Longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, who last year announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, said at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour that he doesn’t expect to retire anytime soon.
“I don’t foresee that 30-second moment coming up in the near future,” he said on stage, referring to his recent comments that he would end his last taping with space for 30 seconds to say his goodbyes.
“Now, thinking about retiring and retiring are two different things,” said Trebek, recalling the headline flurry prompted by a reporter asking him some years ago if he was considering retirement. “As long as I feel my skills have not diminished too much, and as long as I enjoy spending time with people like these three and working with people like Harry and our creative writing staff, then I’ll continue doing it.”
In a wide-ranging Q&A with Trebek, executive producer Harry Friedman and three returning champions Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer and Brad Rutter, Trebek also offered an update on his condition.
“Some days are better than others — my resistance is lower than most of you, of course, because of the treatments I’ve been having, the chemotherapy,” said Trebek, who currently has a cold, his second in the past month. His doctors have taken him off one of his chemo drugs, which was “killing [him],” he said, adding that he is going in for more testing and expects a further update on his health in a week or so.
“Some weeks are good, some weeks are bad,” he said. “Comes with the territory.”
All three “Jeopardy!” champions appeared on the TCA stage (and on the tournament, taped in December) wearing purple pins to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer, which Trebek said he found touching.
“Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time” drew over 14 million viewers in its primetime slot on Tuesday night. This particular tournament would not have been possible without Holzhauer, said Trebek, since the show has been looking for a worthy competitor to match Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.
The tournament has forced Jennings, the likable player who holds a record for his 74-game win streak, to up his game. He calls Holzhauer’s shoot-from-the-hip gameplay, which involves betting the farm on Daily Doubles, “the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen on the show.”
“My strategy in regular play worked fine for me — smaller wagers, lower-risk style of play — but when you’re actually playing against that, when somebody breaks the glass on doubling up, you’ve got to do it as well,” said Jennings. “So as I think if you saw last night, you realize Brad and I are going to have to take big chances. We’re going to have to play like James or we risk getting steamrolled by the original.”
When asked if he would be interested in hosting more primetime specials of “Jeopardy!” or perhaps a version featuring celebrities who embrace the show, Trebek quipped that “embracing the show and being able to perform well on the show are two different things, as many celebrities have discovered over the years.”
“I’ve often been asked, ‘Do you make material easier than regular fare when you have celebrities?” he said. “Duh.”
But Trebek would be “up for anything,” noting that the “Greatest of All Time” tournament “certainly made sense.”
Many in the TV critics crowd at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, often aloof to the talent on these panels, broke their own tacit rule against applauding to clap for Trebek. (They appeared to relish in the stories from Trebek and the champs, even protesting when the network’s head publicist attempted to move the day along and end the panel.)
Looking back at the many cameos he has made over the decades, Trebek said his spot on “Cheers” episode “What is… Cliff Clavin?” in 1990 “ranks very high,” since it was one of his first times appearing on a scripted series as himself.
He also recalled filming a scene in the 2007 film “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, in which Freeman’s character dies on the floor of the set of “Jeopardy!” The scene was ultimately cut from the movie.
“That disappointed me, to end up on the cutting room floor,” said Trebek to laughs. “[But] every time that movie is shown… I receive a nice residual.”
For Trebek, the most enjoyable part of his own show is the 30 minutes he spends on stage with the contestants, he said, because he loves spending time with bright people.
“I hate spending time with stupid people,” joked Trebek. “You can’t find any better environment in which to work than hosting a program like ‘Jeopardy!’ It’s the very best kind of reality television.”
Trebek’s facial hair is ever of interest to the press, as he recalls learning when he shaved off his iconic mustache (the first time) in 2001. He did so “on a whim,” before the tenth show of a two-day, 10-show taping streak.
“I was backstage and I said, ‘I think I’m going to shave my mustache — and I shaved half of it,” he recalled. “And I approached [executive producer] Harry. I said, ‘What do you think? I’d like to come out this way.’ And he said ‘No, you have to shave the whole thing.’ And it came off.”
“The press coverage following that blew my mind,” he continued. “There were wars going on in the Middle East, and I said, ‘You guys are focusing on my mustache? Get a life, please.”
He has since played to the public’s fascination with his hair over the years. In 2018, at the start of Season 35, Trebek had a week-long stretch in which he appeared with a full beard that was slowly shaved down over the course of the week’s aired gameplay, ultimately resuming his clean-shaven look.
“I love silliness,” he said.
When pressed to reflect on the impact he has had during his 36-year tenure hosting the show, said Trebek: “I hope I’ve been an influence for good, and an influence for the benefits of not minimizing the importance of knowledge in one’s life.”
The three champs, each answering in the form of a question, verbalized their appreciation of the beloved game-show host. Rutter highlighted Trebek’s professionalism, while Jennings said he loves the way kids react to “Jeopardy!” Holzhauer noted Trebek’s “goodness,” remarking that he has nurtured a long Hollywood career without scandal.
“There’s still time,” quipped Trebek.