When it was time for him to play “Jeopardy!” Jim Gilligan didn’t immediately get in the zone.
Instead, he watched joyfully as Alex Trebek stepped out from behind the gameboard at the start of the episode.
“Wow! That’s really Alex Trebek, and he’s only a few feet from me!” Gilligan thought with a mixture of excitement and disbelief.
Then he shifted gears to play the game he’s watched every night for well over 30 years. He studied the clues on the board, following along as Trebek read them out loud. He then waited, anxiously, for the lights bordering the gameboard to turn on, signaling the moment it was OK to buzz in.
During the commercial breaks, Gilligan and the other “Jeopardy!” contestants shook off their nerves, drank water and touched up their stage makeup. Trebek, meanwhile, reviewed his question sheets. Sometimes the host would refilm a clue, unsatisfied with how he read it during the initial take.
And then, before Gilligan knew it, the game was over.
“It was probably the most rapid 30 minutes of my life,” he said.
About 10 days later, Gilligan was at home in San Francisco, enjoying his usual Sunday morning routine of coffee and reading when the news of Trebek’s death broke. He felt the same way he did as a 15-year-old in 1980 when John Lennon was assassinated. And again in 2008 when actor Heath Ledger died.
“My initial response was absolute sadness,” Gilligan said. “Throughout it all, Alex was just incredibly intrepid and very positive. I think we were privileged to have him around. Even though I met him just briefly on the set while I played the game, I feel really special about that.”
Gilligan quickly realized that based on the show’s filming schedule, his episode, which airs Friday, would mark Trebek’s final “Jeopardy!” game and the end of an era.
“That’s television history,” he said. “It makes it worth it to have waited this long to get on the show.”
A 30-year tryout
On Wednesday afternoon, as chaos ensued at the U.S. Capitol, Gilligan hopped on for a Zoom call with the Deseret News. He had a picture of the “Jeopardy!” set as his Zoom background, the shades of purples and blues filling the space around his head.
Gilligan has been trying desperately to get on “Jeopardy!” for more than half of his life — almost as long as Trebek hosted the beloved quiz show.
He places his number of attempts in the 20-25 range.
He’s taken the online “Jeopardy!” test just about every time it’s been offered. Before the online shift in 2006, he did several in-person auditions.
On a whim, he actually landed on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with Regis Philbin in 2000, earning $64,000 and 15 minutes of fame.
But that wasn’t his real goal.
He continued watching “Jeopardy!” each night. Over time, he watched Trebek’s hair turn gray and the mustache come and go.
In March 2019, when Trebek announced his pancreatic cancer diagnosis to the world, Gilligan’s desire to make it on “Jeopardy!” intensified.
He took the online test at the start of 2020. When the pandemic hit, Gilligan was certain his chances of getting on the show — and being on the show with Trebek — were dashed. But to his surprise, even as “Jeopardy!” production was on hold, the show contacted him in the coming months and ushered him through a series of Zoom audition rounds.
At the end of a Zoom call in June, where Gilligan played a mock “Jeopardy!” game with eight other people, “Jeopardy!” producers took questions from the potential contestants.
“How’s Alex doing?” Gilligan asked.
The host was excited, eager for the new season to start, the crew assured him.
A few months later, Gilligan got to see that for himself.
In the ‘Jeopardy!’ studio
Gilligan doesn’t normally answer his cellphone — ”If it’s important enough, they’ll leave a voicemail,” he figures.
But when a Southern California number called him in September — about a month after “Jeopardy!” had resumed production — he thought maybe, just maybe, this was his big moment. And it was, although he didn’t believe it until the contestant coordinator confirmed a bunch of information he had provided during the audition.
He flew down on Sunday, Oct. 4, checked into his hotel and took an Uber over to the Sony lot to get a COVID-19 test. When he arrived at the studio, a contestant coordinator told him a production issue had come up and that they would likely be unable to tape during their usual Monday and Tuesday filming block. Gilligan got tested anyway, just in case it worked out.
“Jeopardy!” staff members didn’t detail the issue, but they were apologetic and offered to fly Gilligan back to the set at the end of October (it has since been revealed that “Jeopardy!” canceled two weeks of taping on short notice in October as Trebek underwent intestinal surgery).
Although slightly crestfallen, the San Francisco State University professor got an extra three weeks to prepare for the game.
“Jeopardy!” typically films five games each Monday and Tuesday — two weeks worth of shows. When Gilligan returned to the studio at the end of October, “Jeopardy!” was filming just one week’s worth of shows during that time — three episodes on Oct. 26 and two on Oct. 27.
On the show’s set, while waiting for his name to get called, Gilligan took it all in. There wasn’t a studio audience because of the pandemic, so it was fairly quiet. But that didn’t make things any less thrilling for him.
“You walk onto the set and it’s just like in a dream,” he said. “Something that I have seen for over half my life, five nights a week … and there I was!”
And then, finally, Gilligan was face-to-face with Trebek, who was about a week and a half out of surgery. Gilligan called the “Jeopardy!” host a “consummate professional.”
“Even though his health was not great and we all knew that, he didn’t use it as an excuse. He was there 100%. We got Alex,” Gilligan said. “If I could be as enthusiastic and as vivacious and as classy as he is when I turn 80, I’ll be happy.
“I want to believe that if he felt he couldn’t give it his all, he probably would’ve walked away gracefully, with class,” Gilligan continued. “But he was able to do it right up until he left us.”
Originally, Gilligan’s episode was scheduled for Christmas Day. But Trebek’s death on Nov. 8 necessitated some schedule changes. Over the holidays, “Jeopardy!” paid tribute to the longtime host by airing classic episodes from years past.
Now, Gilligan’s game — which will likely become a historic episode — is about to air.
The game comes 20 years after Gilligan’s appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with Philbin, a longtime game show host who also died in 2020. Gilligan isn’t having a big gathering because of COVID-19, but he’s got a number of friends and colleagues who will be celebrating via Zoom.
It’ll be a bittersweet moment, though. After Friday’s episode, which includes a “special goodbye,” Trebek will no longer be there to greet Gilligan and other devout “Jeopardy!” fans from all over who tune in for the daily quiz show.
“There’s never going to be another Alex Trebek,” Gilligan said. “To say that he’s iconic is kind of an understatement, and I am just incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to appear on the show while he was still hosting. It was the thrill of a lifetime, and It’s definitely going to be something that I want mentioned in my obituary.”