked me a totally different question, just, “So you were in the Peace Corps, what was that like?” And then the Final Jeopardy question was about opera, which apparently he knows a lot about, so at the wave-goodbye at the end he chatted a bit about that.

Margaret Seiler (one show in 2008, Portland Monthly managing editor, ShanRock’s Triviology host): One of my little stories he could choose from is that my mother is his age and is from Sudbury, too. So he came up to me and wanted to talk about that. We figured out that they probably were together for Grade 9, and then he went to Catholic school. Neither of them knew each other. But because we had that connection he was very warm to me. And then at the end of it after I had lost, he was very concerned that I not fall on the set because I was really pregnant—everybody, the whole staff, was like, “We don’t want to get sued, watch the pregnant lady!”

Kerry Tymchuk (five shows in 1989, Oregon Historical Society executive director): They were very careful about showing any favoritism. I’m sure they were still remembering the game show scandals from the 1950s. But then when you were a contestant he was very friendly. My father was born in Canada, and of course I knew he was Canadian, so I mentioned that. I was working at the time for Elizabeth Dole, who was then the secretary of labor, and we talked about the Doles.

Kaya Blauvelt (one show in 2013, ghost blogger): The interaction was pretty much zero. There was the photo and the handshake. By that time, I was already a deer in headlights, so panicky, so I have no memory of that. Then I lost, and my world crashed in upon me, and he stood there on the stage and chatted with Carlos, who won.

Margaret: My Final Jeopardy question was which former SAG president is the only person to win acting Emmys for playing the same character in both a comedy and a drama. My brother is nine years older than I am, and he immediately knew it. It was just before my time. The answer is Ed Asner, for Mary Tyler Moore and the show Lou Grant. We all got it wrong. At the end, when we’re all standing there, Alex wanted to talk about it, saying, “When I saw the question this morning I really did my best to make it easier. I had them add the SAG president part!” The only SAG president I could name was Melissa Gilbert, or maybe Ronald Reagan. That’s not much of a hint. So that’s when I thought, “Oh, he’s totally LA. Most of us aren’t reading about the latest SAG politics in our morning paper.” But it seemed like he wanted to endear himself, and also convey that he looks over all the questions and makes sure they’re up to snuff. I think he was proud of having that involvement.

Jim: Mostly it felt like he was the person you see on TV. He came across as personable; it was just the situation that could make him seem aloof.

How was he with the studio audience? They get their own Q&A with him.

Margaret: People were like, when did you shave your mustache? And he would declare, “I haven’t had a mustache for five years!” He got kind of upset that these people claim to somehow know him but didn’t really pay attention. He was a little testy.

Denis: He was proactive right off the top: don’t ask about the mustache!

Kaya: Someone had asked about the strategy of hopping around the board, and he had a very strong opinion about that. And I thought that was weird. He hates when contestants do that, because sometimes you need the first clue to get the later ones. I was like, who cares? If people want to find the Daily Double you can’t fault someone for that. They could change the rules and make people go in order. He was cranky about that.

Were there any goofs on your show?

Denis: The lights were not working on one of the categories, around the boxes, so they had to do some pickups for that. But now I get why I’ve never seen him make a mistake. There is some production behind his air of perfection.

Kaya: He messed up on one clue. Our whole round was all buzzer—like, we all knew the answer, and it wasn’t about what you know, it was about the buzzer. [Eventual winner] Carlos rang in. He said the wrong answer, and the answer was clearly Ping-Pong. And Alex goes, “No, the answer is Ping-Pong.” He just gave the answer and didn’t let us ring in, and he was like, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And then on national TV, this very easy question comes up on the board, Carlos gets it wrong, and then it cuts to footage of us going, hmm, like we don’t know. And then on an online recap, someone wrote, “I knew this one, I can’t believe they didn’t….”

Kerry: I loved the fact that Alex could never make a mistake. If he mispronounced a word or something, they would just redub that or retape it during a break. Pretty good to go through life and get a chance to redo all your mistakes. 

Who will follow Trebek as host? Of course, talk of a post-Trebek world was happening before the dire diagnosis, with speculation of who would replace him after his contract ends in 2022. (Trebek himself told a New York audience last month it would probably be “a woman, somebody younger, somebody bright, somebody personable, somebody with a great sense of humor,” and went on to say the clear choice was 97-year-old Betty White.) 

Kaya: It would have to be someone who’s intelligent-leaning and not entertainer-leaning. I would rather it be an intellect.

Kerry: The Price Is Right has continued with Drew Carey, and Jeopardy! will go on with a new host eventually. It’s got to be someone like Alex, who takes it seriously. It’s not The Price Is Right, where people are jumping and screaming. It’s a show that rewards intelligence and quickness with the buzzer, someone who appreciates the role Jeopardy! has in our popular culture and takes it seriously. Sure, it’s a quiz show, but it’s become more than a quiz show. It’s become a national institution.

Jim: I went to a couple of tapings of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire when it was on in the daytime, and I have to say Meredith Vieira would be good. She has that same taint of seriousness, but she’s still warm and friendly. I wasn’t a Regis fan.

Margaret: So many of the current prime time game shows, Ellen’s Game of Games, Rob Lowe’s Mental something-or-other—somehow my kids have discovered them—they’re all hosted by someone who was already famous and known for something else, generally comedy or a certain demeanor or person, so plucking some random, already-famous person would be kind of weird.

Denis: I don’t think they even produce professional hosts like him anymore. I’ve gone back and watched things like Joker’s Wild. Concentration was on in the morning, and my grandmother watched that. Double Dare—an early show called Double Dare that he hosted, not the Nickelodeon Double Dare. He’s very young, very handsome, lustrous dark hair, big mustache, in these dapper, sort of boot-cut, nice lapel-y suits. His bearing, he’s just this sweet Canadian proper host. I don’t know—Hollywood doesn’t produce people who have that. People are flashier, or they’re brands. He’s become a brand, but only because he was so good at sublimating himself for the show.

Kaya: I think Conan O’Brien would be a great Jeopardy! host. If he could do both. It’s only two days’ work a week! [Note: The production schedule is a week’s worth of shows taped in one day, two days per week.] I think Conan has always been one of the best talk show hosts, because he tees people up all the time and lets them have the last word. We already know he’s the smartest one there is. 

How did you find out Trebek’s health news?

Kaya: I got a message from a [bar] trivia teammate. It was like a minute after the news came out. He said, “I assume you’ve heard about Alex Trebek,” and I was like, “Did he grope someone?” You know, I assume that now of everyone, when it’s an older white male in the news, like Charlie Rose. And then I looked it up really quick and was like, oh, maaannnn. And then eight hours later an uncle tagged me on Facebook about the article.

Denis: I was scrolling Facebook and saw KATU’s post about it. The headline made it clear that it wasn’t death yet, but you’ve lost enough people in life to cancer to know it’s not the kind where you’re just out a couple of weeks. I gasped. My colleague next to me said What?” I was like, “Alex Trebek. This is really terrible.” She’s like, “Who is that?” She likes to climb mountains and has other specific interests, so I forgive her.

Margaret: On our office’s #depressingaf Slack channel, somebody posted it and tagged me, and then within five minutes I had gotten a text from a neighbor and a text from an old childhood friend from Kentucky who was on my high school academic team.

Kerry: The number of emails and phone calls I got after Alex went public with it—people were calling, reaching out to me, like, “Oh my gosh, you must feel so bad,” like we were best friends or something.

But Jeopardy! and Trebek have been a part of your life a long time, right?

Margaret: I don’t remember ever not knowing who he was.

Jim: We keep the picture of me and Alex on our mantel. It’s a conversation piece to this day. We recorded the show, and still have the VHS tape.

Kerry: All these years later, if I’m speaking in public, the introducer says “… worked for Elizabeth Dole, worked for Bob Dole, Gordon Smith’s chief of staff, now at OHS …,” people’s eyes glaze over, “and a four-time Jeopardy! champion,” they burst into applause. It was such a universal thing that brings people together. Everybody knows and watches Jeopardy!.

Denis: It was on after school at 3:30 in Chicago, right after the 3 o’clock news, before the 4 o’clock news on channel 7. So I would watch, starting in fourth grade. I had a friend who also used to watch it, so we would call and compare, like, “I got five answers.”

Kaya: I grew up in a major game/trivia household, especially my dad. It was on from as early as I could remember. It came on at 7:30 in Florida, right after Wheel of Fortune. My dad would tuck me in at night, and every time I’d say, “Ask me a question!” I remember being in high school, and my hardest class was AP American History, and when I was in that class I started getting more questions right on a regular basis, and thought, “Whoa, this is awesome.” Looking back, some of those things you know when you’re in AP history I would never know now. Then it became, file that away…. 

What would you want to tell Trebek, or to have him know about his legacy?

Jim: It’s really nice to have a game show host who doesn’t encourage everyone to jump up and down.

Kerry: He’s made it so iconic. I’m old enough to remember when it was on in the daytime, the glory days of the morning game shows, and Art Fleming was the host. The money was ridiculously low. But Alex has become so connected with it. He and Bob Barker are the game show legends. Think of how much he has become a part of America’s culture—probably one of the most recognizable faces in the country today. And that doesn’t just happen overnight. It happens because people admire and appreciate what he does. Not bad for a Canadian to be an American icon! 

Denis: I would tell him that my mother used to have a crush on him—put him in the same category as Sam Elliott, these mustachioed fellows. He was of a piece. Maybe that could be another reason why it was on [at my house all the time], too. I would say, don’t leave this world without thinking you were quite the heartthrob. And good job on Cheers. He’s actually really funny.

Kaya: I’ve definitely watched Jeopardy! more than anything, in terms of hours logged, probably only approached by SNL, when you think about things you’ve watched your whole life. I would say thank you for celebrating intelligence. That was a huge thing. In high school, everything was for Jeopardy!. It’s fun to know all these things, but there was a second aim for all this stuff, filing it away for Jeopardy!, and it made me learn tons of things. It’s just this celebration of intelligence, especially what our country it stuck in with anti-intelligence. It’s this oasis for people who like information and knowledge.

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