Who is Alex Trebek? How a mustache and correct pronunciation created a TV legend.
The second-most consequential moment in Alex Trebek's tenure as host of "Jeopardy!" probably landed in 2001. By then, the Canadian-born game show personality had been slinging clues and announcing Daily Doubles on the classic program since 1984.
But when the show's 18th season went live that year, viewers were stunned to see a distinct change. Gone was Trebek's trademark mustache, a lip-smothering relic of the hairy 1980s that had become as closely associated with the host as Trebek had been to "Jeopardy!" itself. In true Trebek fashion, he buzzed off his defining physical characteristic on a whim, without telling producers or even his wife. Howls of protests lit up the mediascape over the missing facial hair.
"It got so much press, I couldn't believe it," Trebek later told the New Republic in 2014. "The wars with Iraq or whatever at that time, and people are all in a stew over my mustache. I have one response: Get a life."
But as America's most popular quizfest's master of ceremonies, Trebek - he of the droll wit, the professorial pronunciation of obscure operas and animals, the dad-like disappointment when contestants whiff on an easy one - has long enjoyed bucking the expectations of the millions of viewers who have come to know him.
"I don't mind surprising people," the host told New York magazine last November.
Now in his 35th season, Trebek delivered another surprise on Wednesday, a moment that is likely to be the most consequential in his long showbiz career and one with none of the levity of an AWOL mustache. In a video posted online, he revealed he has been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer.
"Now, normally the prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this," Trebek said in the video. "And I'm going to keep working . . . with the love and support of my family and friends, and with the help of your prayers also."
The shock and sadness that piled up on social media after the announcement pointed to just how far Trebek's star has risen in American culture - a surprise really, considering the host's self-effacing style. Still, even while revealing his medical condition on Wednesday, Trebek flashed some of the on-screen magic that has kept him a household name for 35 years.
"I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics of this disease," Trebek told viewers. "Truth told, I have to, because under the terms of my contract, I have to host 'Jeopardy!' for three more years!"
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Clue: An Ontario-born 78-year-old who started out in broadcasting on local television and radio stations while still completing a philosophy degree at the University of Ottawa.
Answer: Who is Alex Trebek?
Before strutting onto the "Jeopardy!" sound stage in 1984, Trebek was a journeyman game-show host on programs in both Canada and the U.S. According to the A.V. Club, he arrived in Hollywood in 1973 to host a show called "The Wizard of Odds." It lasted only a year, and Trebek followed up with several long-forgotten programs - "High Rollers," "The $128,000 Question," "Battlestars" and "Pitfall."
Speaking last year to New York, Trebek looked back on his early days as a single guy trying to make it in Hollywood.
"I was not a player. I dated not that often. I was a shy, small-town Canadian kid," he said. "I never felt like I belonged."
As much as Trebek's personality would become welded to "Jeopardy!," the show actually had a life before he took the steering wheel. Created by legendary television guru Merv Griffin, the game show had two previous runs - from 1964 through 1975 and 1978 through 1979 - before Trebek (and his mustache) launched the syndicated reboot in 1984.
The show's lasting popularity is tied to the concept. Unlike "Wheel of Fortune," another Griffin creation that relies somewhat on luck, "Jeopardy!" is all about brains and timing - which contestant can spit out the right answer the quickest.
If Trebek was a showbiz outsider, he also consciously kept himself on the fringe of his own program. The key to Trebek's on-screen magic is his absence from the action. Starting in the early days, he purposely dialed his own personality down to low-wattage, a host who never tries to outshine the contestants or questions.
"You have to set your ego aside," he told New York last year. "The stars of the show are the contestants and the game itself. That's why I've always insisted that I be introduced as the host and not the star. And if you want to be a good host, you have to figure a way to get the contestants to - as in the old television commercial about the military - 'be all you can be.' Because if they do well, the show does well. And if the show does well, by association I do well."
Since his debut, Trebek has become more than a television host, but a lodestar of American culture. To date, he's hosted more than 7,000 "Jeopardy!" episodes, pocketed six Daytime Emmys, including at least one in each of the last four decades, and also a Peabody Award, The Washington Post has reported. Trebek also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He's appeared as himself on show such as "How I Met Your Mother" and "The Simpsons," and has logged appearances on everything from "The Colbert Report" to "RuPaul's Drag Race." Will Ferrell portrayed Trebek on a classic series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches.
In 2014, Trebek was awarded the Guinness World Record for the "most game show episodes hosted by the same presenter." In 2013 Reader's Digest ranked Trebek No. 8 on a poll of the 100 most trusted people in America, beating Melinda Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, and President Barack Obama.
News of Trebek's diagnosis sparked an outpouring of well wishes on Wednesday from a wide variety of celebrities and other figures - a testament to the host's appeal.
"Sending Love & Prayers To Alex Trebek," Cher wrote on Twitter.
"You are the intellectual Bruce Lee," novelist Don Winslow stated. "You can beat this and I pray you do."
Ken Jennings, the past "Jeopardy!" contestant with the longest-running winning streak in history, chimed in on Twitter: "I've said this before but Alex Trebek is in a way the last Cronkite: authoritative, reassuring TV voice you hear every night, almost to the point of ritual."
Before his cancer diagnosis, there had been persistent rumors over the years that Trebek would soon call it quits on his show. The game-show host himself has already thought through his final "Jeopardy!"
"I will tell the director, 'Time the show so that I have 30 seconds at the end,'" Trebek explained to New York last November. "So all I want on my last show is 30 seconds, and I'll do what Johnny Carson did: 'Hey, folks, thank you. Been a good run and all good things must come to an end.' Then I'll move on."
This article was written by Kyle Swenson, a reporter for The Washington Post.