For the 37 years that Alex Trebek came on stage to host Jeopardy! he had just one man heralding his every arrival: announcer Johnny Gilbert, intoning nightly, “This is Jeopardy!” In a 70-year career Gilbert, now 96, has worked on many game shows and with many hosts, but none more impressive to him than Trebek. From the moment Gilbert met Trebek at an industry convention prior to Jeopardy!’s relaunch in 1984, “I noticed that he wasn’t the usual big-smiley-face emcee,” Gilbert tells PEOPLE. “He was quiet and listening to everybody and everything.”
Gilbert's remembrances are part of a new collector's edition of PEOPLE, celebrating the life and career of Alex Trebek who died November 8 from pancreatic cancer.
“Alex has always been the same person," Gilbert went on. "He was very introspective, he read a tremendous amount and traveled a lot. He was always doing crossword puzzles to keep his mind active." Although as quizmaster, Trebek he had the answers to the game's questions printed in front of him, "he was really very intelligent,” Gilbert notes. “He was always telling the youngsters in the audience, ‘You’ve got to read, you have to learn. That’s the way you’re going to succeed.’”
Trebek thrived on that audience. At tapings of the show, during commercial breaks the host would take questions from the crowd of 250 attendees. “He would answer any question anyone wanted to ask,” Gilbert says. “He would get so involved that we would have to hold up coming back out of commercial for him to finish with the audience, but he insisted.” Some of those questions—“most, as a matter of fact” he says—were silly. “One gal asked him, ‘boxers or briefs?’ Alex took a beat and said, ‘thongs!’ I told him a long time ago, ‘If this show goes away you could be a stand-up comedian. He always loved to do jokes.”
Since Trebek’s death the mood on set has, of course, been much more somber. “Everybody’s walking around in a little bit of a fog, shaken from the whole thing. Part of me left here when Alex left, really,” says Gilbert. Besides working together, the two were golfing buddies. Yet Gilbert intends to remain with the show. “Jeopardy! has always been my life. I got married [to wife Sharee] right after the show went on the air, so our life together and the show’s life are all bundled into one.”
After so many years watching the master, Gilbert has some advice for those who follow Trebek at the podium which, from January 11 is scheduled to be Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings, the first of what was announced to be a series of interim hosts. “Jeopardy is a very special game,” Gilbert says. “All that information that he gave out, aside from what was actually on the show, was in his mind. Somebody has to be able to handle that. If the person lets the show be the show, it will be fine.”
PEOPLE's new collector's edition, Alex Trebek: Jeopardy!'s Beloved Host, with a foreword by Ken Jennings, is available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.
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