The star, who presided over “Jeopardy!” for more than 30 years, passed away in 2020 at age 80 in his Los Angeles home, surrounded by family. The late game show host announced in 2019 that he had advanced pancreatic cancer.
“We were very close,” the actress told Fox News. “We were neighbors. We lived just within a mile of each other.”
Lee recently penned a memoir titled “Consider Your A—Kissed!” where she shared personal memories in Hollywood. She has worked with numerous stars over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Carson and Fred Astaire – just to name a few. The “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” actress also befriended many fellow leading ladies, including Lucille Ball, Julie Newmar and Debbie Reynolds, among others.
Host Alex Trebek, dice girl Ruta Lee in ‘High Rollers.’ (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Lee said she is still friends with Trebek’s widow and ex-wife.
“They are my dearest friends,” she said. “And we see each other together, which I think it’s pretty friggin sophisticated. You know you’ve done a good job when you can get together with the wives. But that’s just the kind of man Alex was.”
“And he had wonderful taste,” she continued. “They’re both beautiful. One was a Playboy Bunny years ago. And the other one might have been a beauty queen. She’s just gorgeous. But more importantly, they’re both beautiful on the inside.
“Let’s just put it this way, and I wrote about it in the book. Alex and his first wife Elaine remained very good friends. In fact, Alex is the one who walked Elaine up the aisle to her new husband Peter Kares. He was just a sophisticated, wonderful man.”
Alex Trebek and his wife, Jean Currivan Trebek, at the 47th AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Denzel Washington at Dolby Theatre on June 06, 2019, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)
Lee said that if Trebek didn’t enjoy his decades-long success as a beloved game show host, he could have easily hit the stage as a stand-up comic.
“He was one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever known,” she reflected. “You wouldn’t know it just seeing him. But he easily could have been a standup comic. His delivery was remarkable.”
“He didn’t just tell jokes,” Lee shared. “He would throw in a punchline that somehow went into the middle of anything serious he was saying. You couldn’t help but just roar into laughter. Everybody that knew him just adored him. And I did too.”
Trebek, who first moved to the U.S. from Canada in 1973, appeared on “The Wizard of Odds,” “High Rollers,” “The $128,000 Question” and “Double Dare.” Even during his run on Jeopardy!” Trebek worked on other shows. In the early ‘90s, he was the host of three – “Jeopardy!”, “To Tell the Truth” and “Classic Concentration.”
Ruta Lee with Debbie Reynolds and Alex Trebek. The actress was being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo by Jason Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
But it was “Jeopardy!” that made him famous. He won five Emmys as its host and received stars on both the Hollywood and Canadian walks of fame. In 2012, the show won a prestigious Peabody Award.
That same year, Trebek acknowledged that he was considering retirement, but had been urged by friends to stay on so he could reach 30 years on the show. He still loved the job, he declared: “What’s not to love? You have the security of a familiar environment, a familiar format, but you have the excitement of new clues and new contestants on every program. You can’t beat that!”
He became a U.S. citizen in 1997. Trebek was married to Elaine Callei from 1974 to 1981. In 1990, he married Jean Currivan, and they had two children, Emily and Matthew. Trebek lived with his family in Los Angeles’ Studio City section, not far from Hollywood.
Back in 2019, Lee told Fox News she was in the game show “High Rollers” with Trebek.
Ruta Lee said she’s still friends with Alex Trebek’s widow and ex-wife. ‘He had wonderful taste,’ the star said. (Photo by M. Phillips/WireImage/Getty Images)
“Well, every moment was fun,” she explained. “But I think the most fun we had was when we were off the stage. In private he became a close and dear friend to this day… Then of course, when Alex married Jean — that just became a huge highlight. She’s just one of the most beautiful, wonderful creatures in the world. I just love Alex’s wives.”
At the time, Lee said she hasn’t lost her drive as an entertainer and is grateful for all the people she’s encountered along the way.
“I’m either blessed or cursed,” said Lee on what has kept her going. “I’m never sure which it is. I have very, very high energy. I hate to practice, I hate rehearsal, but I love performing. There’s something wonderful about it, especially on stage with a live audience, even if it is for television. The energy that you get back, that feedback, it’s just so wonderful. You develop this lovely relationship with your audience that makes the world go round for me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.