Remembering ‘Jeopardy!’ Before Alex Trebek
It’s hard to imagine Jeopardy! without Alex Trebek.
The congenial Canadian has become a television legend thanks to his 36-year run as host of the popular game show. Though Trebek will always be synonymous with the program, another man hosted Jeopardy! first: actor and radio personality, Art Fleming.
A former college athlete with an affable demeanor, Fleming became a radio presenter after serving in the Navy during World War II. Steady acting work followed, including a variety of TV roles and commercials. One commercial in particular, a spot for Trans World Airlines (TWA), hit the airwaves in the early ‘60s.
It was also around this time that Merv Griffin, already a successful singer and talk-show host in his own right, began developing a new game-show idea, then titled What’s the Question? The concept turned the traditional quiz show upside down. Instead of a Q&A -- where contestants are asked to answer trivia questions for prizes -- What’s the Question? would be an A&Q, providing answers and challenging contestants to come up with the question.
Griffin developed the idea after a conversation with his wife at the time, Julann. The two were discussing the quiz-show scandals that had plagued many programs in the '50s. "Why don't you do a show where you give the contestants the answers?" Julann suggested. "Sure, and I'll end up in the slammer," Griffin quipped. "Suppose I said, '5,280 feet,'" Julan continued, to which Griffin responded, "How many feet in a mile?" From these humble beginnings the framework of Jeopardy!’s structure took shape.
Griffin was in the early stages of production when Fleming caught his attention in the aforementioned TWA commercial. Intrigued, the game-show producer invited the actor to join him and his wife for lunch.
“He regaled us with stories of his exploits in World War II and his colorful experiences in almost every aspect of show business,” Griffin recalled in his memoir of that first meeting with Fleming. More importantly, the actor “was a walking encyclopedia of interesting and often obscure information.” The couple was convinced it had found its host.
Watch 'Jeopardy' From 1974-5
“When Merv and Julann first approached me with the idea, I thought the show might last three or four weeks," Fleming admitted in a 1989 interview with Sports Illustrated. "But I said, ‘Let's try it. It sounds kinky.' Well, it went for 13 years—2,858 shows."
Despite having zero game-show hosting experience, Fleming embraced the role. The actor’s agent reportedly told him to “act like a game-show host,” advice the thespian took to heart. Pilot episodes received critical notes from the network, which noted the questions would need to be dumbed-down if the show intended to succeed. Griffin ignored these complaints and soldiered forth with his vision.
On March 30, 1964, Fleming was at the helm as the daytime version of Jeopardy! aired its first episode. The show would quickly become a success, running as a staple of NBC’s daytime programming until Jan. 3, 1975.
Watch an Episode of 'Jeopardy' From 1972
Fleming continued as host for the next iterations, a weekly nighttime edition and modernized “all-new” version of Jeopardy!, both of which were aired in the late ‘70s, though neither found an audience. By the dawn of the '80s, Jeopardy! was no longer on TV.
But in 1984, Griffin -- seeing the popularity of the board game Trivial Pursuit and his own success with Wheel of Fortune -- decided to bring Jeopardy! back as a nightly syndicated program. Fleming was invited to reprise his role as host but declined. Location played a role in his decision, as the proud New Yorker didn’t like the show’s production moving to Hollywood.
"New Yorkers are alive, with-it -- they know what's going on in the world,” the former host later declared. “In California there's no mental stimulation. A typical conversation consists of, 'I've got a new diet. How's your tennis game? Are those clothes from Gucci?' And then you look at each other."
Trebek would be brought on as Fleming’s replacement, beginning a run spanning more than three decades.
Jeopardy!’s original host remained proud of his contribution to the show, right up until his death in 1995. Still, Fleming admitted that what made his version of the game show fun was that it didn’t take itself too seriously. "To me, Jeopardy! has always been one big party game," the former host opined. "That's all it is. I mean, you're not doing open-heart surgery. It's an entertaining way to fill up 30 minutes of airtime, but basically fluff."