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'Jeopardy!' executive producer reflects on Alex Trebek's final episodes: 'He was a warrior'

The executive producer of "Jeopardy!" shared how he got "chills" of admiration watching Alex Trebek tape his final episodes, which will air next week.
/ Source: TODAY

The executive producer of "Jeopardy!" has shared what fans can expect when the show airs Alex Trebek's final episodes next week and how the legendary host was "a warrior" who taped his final episodes only 10 days before his death in November.

Mike Richards, who took over as executive producer early this year after Harry Friedman retired, spoke with Entertainment Weekly about the dedication and perseverance of Trebek, who died at 80 on Nov. 8 from pancreatic cancer. Richards also paid tribute to Trebek on TODAY the day after he died.

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Image: ABC's "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time"
The executive producer of Jeopardy! shared what fans can expect from Alex Trebek's final episodes that will air from Jan. 4-8. Eric McCandless / ABC via Getty Images

"I talked to him seven days before what would end up being his final taping session, and I said, 'Alex, you're barely up and around. We have a long way to go before you're gonna be back in the studio taping,''' Richards told EW. "He got very firm, which I loved, and he goes, 'I'll be there. Don't you cancel anything.' And sure as heck, he was. He was a warrior."

Trebek's final episodes are set to air from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8, giving fans their last look at new games featuring a host who was a fixture on the show for 36 years.

"You'll watch them and you'll go, 'This guy's as healthy as could be. This is not a sick person at all,''' Richards said. "He had that much willpower. And we knew how much he was fighting, and that's what made the performance even more impressive."

The void he left is palpable, as legendary Jeopardy! announcer Johnny Gilbert, 96, shared with People last week.

“Everybody's walking around in a little bit of a fog, shaken from the whole thing,” he said. “Part of me left here when Alex left, really."

However, Trebek's ebullient spirit was evident right up until the end.

"So for the few of us that knew what exactly was going on, there was a heightened sense in the room," Richards said. "I had chills throughout the first taping on that Monday, because I was watching him, going, 'How is he doing this?'

"He came in at a higher level than normal, and his normal was excellent. On that first episode, he walked out, and you'll see it when it airs, he gives this amazing speech about the holidays and coming together and being strong and taking care of each other. And we didn't know he was gonna do that; he just walked out and did it. And you'll see in the episode, we all started to clap, and there's points in Jeopardy! where you clap and there's points in Jeopardy! where you don't; that's not a normal spot."

Trebek also was engaged in the game to his final days, as Richards said he "very much enjoyed" current four-day champion Brayden Smith.

"I think that energized him," Richards said. "It was like, 'That's why I'm here. That's why I'm putting myself through this.'"

The show was so vital to Trebek that Richards said the host pushed hard for it to come back with new episodes during the pandemic. "Jeopardy!" returned for its 37th season in September with a redesigned set for social distancing after having shut down production in March.

"I felt that the more frustrated he was that he wasn't in taping, the better he was feeling," Richards said. "He was forceful about it. He wanted back in, and we got back in so quickly because he was really on me to get us back in."

Trebek's final episodes were initially supposed to air during the week of Christmas, but the show decided to bump them to next week. They aired reruns instead that featured categories with video clues shot on location, with Trebek appearing in a host of exotic locales.

"We looked at where that final week was going to air, and the week of Christmas is crazy," Richards said. "So it really came down to, we wanted our fans and the fans of Alex to be able to really not feel stressed to see his final episodes, and really savor those last five."

After Trebek's final episode airs on Jan. 8, the show will go on with a group of guest hosts, starting with legendary "Jeopardy!" contestant Ken Jennings, who came aboard as a consulting producer when the show returned in September.

"He obviously knows the game, there's a familiarity to him to our fans, and he respects Alex so much and everybody knows it," Richards said about Jennings. "He's not going, 'Look, I'm the new host!' It's, 'I'm coming in, and I'm going to respectfully keep this great show going in honor of him.'"

Trebek rarely mentioned any names of possible successors, instead focusing on what attributes the host should have, according to Richards. The executive producer also gave a slight hint as to what other guest hosts will appear after Jennings.

"There'll be a wide range of, I think, big names that you'll go, 'Oh yeah, of course,' and then my hope is that there's a couple of, 'Oh, I hadn't thought of that person, and I'd like to see what that looks like hosting "Jeopardy!"'" he said. "That’s the plan."