It wasn’t that he was from Las Vegas. At least, that wasn’t the only thing about him that made him a creature of curiosity to me. Over the years, there have certainly been others from Las Vegas and its environs who stood behind one of those glowing blue podiums and bantered gamely with Alex Trebek.
But Frederick Foster looked the part. He wore a vibrant blue jacket, had an impeccably white grill of top teeth and was introduced on October 20 by the avuncular announcer Johnny Gilbert as a “retired actor.” I’d later learn that the 63-year-old Foster has, for the past dozen years, worked full-time as a waiter at Waverly’s steakhouse at the Cannery and that he thought long and hard about which profession he wanted stated when he was presented to the nation’s game-show geeks.
He looked the Vegas part, that is, minus the douchiness and yard-long margarita and plus class, culture and brains. Foster stood upright, enunciated with an uncommon, almost theatrical precision and, during the usually cringeworthy contestant interview segment, told a charming little story about once chauffeuring the actress Julie Harris to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for an appearance. When Harris, at the time starring in a tour of the play Driving Miss Daisy, got ornery with him for taking a different route than she wanted, he craned his head back like Morgan Freeman and said, “Now Miss Daisy, I’m trying to take you to the Piggly Wiggly!”
He was, in other words, of the Vegas that is home to countless artsy older folks drawn by the climate, inexpensive living and the proximity to a vibrant entertainment industry. Foster wasn’t fibbing about his acting career—it was one of those anonymous, work-a-day ones that so many non-famous Vegas performers know all too well. He did work for decades for Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington, Kentucky, then moved to New York for a time but never quite made it big. Along the way, he did his ration of Shakespeare, Albee and Pinter. His first visit to Las Vegas, in fact, was as a cast member in a touring production of Ken Hill’s Phantom of the Opera that played the Aladdin’s Theatre for the Performing Arts in the early ’90s. That version, he notes, “is the original London production and predates Andrew Lloyd Webber’s by several years.” I didn’t know there was another.
I tried to reach Foster in the days after his appearance—in which he came in second place and won $2,000—but I had to wait, because he was on a Turner Classic Movies cruise off the Florida coast, soaking up the classic cinematic tall tales of Richard Dreyfuss, Tab Hunter, Shirley Jones and, “oh, Diane Baker!” he said excitedly as we video-chatted on FaceTime last week, his requisite collection of old National Geographic magazines filling bookshelves behind him. “She was very, very interesting. She was Margot in The Diary of Anne Frank as a child.”
By the time Foster moved to Vegas, he was satisfied with what he’d done in his performing career, yet he had one piece of unfinished show-biz business—and year after year, he took the tests required to appear on Jeopardy! Earlier this year, finally, he was invited to the Palazzo Las Vegas for an in-person audition with the show’s producers. In early August, he drove to Sony’s Culver City studios to pick up that elusive signaling device.
The moment was precious to him. So much so, in fact, that as the familiar theme music filled the studio and the lights began coming up to start his episode, he thought of his recently deceased sister and their common, lifelong obsession with the show and began to cry. He had to, dramatist that he is, ask for a do-over, claiming he’d gotten makeup in his eyes.
Foster beamed brightly the entire time he was on, even when he risked all his money and didn’t know the name of the 1676 uprising in Virginia (Bacon’s Rebellion, FYI). He was in the thick of the contest after the first round, but then got rolled by the returning champ, who profited handsomely from his knowledge of comic books, country music and the Balkans. Not surprisingly, Foster’s in the camp that believes that Jeopardy! has strayed too far from the classic trivia categories—opera, poetry and literature, among others—and he believes he would have done better if he’d played before the “shift to more current topics” which, he says, represents a “dumbing down of Jeopardy! content.”
Indeed, his sunny, erudite disposition isn’t mutually exclusive of a competitive nature. He wanted, of course, to be the show’s next great champion. “Ken Jennings is probably overstating it,” Foster grinned. “But I did think I had a good chance of winning at least once, maybe a couple of times. I allowed myself to dream I might become a five-time champion. I think we all do.”