The question was inevitable. During my brief brush with fame 20 years ago after my initial "Jeopardy!" appearance, it was nearly always the first one I got. It came like clockwork right after the recognition, the congratulations and my thanks.
“So, what’s Alex Trebekreally like?”
It’s understandable in a way. People are naturally curious to know if the guy they see every night reading clues and bantering with contestants has the same personality and demeanor off camera.
In that sense, it’s a difficult one to answer. First-time contestants don’t actually meet the host until he walks on to the stage. Even then, we don’t have all that many opportunities to interact with him on the set.
Alex Trebek attends the screening of 'Wuthering Heights' at the 2019 TCM 10th Annual Classic Film Festival. (Photo: Presley Ann, Getty Images for TCM)
Tributes: 'A lovely and deeply decent man': 'Jeopardy!' GOAT Ken Jennings mourns host Alex Trebek
This is, of course, by design. Following the quiz-show scandals of the 1950’s, it became a federal crime to rig a show. Producers have to make doubly and triply sure there is no hint of tampering with the results of any game, so any contact between prospective contestants and members of the on-air staff is strictly controlled.
Having said all that, I was somewhat fortunate in that I had more chances to see Alex than most players who get their shot. I am, therefore, able to offer a somewhat more substantial answer to that question.
For the most part, he’s every bit the consummate professional the viewers see night in and night out. His authoritative style, polished delivery and impeccable cadence keep the game moving, and even the occasional zinger he gets in is all in good fun.
There was, however, a little bit more involved with our encounter. As I said, he wasn’t allowed to meet me ahead of time. But he did have to be briefed regarding my appearance, simply because there were a couple of minor procedural matters of which he needed to be aware.
As the first totally blind contestant in the show’s history, I neither wanted nor needed much in the way of special treatment. But Alex did have to be told that I’d need a verbal review of the scores when a daily double was uncovered. Also, I might not pick a specific dollar amount from the board every time but might just say, “Next in the category,” or words to that effect.
In short, my presence on the set would be something of a new experience. I have to suspect that Trebek was more than a little curious to see how the show might unfold. I got the distinct impression that once it became clear that I could handle the bright lights, which, after all, didn’t affect me, Alex himself was able to relax. I heard him say to the audience during one of the commercial breaks that he was probably more nervous than I was at first. He couldn’t outright root for me, of course, as that would certainly not have been fair to my worthy opponents. But after my five-game run that qualified me for a spot in the annual Tournament of Champions, Trebek admitted in interviews that he had hoped I would do well.
USA TODAY sportswriter Eddie Timanus appears as a contestant on Jeopardy in 2000. (Photo: JEOPARDY! PRODUCTIONS, INC.)
As a result of my initial run of success in 1999, I was privileged enough to be invited back to the show for some of their special event tournaments over the years. I have to say every time I was able to return to the set, it had the feel of a family reunion.
While taping the Battle of the Decades tournament in 2014, Trebek took time out of his own lunch break to introduce himself to my then-nine-year-old son. He was also kind enough to send me a signed copy of his recently published memoir, in which he included a short chapter devoted to my appearance on the show.
So I’m not exaggerating when I say the news of Trebek’s death Sunday comes as a gut punch to us. As my wife aptly put it when he he announced his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2019, it felt like we’d received word about a family member.
All of this is to say that the answer to that most frequently asked question is, he’s a genuine guy who’s very good at what he does, and it was a great honor to have known him. I’m even now having difficulty referring to him in the past tense.
Jeopardy! Will go on, of course. Before Alex Trebek, the late Art Fleming got the country into the habit of saying ‘What is … ” before answering. But Trebek will be missed, and he most certainly won’t be forgotten.
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