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Death of an icon: Alex Trebek was a legend we couldn't help but embrace

Trebek was the kind of celebrity you don't see that much. And that's what made him so special.
Jeopardy! Power Players Week
Alex Trebek speaks during a rehearsal before a taping of Jeopardy! Power Players Week at DAR Constitution Hall on April 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Longtime “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, who died Sunday at age 80, was more than just a man giving clues to contestants. At some point — it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when — we realized he was trustworthy and fatherly in his tenor, knowing when to add a joke while interviewing contestants or when to sympathize when a player guessed incorrectly after going all in with a true Daily Double. The fact that he was famous is almost an afterthought, even though appearing on TV lends itself to fame.

Fame is in many ways like losing weight. It can be hard as heck to achieve, and once it has been attained, it can be even harder to maintain. Alex Trebek, who made his debut on American television in 1973, was the rare breed of everyman celebrity who doesn’t come around often in that he achieved fame and then kept it in a world increasingly dominated by TMZ ambushes and Snapchat filters, where notoriety is as fleeting as the run by a one-day “Jeopardy!” champion. Trebek soldiered on, never resorting to cheap gimmicks.

Since 1984, we knew him as the host of "Jeopardy!," a game show that rewarded people for intelligence and strategy, not some quirky program where people had to open a suitcase or call someone for a lifeline, the drama fueled by equal parts luck and manufactured storylines. "Jeopardy!" was, and remains, a simple concept that appeals to many of us. Trebek was a familiar face for so long that we felt we knew him as he became ingrained in the pop culture landscape and represented a way we felt we could improve ourselves: You know you’ve at least once relayed a “Jeopardy!” clue to someone else or felt a beam of pride when you got an answer right when no one on the show did. We all have.

There was something about seeing Trebek, a calming Fred Rogers-like quality that everything is OK emanating from him. Make no mistake — America loves its game show hosts. From Pat Sajak and Bob Barker to Allen Ludden and Jim Perry, we embrace these moderators of escapist entertainment. Trebek was certainly a member of that fraternity. The Canadian-born star plugged away for more than three decades as host of “Jeopardy!” with class, decency and humor that belied his task at hand.

Alex Trebek
Alex Trebek holds the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Game Show Host at the 33rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on April 28, 2006.AP

Here was Trebek patrolling a program that you could watch with your college roommate, your grandchildren or just by yourself, transcending demographics. Here was Trebek running with the cultural touchstone that he became, whether by our fascination with his beard or preoccupation with his rapping acumen. Here was Trebek guest-starring as himself on “Cheers” in 1990 and on “Orange Is the New Black” in 2018, just two of the many cameos he made on the small screen over the years.

Maintaining relevance and popularity 28 years apart is no easy feat in television, and whoever replaces him has the Herculean and unenviable task of trying to fill his shoes, inviting unfair comparisons to a legend in the field. ("Jeopardy!" episodes hosted by Trebek will air until Dec. 25, and the show isn't announcing plans for a new host at this time, "Jeopardy!" spokespeople said in a statement to TODAY.)

Trebek with John Ratzenberger during Trebek's guest appearance on a 1990 episode of "Cheers."NBC / Getty Images

A good host has a way of receding into the background and letting the stars do their thing. It worked for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” And it worked for Trebek, who never became the center of attention or a distraction when “Jeopardy!” enjoyed an uptick in interest during winning streaks by the likes of Ken Jennings, Austin Rogers or James Holzhauer. It was Trebek's show, but it was their moment.

"You have to set your ego aside," Trebek told New York in 2018 about the key to hosting "Jeopardy!" "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."

Of course, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Trebek should’ve blushed a tomato red when Will Ferrell helped take his popularity to another stratosphere with his classic impression of him during so many “Jeopardy!” sketches on “Saturday Night Live.” (Trebek even showed up for one.) It seems somewhat fitting that Ferrell himself became a beloved comedian, in part, by imitating this beloved personality.

Saturday Night Live
Trebek himself appeared on a 2002 "Saturday Night Live" in a sketch where Will Ferrell did his well-known impression of him.NBC / Getty Images

Death is an inevitable tragedy so singular to each victim yet so universal in the agony to all it leaves behind and by no means should the end diminish who Trebek was or what he meant to us. He endured his pancreatic cancer with a dignity synonymous with who we knew him to be.

"I’m not afraid of dying," he told Canada's CTV in October. "I’ve lived a good life, a full life, and I’m nearing the end of that life ... if it happens, why should I be afraid of it?”

For nearly half a century, we welcomed Alex Trebek into our living rooms. He was a star so singular yet so universal in the adoration he so rightfully deserved. And he will be missed.