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'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek has all the answers

National Geographic Bee host Alex Trebek stands with National Geographic Bee champion Rahul Nagvekar, 14, from Quail Valley Middle School in Missouri City, Texas, Thursday, May 24, 2012, in Washington, . (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NEW YORK: Let's take "Breakfast" for $500: An Oh Henry! chocolate bar and a Diet Pepsi.

And here's the question: What did Alex Trebek consume a couple of hours before this breakfast interview?

"When I say 'the Breakfast of Champions,' I'm serious," he jokes as he orders just coffee.

A morning routine of candy and cola might not seem strange for someone other than Trebek. But for 28 years as host of "Jeopardy!" he's blended likeability with an air of erudition and correctness. He's seemingly not the sort of guy who, at 71, might choose a wakeup menu better suited to a child whose mother's back is turned.

Trebek acknowledges the apparent contradiction, and, in his resonant, precise voice, is happy to cite another.

"People say, 'You look to be in great shape for your age,' and I guess I am," he allows - "except that I keep breaking things."

There's that darned Achilles tendon, which he tore last July chasing a woman who invaded his San Francisco hotel room and filched several items.

"It's been nine months, and it still kills me when I walk," Trebek says. "And I'm constantly injuring myself. Doing work around the house, you don't notice when you injure yourself. An hour later you say, 'Geez, I'm bleeding. How did that happen?'

"Except," he adds with a bit of comic timing, "if you bang your head, you notice. You should never wear a baseball cap when working in close quarters in the attic: You never see that beam above you!"

But if Trebek repairing his roof on a tottery ladder (result: a broken arm) seems out of character, so be it. In person, he is leading-man handsome in a natty gray suit, a model of calm and control, the perfect steward of TV's answer-and-question institution. (Check local listings for time and channel.)

The L.A.-based Trebek is in New York to receive a Peabody Award for electronic media, as "Jeopardy!" joins other awardees that include serious documentaries, edgy comedies and high-toned dramas.

"We're in some prestigious company," Trebek says. "But I think what makes 'Jeopardy!' special is that, among all the quiz and game shows out there, ours tends to encourage learning. A lot of the stuff is trivia, but maybe a subject will come up that will arouse the viewers' curiosity and they'll want to find out more. We tell you it's OK to be bright, to know a lot of things, and to want to learn."

Certainly, the "Jeopardy!" audience (which averages 9 million daily) is rallied by each day's three contestants who confront the game board with its half-dozen categories, each of whose five answers demands the right question.

Maybe never in the show's long history was the competition fiercer, and more fun, than in February 2011, when a supercomputer named Watson humbled reigning human champs in a battle of Machine vs. Man.

"I for one welcome our new computer overlords," Ken Jennings (famed record-holder for the longest winning streak) scribbled alongside his Final Jeopardy response.

Just another learning experience for all.

"Learning something new is fun," says Trebek. "When I finish as the host of 'Jeopardy!' I'm going to go up to Taft in central California. They have a small college there that teaches you about oil drilling." Whereupon he expounds on the subject at some length while pinpointing several details he wonders about. "I'd like to take a course," he says.

But wait - what about that R-word? A few weeks ago Trebek was quoted as saying he was thinking of retiring, with the explanation, "30 years has a nice ring to it."

Now he chuckles at the uproar he sparked. What's so surprising that, after 50 years in the business and 71 birthdays, he might consider calling it quits?

"Saying that I've THOUGHT about it doesn't mean that I'm DOING it," he reasons.

Trebek's path to "Jeopardy!" began in his native Canada, where he grew up in the Ontario suburb of Subdury and graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in philosophy.

"I had no money for my junior and senior years," he says, "and all the philosophy courses were taught in the mornings, which enabled me to get a job in the afternoons and at night to pay for my tuition."

The job he got, by chance, was at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which after graduation led to a full-time position as announcer, newsman and on-air host.

Then, in 1973, he headed to Los Angeles and quickly landed the host job on a new NBC daytime game show, "Wizard of Odds." Other game shows followed, sometimes more than one simultaneously: Even after winning the host job at "Jeopardy!" when it made its syndicated bow in 1984, he hosted two other game shows, "Concentration" and "To Tell the Truth."

This was a broadcasting niche he had stumbled into, but it fit him like a glove.

"My job," he says, "is to provide the atmosphere and assistance to the contestants to get them to perform at their very best. And if I'm successful doing that, I will be perceived as a nice guy and the audience will think of me as being a bit of a star.

"But not if I try to steal the limelight! The stars of 'Jeopardy!' are the material and the contestants."

The production schedule calls for him to shoot five shows in a day, two days a week. On those mornings, he receives the day's cache of 305 answers and questions, which he says takes roughly two hours for him to review.

Nine hours later, the five shows are in the can.

And after 28 years and some 300,000-and-counting questions, he still loves doing it.

"What's not to love? You have the security of a familiar environment, a familiar format, but you have the excitement of new clues and new contestants on every program. You can't beat that! It's like saying, 'I'm married but every day I have a new wife coming in.' You know?" He pauses. Then, invoking his wife of a quarter-century, Jean (with whom he has a college-age son and daughter), he sheepishly concedes, "That analogy's not quite right."

In any case, Trebek continues as a reassuring presence at his "Jeopardy!" lectern, his advancing age only re-enforcing his hair's distinguished gray and his image as the everyman-polymath.

The biggest change in his appearance in 28 years was the abrupt elimination of his mustache a dozen years ago.

"People still ask me, 'Are you ever gonna grow the mustache back?'" he says. "It turned out to be a big deal. I've never understood that."

What set him off?

"I felt like it, completely on a whim," he says. "And I see myself doing the same thing with regard to quitting 'Jeopardy!'"

For Trebek, who says his current contract runs out next season, his decision to exit "will not happen as the result of a great deal of thought beforehand. I'm just gonna come out and tell our director to leave an extra 25 or 30 seconds at the end of the game, that I want to say something.

"And I'll just say, 'That's it. Thank you. Goodbye.'"

No questions asked.

 

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