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Alex Trebek’s Memoir Hits the Highlights

Alex Trebek is gray-haired but tidy, with a small smile and a direct gaze, over the all-caps name ALEX TREBEK and title 'The Answer Is...'

(Photo: Andrew Eccles / Simon & Schuster)

“I don’t have a lot of ghosts. I don’t have any bad memories that affect my life. It’s all good. Sure, I think of Mom and Dad and [sister] Barbara often. Sure, there are sad moments. But I never think of them and say, “I wish we had resolved this or resolved that.” There was nothing to resolve. There was no unfinished business. It’s all good stuff.”

“It’s All Good Stuff” could easily have been the subtitle of Alex Trebek‘s cheerful new book The Answer Is… Perhaps it’s no surprise that a celebrity known to be private and low-key (and Canadian to boot) has written a memoir that is almost entirely without rancor or drama of any kind. Trebek has hosted nearly 8,000 episodes of Jeopardy!, and he takes a similarly episodic approach to his life, with chapters that are often just two or three pages long. He says at the start:

“This is not going to be a standard memoir. We’re just hitting the highlights. It’s a series of quick look-ins, revelations. It’s an aperçu of Alex Trebek, human being. What is he like? What has he done? How did he screw up? Things like that.”

The book’s biggest drama is its circumstance: The writing of it was driven by Trebek’s 2019 diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. Yet even that can’t make this book glum or dull. Quite the opposite. Trebek fans will learn facts like these:

•  Trebek walked out of the Royal Canadian Air Force military college after three days. The deal-breaker? A military haircut. “In those days hairdos were big. I had a good head of hair–a sort of pompadour with a ducktail in the back. I’d be damned if I was going to let them shave it off.”

A young Alex Trebek sits on a high stool, leg cocked, holding a mic and wearing an old-fashioned sweater that was probably hip casual in those days. Behind him are musicians with a guitar, a drum kit, and a saxophone

(Photo: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

•  Alex Trebek got his first big break as the host of a program called Music Hop. “It was a weekly teenage music show that predated Hullabaloo and Shindig! in the United States… Messing up on live TV taught me an important lesson about show business: learn to laugh at yourself.”

Alex Trebek dressed as Mark Twain in a white suit and holding a cigar. He has bushy gray hair and a bushy Twain-style moustache, and darned if he doesn't actually look a good deal like Mark Twain.

Alex Trebek as Mark Twain in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Alex Trebek)

Trebek is a big Mark Twain fan. “I own every book he ever wrote and several biographies of him,” he says. What’s more, Trebek actually played Twain in the 1970s in two episodes of a TV docu-drama show called Witness to Yesterday.  “You have to look at philosophy as a way of life,” says Trebek, “and Twain’s way of life was a very honest, straightforward one in which he respected humanity and cared about people–cared about their suffering. And he certainly was not partial to the oligarchs of the world. We need him today, actually. We could use him.”

That side note about oligarchs is as close to political as Trebek gets in The Answer Is… Just enough to leave you guessing! He has called himself “apolitical” in the past, including in a 2014 profile which reported that he watched Fox News in his dressing room and also quoted him saying that the Tea Party was “a reflection of the people.” But he doesn’t go there in this book.

At left, Alex Trebek stands in front of a big spinning wheel with contestants names on it, in a very crazy plaid suit; at right, he holds a softball-sized pair of dice as he leans in with a smiling woman

Alex Trebek as host of The Wizard of Odds (left) and with Ruta Lee on High Rollers.

• Alex Trebek has hosted a lot of game shows. A lot! If you only remember him from Jeopardy!, you’ll enjoy the cavalcade of photos from his 1970s game shows: The Wizard of Odds, High Rollers, Double Dare, Battlestars, The $128,000 Question, and a short-lived show titled Pitfall, for which his paycheck of $49,200 bounced.

• He’s met Queen Elizabeth II — twice. One of the funniest anecdotes in the book is about what happened when, by chance, Trebek chatted with Queen Elizabeth II at events two night in a row. He sets up the punch line beautifully.

• He is emotional about his wife, Jean. Trebek isn’t understated about everything. His love of his wife, Jean, shines through in a chapter titled What Is… A Soulmate? “I wasn’t looking for love. But with Jean, I recognized at a gut level that here was someone who was going to complete me as a human being.”

They just celebrated their 30th anniversary, having married in April of 1990 when Trebek was 48 and Jean was 24. (Trebek doesn’t mention her work, but Newsweek calls her a “professional sound healer, Reiki master and Religious Science practitioner.”) It’s a lovely story and he obviously cares deeply for her and their two kids, Matthew and Emily.

• He was wearing a wig before the cancer. This really is surprising. Trebek says he began wearing a hairpiece in early 2018 after he had surgery to remove blood clots near his brain. That left two rows of stitches that “look like a railway track. And in between the railway track is this filmy tuft of gray hair hanging there. It was like a reverse Mohawk.” About the hairpiece, he says: “The guy who did it does wigs for a lot of the big stars, mostly women. I won’t share their names, but I bet you’d be surprised. I certainly was. These pieces are so good. Nobody can tell.” True!

There are quick glimpses of a feistier Trebek in this book. He nearly got thrown out of Catholic prep school for being “unruly,” and still carries a grudge against the priest he clashed with. He was fired from at least one job as a young man, as an apartment complex maintenance man, and that story leads him to make this exasperated comment: “People are terrible at filling garbage cans. They’ll see six big cans and fill each of them halfway instead of loading three of them full.” In that moment you can imagine what it might be like to live or work with this man — a stickler for logic and detail, perhaps? A pro’s pro who doesn’t suffer fools gladly?

But in truth, there isn’t much “screwing up” in this story. The Alex Trebek you get in The Answer Is… is the one you see on Jeopardy!: politely cheerful, all business, keeping things moving along. And keeping it entertaining.

See our full biography of Alex Trebek »


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