Gameshow icons Pat Sajak (“Wheel of Fortune”) and Alex Trebek (“Jeopardy!”) have competed against each other at the Daytime Emmys many times, but this year they’ll both go home winners as dual recipients of the kudofest’s Lifetime Achievement award.
“A lot of people are troubled by the term ‘lifetime achievement,’ ” Sajak says. “They feel they’re getting the ‘Gee-We-Can’t-Believe-You’re-Still-Alive’ award, but it just means I’ve had a long career. It’s better than the ‘Whatever-Happened-to-Pat-Sajak’ award.
Adds Trebek: “When I found out I was getting this, I said, ‘Well, if you hang around long enough and don’t screw up, they’ll do nice things for you.’ ”
Sajak didn’t set out to become a gameshow legend, but the Chicago native, who grew up listening to Jack Parr, hoped to have a career in broadcasting. He attended Columbia College in Chicago and worked as a disc jockey in Vietnam before landing a weekend weatherman gig on the NBC station in Los Angeles in the late ’70s. Soon, Merv Griffin caught his work and tapped him to host “Wheel,” much to the initial dismay of NBC’s then-president Fred Silverman.
“I don’t think Fred had anything particularly against me,” Sajak says. “His attitude was, ‘We don’t want to go with another unknown.’ ”
Sajak, in fact, expressed his own doubts to Griffin since he felt his laid-back style didn’t gel with the traditional game-show host mold. “But he said, ‘I like what you do. Just do it.’ I owe Merv a lot.”
The lucrative gameshow’s production schedule and longevity have afforded Sajak the ability to invest in some Maryland radio stations, but more importantly, they’ve given him lots of time to spend with his wife, Lesly, and their son and daughter.
“When my kids were really young, they didn’t even know I had a job,” Sajak says.
Trebek didn’t have access to American broadcasters while growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, but in time, a Buffalo, N.Y., station made its way over the border. “That was it, though,” he says. “I didn’t really watch a lot of American TV in Canada.”
After earning two philosophy degrees from the U. of Ottawa, Trebek joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., where he reported national news and special events. In 1966, he hosted the Canuck quiz show “Reach for the Top.”
“That’s where I got my feet wet with experience that would benefit me later with gameshows,” he says.
Another Canadian quiz show, “Strategy,” came next. In the ’70s, Trebek became familiar to U.S. audiences by hosting “The Wizard of Odds” and “High Rollers” for NBC.
His landmark “Jeopardy” gig came along in 1984.
In addition to literally having all the answers (or, technically, the questions), Trebek maintains deft skills that help keep the show a success. “I make contestants feel comfortable,” he says, “and I don’t let them get away with anything if they ever try to slow things down to maximize their lead.”
Celebrity “Jeopardy” contestants have been skewered on “Saturday Night Life” (as Trebek himself has been), but the host cites Michael McKean, Andy Richter, Cheech Marin and Jodie Foster as examples of brainy stars who’ve appeared on the quiz show’s real-life celebrity edition.
Trebek’s invited regularly to appear in movies and on comedy series, but he says that he’d like to depart from playing a version of himself in those projects. “Maybe an ax murderer on a sitcom?” he jokes.
Like Sajak, Trebek has a great deal of time off given his show’s production schedule. He lends his time to charitable organizations including World Vision, which has encouraged donors to assist in the rebuilding of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have made it a priority in my life to help others who are in need,” he says.
While other staples of TV are exiting in the coming months (Oprah Winfrey, Regis Philbin and Susan Lucci) Trebek and Sajak have no immediate plans to depart the airwaves.
“Americans want to know how bright they are in different circumstances, and ‘Jeopardy’ gives people a chance to find out in the safety of their own homes,” Trebek says.
“The shows are comfort food,” Sajak says. “Even if you don’t watch us every day, it’s nice to know that we’re there.”
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