Jim Gilligan lied.
In a previous interview with the Deseret News, the “Jeopardy!” contestant — who is pretty big on details — vaguely answered a question regarding his whereabouts when the news of Alex Trebek’s death broke.
His response at the time was simple: He was enjoying his usual Sunday morning routine of coffee and reading.
But the real story is a lot more interesting.
After taping and winning his first “Jeopardy!” episode in late October 2020, Gilligan flew back home to San Francisco. The show, which typically films on Mondays and Tuesdays, wasn’t taping the following week because of Election Day. Gilligan was scheduled to return to the Sony lot on Sunday, Nov. 8, for a COVID-19 test. Filming with Trebek would resume on Nov. 9.
On that Sunday morning, Gilligan headed to the San Francisco International Airport to catch his flight. He chatted with an agent at the front desk, checked his bags with Alaska Airlines and made his way to security.
Then his phone rang. A “Jeopardy!” contestant coordinator was crying on the other line, “uncontrollably sad and distraught,” Gilligan recalled.
He knew what had happened before she even said the words.
“Jeopardy!” hadn’t yet announced the tragic news to the public. The coordinator told Gilligan not to say anything and that they’d be in touch in the near future. So Gilligan turned around and retraced his steps. He told the agent at the front desk he had received an “upsetting phone call” and would no longer be making his trip. He reclaimed his checked bag from Alaska Airlines and took a Lyft back home.
Gilligan couldn’t divulge that story when he initially chatted with the Deseret News because it revealed that he won his first “Jeopardy!” game, and the episode had not yet aired.
But it’s a remarkable sequence of events that sticks with him just as John Lennon’s assassination did in 1980, and again in 2008 when actor Heath Ledger died.
“It was a tragic cinematic moment,” he said. “It turned the experience into kind of an epic saga.”
When he arrived home from the airport, the news of Trebek’s death was still ringing in his ears. Gilligan began to unpack his luggage and his thoughts.
“Where does this leave me? Where does this leave the show?” he thought.
“There were a million questions, but I had no one to ask,” Gilligan said. “And I didn’t want to infringe upon anyone’s grief.”
That night, the longtime “Jeopardy!” fan watched a special tribute to Trebek on ABC. And then he bided his time, waiting for answers.
He got another call from the contestant coordinator two weeks later. The show was thinking of resuming filming on Nov. 30. Would he be available?
“Try to stop me,” Gilligan said.
And then, a couple of hours later, the second biggest “Jeopardy!” news of the month broke: Ken Jennings would be filling in for Trebek as a guest host.
That meant Gilligan, whose first game marked Trebek’s final game, would become the bridge contestant between two “Jeopardy!” eras.
“It’s a great distinction,” Gilligan said. “But it’s not necessarily one I ever wanted.”
On Sunday, Nov. 29, he flew down to the Sony lot for a COVID-19 test. The next day, he would watch a nervous Ken Jennings step onto the set and into Trebek’s iconic role.
Meeting Ken Jennings
The mood and energy on the set of “Jeopardy!” was different from the month before. The show’s production staff members remained professional, but they were also allowing themselves to grieve.
“Alex’s absence was palpable,” Gilligan said. “Everybody on that production staff loved Alex — everyone. It was the death of an icon, the death of this beloved man in pop culture, but for them, that was a co-worker, that was a friend. So they were dealing with I think a different level of grief than most of us were.
“But everyone I think was also trying to figure out, ‘How do you do an episode of ‘Jeopardy!’ without Alex Trebek?’”
There wasn’t a studio audience because of the pandemic, but the contestants gave Jennings a big round of applause when he stepped out for the first time. Gilligan said everyone on set was sensitive to the professional and emotional challenges Jennings had to balance that day.
“I give Ken a lot of credit for stepping in,” he said. “He’s taking on a new and challenging role — something that your predecessor has done for over 36 years and pretty much mastered and is widely regarded as the greatest of all time.
“But at the same time, he is also dealing with his grief, because to him, Alex was not just a host — they had become friends,” he added. “And then to step into that role on a national stage and try to do the job, I can’t imagine that’s easy. So I have great respect for him to be doing that and to carry on as another tribute to Alex, really.”
To kick off his inaugural “Jeopardy!” episode as host, which aired Monday night, a choked up Jennings delivered a heartfelt tribute to Trebek.
“I miss Alex,” he said with emotion. “Very much. And I thank him for everything he did for all of us. Let’s be totally clear: No one will ever replace the great Alex Trebek, but we can honor him by playing the game he loved.”
And then “Jeopardy!” continued as it has for decades.
While filming, Gilligan watched as a self-deprecating Jennings figured out where to stand on stage and fiddled with his earpiece. After nearly 37 years, everything Trebek said and did on set came naturally, but it was clear that Jennings was consciously thinking about every move he needed to make.
A number of times, Jennings apologized as he struggled to pronounce a word and the show had to refilm a clue — but that’s something Gilligan had even seen Trebek do just the month before.
Jennings also seemed to be doing his best to channel Trebek through inflections and mannerisms and an evident passion for the game.
“He definitely became more comfortable as filming proceeded,” Gilligan said, adding that Jennings’ humor helped to defuse the sadness on set. “It was a pretty steep learning curve, I think, but he climbed well.”
A final moment with Alex
Gilligan ended up losing that first game hosted by Jennings. Thanks to his successful appearance on “Jeopardy!” for Trebek’s final game, though, he wound up with $25,000 to his name.
But as someone who’s been trying to get on “Jeopardy!” for more than 30 years, he walked away from the set with a lot more than money.
On Monday, just a few hours before his second “Jeopardy!” game was about to air, Gilligan flashed back to his final moment with Trebek.
He can’t recall if Trebek was talking about wagers or some other aspect of “Jeopardy!’, but as the longtime host chatted with the contestants after the game, he quoted a line from the 1970 movie “Little Big Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman.
“Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Gilligan tracked down the scene on YouTube. Describing the clip, he couldn’t help but get emotional as the scene shows a man waking up from a dream and being a little surprised that he’s alive and still in the world.
“Considering that Alex quoted that line at the end of his final show, it makes me wonder, was his mortality on his mind?” Gilligan said.
Trebek hosted “Jeopardy!” for more than 36 years and for 8,200-plus shows. He continued hosting up until his death, and now, “Jeopardy!” fans across North America feel his absence deeply.
Jennings and the subsequent people who take turns hosting the quiz show have a tough task ahead of them. But after spending just a brief time with Trebek, and then, Jennings, Gilligan believes the show will maintain its footing as it enters a new era.
“One of the great attributes Alex offered was that he never considered himself the star. He always claimed that the contestants were the star of the show,” Gilligan said. “Ken has great respect for Alex … and is obviously doing his best to carry on the tradition.
“I think that whoever is hired as permanent host, if that person can maintain that level of humility and that perspective, then everything will be fine.”