By Tyler Aquilina
December 29, 2020 at 04:54 PM EST
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Jeopardy!

When Jeopardy! executive producer Mike Richards came on board in early 2020, replacing retiring EP Harry Friedman, Alex Trebek made sure to establish their dynamic right away.

“One of the first things he said to me was, ‘Most people are intimidated of me. I don't know why. I don't want you to be intimidated of me,’” Richards tells EW. “That was his way of saying, ‘We all understand I'm a legend. We all understand that nobody really wants to tell a legend what to do.’ But as the executive producer, my job is to make the show, and through it, him, as great as possible. And that was his way of letting me know that that's not only what he wanted but what he expected.”

Credit: Carol Kaelson

Over the next several months — “a short time, but an incredibly intense time,” Richards says — he grew closer to Trebek as the longtime Jeopardy! host battled pancreatic cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic forced the show to temporarily shut down. (Production eventually resumed, at Trebek’s urging, with a redesigned set and safety protocols in place.)

“It was really interesting for my relationship to [go from] very distant and barely knew him, to very close with him at the end and talking to him quite often,” Richards says. “He wanted to know how the staff was doing, how the crew was doing, make sure everybody was hanging in there. One of our final conversations was him very concerned about my kids, and kids in general in this country that aren't able to go to school. I remember him saying, ‘This is a challenge for all humanity.’ He was obviously very ill at that point, but that was where his concern was.”

He also continued working right up to the end. Though no one, not even Richards, knew it at the time, Trebek taped what would be his final episodes of Jeopardy! just 10 days before his death in November. With those shows set to air Monday, Jan. 4 through Friday, Jan. 8, EW spoke to Richards about his memories of Trebek, working on his last episodes, and what Trebek wanted for the show’s future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first meeting with Alex like when you joined the show?

MIKE RICHARDS: It was kind of amazing. We were about to shoot the Tournament of Champions, and I was just on the Sony lot, and I got this call saying, "Alex would love to meet you." I walked over and he was in his dressing room, and he's exactly who you think he would be — kind, funny. My favorite part of that meeting was, he had just gotten back from a trip to England and he started to quiz me on the geography around the area he had been. I started laughing, and I said, "Is the great Alex Trebek actually quizzing me?" And he wasn't thinking of it that way, [but] he laughed, and he goes, "I guess he is." And that was him. He was always inquisitive, always asking questions, and he loved smart people. He loved everyone, but he really admired smart people.

How did your relationship progress from there?

We had a great working relationship. I loved to make him laugh. I loved when I caught something and he didn't on a clue. He loved when he caught something and I didn't on a clue. It was during COVID, so that brought us even closer together, because there were so few people around. We would have phone calls before we got back in the studio, with him going, "I want to be the first show back in production. What are you doing to make that happen?" And that wasn't just one call; that was every week. I felt that the more frustrated he was that he wasn't in taping, the better he was feeling. He was forceful about it. He wanted back in, and we got back in so quickly because he was really on me to get us back in.

And then, as time wore on, and he wasn't feeling as well, our relationship went to a different level of me saying, "We will do anything you need for you to be in the studio," and him going, "I'm not going to screw things up. I'll be there." In the last few weeks, he had an intestinal surgery, and he was out for a little bit. I talked to him seven days before what would end up being his final taping session, and I said, "Alex, you're barely up and around. We have a long way to go before you're gonna be back in the studio taping." He got very firm, which I loved, and he goes, "I'll be there. Don't you cancel anything." And sure as heck, he was. He was a warrior.

Watching the last week of new episodes that aired, there were some great games, and he seemed so energized by that.

He loved great games. [When] he would get to the end of the show, and he'd go, "Great game, I loved it. I hope you did too. We'll see you next time," that was not manufactured. That was him jazzed. And he did, I believe, really like [current four-day champion] Brayden, because he was young and kind of interesting, and funny in his own way. I could tell that [Trebek] very much enjoyed that young man, and that was fun to watch. I think that energized him. It was like, "That's why I'm here. That's why I'm putting myself through this."

What were those last couple days of taping with Alex like?

As I mentioned, he had been out with the surgery, and I wasn't sure he would be back to tape those days. So for the few of us that knew what exactly was going on, there was a heightened sense in the room. I had chills throughout the first taping on that Monday, because I was watching him, going, "How is he doing this?" He came in at a higher level than normal, and his normal was excellent. On that first episode, he walked out, and you'll see it when it airs, he gives this amazing speech about the holidays and coming together and being strong and taking care of each other. And we didn't know he was gonna do that; he just walked out and did it. And you'll see in the episode, we all started to clap, and there's points in Jeopardy! where you clap and there's points in Jeopardy! where you don't; that's not a normal spot. You can see [Trebek] kind of look over at us as he was crossing to reveal the categories: "What are you guys clapping about?"

Those final five episodes, we shot three the first day and then two the second day, and they were great. You'll watch them and you'll go, "This guy's as healthy as could be. This is not a sick person at all." He had that much willpower. And we knew how much he was fighting, and that's what made the performance even more impressive. And then one last thing I'll share with you: On the second day of taping, what would end up being his final taping and the final time he was in the studio, I went to the door where [he exited] and said, "Hey, that was the most incredible thing I've ever seen." And he did not like to be complimented. That was kind of staring down the mouth of a great white when you'd do that, because he really didn't like that. But I had to say it, because it was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. And he was exhausted, obviously, and he looks up and he goes, "Thank you." He knew what he had done and appreciated the fact that we all knew what he had done. So those last two days are very special, and I'll never forget them.

How did you arrive at the decision to push back the airdate for that final week of episodes, which was originally scheduled to be the week of Christmas?

We looked at where that final week was going to air, and the week of Christmas is crazy. People are all over the place. They’ve got a lot of family obligations, and a lot of distractions. And the NBA is back, so that could lead to preemptions. So it really came down to, we wanted our fans and the fans of Alex to be able to really not feel stressed to see his final episodes, and really savor those last five. As we have. I screen each episode, and it took me a long time to do those five, because I really wanted to enjoy every nuance. I've studied his performance at a very intense level, and I wanted to really get everything I could out of watching him do it one last time. And I feel that his fans would want to be able to have the same opportunity.

How did you choose the episodes to fill the two weeks in between?

These episodes were picked because they have location shoots where Alex delivers clues, and of the many, many times that they did that, these were ones that the people that were closest to him on the staff believed were his favorite trips, that he got the biggest kick out of presenting from. And you can tell in the clips how excited he is. He’s great in them, because I think he's energized to deliver the clues. Whether it's from Niagara Falls or playing ice hockey, he loved each one for a different reason.

Did you ever talk with Alex about who his successor would be?

He wanted to be very careful to not weigh in on that. Not that he didn't care, because he cared at a very high level, [but] he knew how influential any suggestion he made would be, and he wanted us to come to it the way we wanted to, not because of what he wanted. So he and I spent a lot of time talking about what attributes a host should have, what we should look for, those types of things. He always said that the stars of Jeopardy! were the contestants and the game, not the host. We spent time talking about that, but he was very reticent to put out names. In fact, he said two names once, kind of off the cuff because I think they were just two people that were in his head, and he watched the firestorm that erupted around that. I think that was when he went, "Okay, I'm not going to do that to this process."

What can you tell us about the upcoming interim guest hosts that will appear on the show?

Well, we start with Ken Jennings, who Alex and I had spoken about filling in for him and being a guest host a couple of times. So I felt very comfortable that Ken would be able to come in. He obviously knows the game, there's a familiarity to him to our fans, and he respects Alex so much and everybody knows it. [He’s] not going, “Look, I'm the new host!” It's, “I'm coming in, and I'm going to respectfully keep this great show going in honor of him.”

What I'll tell you is, for the guest hosts, we're gonna look at the things that Alex and I spoke about, which is people that are credible giving the clues, people that can actually give the clues accurately, that are going to be able to rule right or wrong on the responses, and that Jeopardy! fans will enjoy in that role, but that will not try to make themselves the star, and will work to make the contestants and the game the star. There'll be a wide range of, I think, big names that you'll go, “Oh yeah, of course,” and then my hope is that there's a couple of, “Oh, I hadn't thought of that person, and I'd like to see what that looks like hosting Jeopardy!” That’s the plan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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