It’s a bittersweet week for Jeopardy! fans as Alex Trebek’s final five episodes air beginning on Monday. The host died two months ago, and according to the show’s executive producer, Trebek’s last days on set were “unbelievable.”
Mike Richards joined the Today show on Monday to reflect on Trebek’s final work, including a stirring speech he delivered about togetherness that gave crew members “chills.”
“He was an absolute warrior,” Richards told Savannah Guthrie. “And what he was able to do by giving himself back to the set, to tape those final episodes… we didn’t know it was going to be his final episodes and neither did he. But it was herculean. He was in enormous pain.”
Trebek died from pancreatic cancer on Nov. 8. He was on set taping just ten days before his passing.
“You will not sense any of that in any of these episodes,” Richards continued. “He is strong, he sounds great, he’s funny and he’s amazing.”
“What do you think it meant to him to do those? Why do you think he wanted to show up in those final days when he could have easily said, ‘You know what? I think I had enough,’” Guthrie asked.
“I think a normal person would have said I’m not going to show up a year and a half before those final episodes,” Richards replied. “I mean, he was getting chemotherapy once a week. So, I think there was a level of professionalism. I think he really understood the importance of the show and what it meant to people, and to make what I have always said, he made being smart cool. So, you know, I think it was all of those things for him. And I think it comes back to, you know, he wrote an autobiography that described his childhood, and that kind of hard hardworking, blue-collar, I’m going to go in and go to work. And that’s what he did.”
Trebek, with his sense of humor intact, was in the hospital the week before taping his final episodes.
“This man was unbelievable,” Richards said. “He calls me and says, ‘Mike, I’m going to be fine. I’ll be in to tape. I was able to eat Jello today!’ And I went, ‘Alex, that's great, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be ready to host five episodes of a game show,’ which is an enormous amount of effort. And he said, ‘Do not cancel. I will be there.’”
Not only did Trebek show up, but he left an impression. According to Richards, what Trebek does on tonight’s show “is just a great testament to him.”
“He comes out. He usually said something about what was happening in the news or about what game play had been happening. And in this very special, unbelievable final week, he comes out and gives a talk about the importance of togetherness and sticking together and that the world is struggling, but we have to get through it together. And we had chills,” Richards shared.
“And, you know, there are specific moments in Jeopardy! when you clap and then there are moments when you’re quiet,” he continued. “And usually in his monologue, he would come out, give a statement and they would go to the categories. Well, there’s not many people in the studio because of COVID. And we all burst into applause. And you don’t see it on camera, but as he’s going to the categories, he sees us start to applaud and he kind of looks at us like, what are you guys doing? And, we were so moved that we had to applaud.”
When asked whether Trebek ever mentioned who he thought his successor should be, Richards played somewhat coy.
“He mentioned a couple of names, but he wanted to stay out of that,” he said. “And he knew we would do a good job looking for people and that we would find someone — no one is going to replace him, and he knew that. As humble as he was, he knew that there was no chance of that. It’s someone smart, and credible, that loves the show. That’s what he wanted.”
Jeopardy! champion and consulting producer Ken Jennings appears to be the frontrunner for the gig, despite some controversy. Jennings, who holds the longest winning streak in the show’s history, is the first of a series of guest hosts, with those episodes kicking off Jan. 11.
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