I Could Have Been Alex Trebek

by James Scott Bell

What is the greatest gig in the history of gigs?

**cue Jeopardy music**

Did you guess being the host of Jeopardy? You should have. I mean, Alex Trebek works two days a week in an air-conditioned studio, making millions of dollars for reading some cards and saying, “No, sorry” to people.

And he’s done this since 1984! He’s a fixture of our popular culture. For many years, so was his mustache. It made national news when Trebek shaved it off back in 2001.

Alex Trebek is very good at what he does. He’s got a pleasant voice and cool demeanor. (Although I can’t think of him without hearing SNL’s parody. Will Ferrell as Alex, and Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery. Alex: “No, no, that’s The Pen is Mightier.” Sean: “Gussy it up however you want, Trebek. What matters is does it work?”)

And I, your humble scribe, could have been Alex Trebek. Or a facsimile thereof!

I take you back to JSB just after graduating college. I was living with the folks in the old homestead before setting off for New York to pursue an acting career. To make a few bucks I did close-up magic in a couple of bars and for an occasional party.

And once for a local Boy Scout troop. They were having a meeting in the auditorium of St. Mel’s Catholic School and one of the parents knew of my facility with legerdemain. (In those days I billed myself as “Jim Bell, Master of the Amazing.”)

So there I was in front of a bunch of scouts and their parents. And in the front row was a face I recognized. Most people in the 1970s would have, too. It was Larry Hovis, one of the stars of the hit comedy series Hogan’s Heroes.

I went into my act, and did the color-changing scarf trick. That’s where I stuff a red scarf into my fist and it comes out yellow. Then the yellow comes out black. Then they all disappear.

I remember vividly the approving expression on Hovis’s face. I had impressed a television star!

After the show Hovis came up to me and told me I had a very nice presence. He gave me a card for a company he was working with, Ralph Andrews Productions. That outfit was known for producing game shows, such as Celebrity Sweepstakes and It Takes Two.  

“You have what it takes to be a game show host,” Hovis said. “Call us and let’s set up a meeting.”

Harrumph, I thought. Game show host? Are you kidding? I wanted to be Brando. I wanted to be Newman. I wanted to stun them on the New York stage and be offered a leading role in a movie that made me a star. Then I could have a career like Hoffman or Pacino or Redford.

Game show host? Bah!

Needless to say, I never made the call. Who knows what might have happened if I had? But on I went to New York, then later back to Hollywood, then married an actress and decided we needed one steady income and went to law school, then joined a big Beverly Hills firm and started putting in 50-60 hours a week.

One night after a long day, I was at home zoning in front of the TV when Jeopardy came on. There was Alex (with mustache and big hair) and I said to Cindy, “I could have been him.”

When she inquired about this further, I told her the story. And we both let out wistful sighs.

Who knows what would have happened had I followed Larry Hovis’s advice? We can play that game all day long. Yes, being a host like Trebek or Sajak would have been a pretty nice deal.

But I’ve got a nice deal right now, and if TV stardom meant I wouldn’t have met my wife that one glorious night at a party among a lot of struggling actors, I would not wish to go back even for a second.

Plus, as it turns out, I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do ever since I started reading Classics Illustrated comic books as a kid—write fiction, tell stories, give readers a ride on a dream.

So I’ll take Happy and Grateful for $1,000, Alex.

Do you have a “road not taken” moment? Has it made all the difference?


25 thoughts on “I Could Have Been Alex Trebek

  1. You should start putting “M.A.” for “Master of the Amazing” on your books. “James Scott Bell, M.A.”

    Seriously, I can’t see a mention of “Hogan’s Heroes” and not think about Bob Crane and his death. I’ll take “Fascinating,weird, and never officially solved” for $500, please, Jim.

  2. The attorneys I once worked for offered to send me to law school if I would come back and join their practice. (My desk was outside the french doors where they took depositions and every once in a while I’d say during a break “How come nobody asked x?” Pretty soon that evolved into the senior partner going “Soooo, what would you ask?”

    Instead I followed my Air Force husband to his assignment in Japan.

    When it came time for our children to go to college, I was kicking myself for not taking the lucrative career path.

    My husband said “That’s okay, Honey. You would have defended widows and orphans pro bono and never would have made a dime from it anyway.”


  3. Question: You grew up in LA but went to NY to pursue acting? I take it “that’s how it’s done” but it sounds weird. 😎 Must’ve been those itchy feet we all get. 😎

    Me: I regret w/all my heart wasting years of schooling on a business degree & not pursuing physical therapy. But hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

  4. Great story, Jim

    I’m glad you found the path that led to doing what you always wanted to do, and we have the benefit of your books, your inspiration, and your teaching.

    As I think back about all the decisions and paths I took, I believe I ended up where I was supposed to be. I do look at all my buddies who chose to work for the government and are now retired, while I run faster and faster on the squirrel cage, trying to keep up.

    I must add that your craft-of-writing books and blogs are my biggest inspiration to keep learning and keep writing.


  5. I would have continued with college. Back then, creative writing wasn’t taught in college. And all I wanted to do was learn how to write, not study what others had written. So many things in so many ways would be different now if I had stayed in school.

  6. If you talked to Alex, he might say, “Gee, I’m bored with the same job all these years. Yeah, the money’s nice but I sure wish I’d become an attorney instead and had all your fascinating experiences so I could write novels and teach aspiring authors. That would be really rewarding.”

    The grass is always greener…

    Jim, you’ve helped more of us than you’ll ever know. I’m grateful you took this particular path. Thank you.

    • You are quite right to bring that up, Debbie, maybe Alex wondering about other pads in his life. I don’t know how much of a twinge he gets, he’s had it pretty darn good. But yes, maybe we all have those thoughts. It’s part of Being human

  7. Jim, I’d love to have seen your acting/performing ability at work in the courtroom.

    Did you ever find your thespian propensities work against you in the courtroom, or did you always have perfect self-control?

    • Haha. My first jury trial was defending a DUI, and I thought I was performing pretty well during jury selection. Then the deputy DA got up and asked the jury what they thought when Mr. Bell said such and such. And several jurors said they felt I was trying to manipulate them.

      We eventually settled on a plea bargain, then I went up to the deputy and said, Man you kicked my butt. He laughed and gave me some good advice. We had about a half hour talk on trial technique. He was very generous.

      What I learned was crucially important. Juries do not care for performance. They care about sincerity and the evidence. It’s a lesson I never forgot.

      One of the best trial lawyers I ever saw was a guy named Ed Bronson out of San Francisco. He represented Carol Burnett in her libel case against the National Enquirer. He was very quiet and unassuming, while the lawyer for The Enquirer was flashy, even in the suits he wore.

      Brunson won the case.

      Maybe there’s a lesson here about writing, too. Readers don’t care about flashy style if you’re not telling a story honestly!

      • The one jury I served on was, I think, a civil case. I don’t even remember. What I remember was that one of the lawyers wore a suit that probably, despite my efforts, prejudiced me. People who know me know I can’t tell the difference between a $1000 suit and a $200 suit. It wasn’t the quality of the suit that was in question, but, assuming he was the plaintiff’s attorney, his suit negatively affected his suit.

        • Exactly! The Enquirer lawyer wore three-piece suits–one of them GREEN!–with a gaudy gold watch chain and fob. I kid you not. I swear several jurors would just look at that fob swinging around instead of hearing his questions, even when delivered at a high pitch.

          Ed Bronson wore two-piece suits, conservative blue or gray. He never raised his voice.

      • Back in the ’30s my dad attended Drake University and stayed with a family (the Duttons) who once lived in Erie PA, where Daddy was born. The elder Dutton was quite a character. (As a side-note, Charlie wrote mysteries plus the Samaritans of Molokai.) Anyway, Charlie knew a lawyer who was passing through town and had invited him for dinner. That’s all my dad was told. So Daddy entered the dining room and was promptly introduced to said lawyer. The rest of the night my dad said he sat like a mouse in awe, listening to two men converse about everything under the stars. The man who came to dinner was Clarence Darrow. My dad said he put on no airs and displayed no flash. He was just a guy having dinner with a friend. It’s hard to think of Clarence Darrow as “just a guy.”

  8. I could have met you! In 1984 my husband was on the first week of Jeopardy. He would have won, except he missed the last question. We had been living overseas for 4 years, and he had no idea who Latoya Jackson was. Backstage, my 5-year-old was distraught. He said to Alex, “My Daddy didn’t win. Does mean I’ll never get to see Palm Springs?” (The prizes really sucked in 1984) Alex looked puzzled and then said, “I guess not.” My son sobbed. As a consolation, however, my husband won a year’s supply of canker sore medicine. (He’s never had a canker sore in his life.) The question is: what would JSB have said?

  9. I just finished Try Dying (at an insanely late hour last night), and I am very thankful you took this road. It is obviously the one you were meant to take.

    I sometimes wonder what my life might be like now if I had not made a fateful choice at the ripe old age of eighteen. But, like you, there are people in my life now that would not have been here had I not chosen that hard path, and after the hard times, life is pretty darn good right now, and valued so much more because of the rough places.

  10. When Hovis handed you that card way back when, that was what I call a “watershed moment” in your life. That is to say, a moment when your entire future hangs in the balance, major changes looming, but you are not particularly aware of that fact. It’s not a big moment — like getting married or getting a big raise or the birth of your first child — but rather a seemingly insignificant moment, one where you don’t grasp the full import of its consequences.

    I firmly believe each of us has but a handful of these moments throughout our lives (I can identify three in my life so far), and whether or not we act on them makes all the difference. The actions we take (or lack of action) will profoundly impact everything in our lives that follows. The moments themselves cannot be duplicated. They pop up rather organically, at precisely the time when we do not expect any life-changing choices to present themselves.

    And that’s what makes them so important. These little choices (and they do seem little at the time) carry great weight behind them, weight that is hidden from our view and usually doesn’t become apparent until much, much later. So we are left to make our choice based only on the superficial surface of that single event. It’s like driving at night where you can only see the limited reach of your headlights.

    These watershed moments in our lives really do shape who we become.

  11. The Road Not Taken Game is a dangerous one to play, because pulling out one thread in the fabric of your life means changing the entire thing. Here’s how one awful event–one that I deeply regret–set the course of my admittedly blessed life:

    In 1979, the 22-year-old me was a senior counselor at a camp for over-privileged rich kids. I loved that job, and I was very good at it. On the very last day of camp–on my last day before transitioning to my post-college “real” job–I was distracted by farewell festivities when 11-year-old John F chased a ball out onto a street and got nailed by a car doing at least 35 miles per hour. I heard the impact from 50 yards away, and I was the first person on the scene. John was unconscious and so horribly pale. One leg was bent nearly backwards at mid-femur. He was unresponsive. And I had no idea what to do.

    Ultimately, John recovered, but his injuries were horrendous: broken femur and pelvis, ruptured bladder, bruised liver. I visited him often during his recovery, but I’ve since lost track of him.

    Hating the fact that I’d been faced with an emergency and didn’t know what to do, I enrolled in an EMT course at my local community college and graduated at the top of my class. That led to joining the volunteer fire department, which essentially became my residence. My day job at the time was being an editor at a trade journal for the construction industry, and I hated it. One of my fellow volunteers was a “safety engineer”, something I didn’t even know was a thing. Yada, yada, I enrolled in a master’s degree program in safety engineering, where one of my fellow students, Rick, was the safety director for a local explosives plant. He offered me a job and I took it.

    Rick’s boss was a guy named Pat, with whom I hit it off well. Pat was dating a lady named Linda, and together they thought I would hit it off with Linda’s sister, Joy. They arranged a blind date, and Joy and I will soon celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary.

    So . . . if John F had not been critically injured, my son would never have been born.

    Life is interesting.

  12. I’ve always wanted to write but I didn’t think I knew enough to do it back in the day. So, I worked several jobs. I was a certified nursing assistant and I decided to go to college and go to nursing school. I was taking the prerequisite courses when I injured my back. I couldn’t be insured by the workplace and it rendered me ineligible for the nursing program. Then I decided to go to paralegal classes. I loved it, especially the legal research. I discovered that you can learn much without even trying along the way. I love research now as well. That didn’t work either. I couldn’t find work as a paralegal because I didn’t have experience. All the attorneys wanted at least three years prior experience. So, I worked in customer service for over 30 years. I really hated it. I felt caged in. So, when I took an early retirement, that is when I decided to finally concentrate on what I was told was a pipe dream–writing my first novel. I’m still working on that. I hope to bend the pipe soon.

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