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?