Peter Stein’s official “Jeopardy!” portrait. (Photo/Courtesy Jeopardy! Productions)
Peter Stein’s official “Jeopardy!” portrait. (Photo/Courtesy Jeopardy! Productions)

Bay Area filmmaker Peter Stein smiles his way through ‘Jeopardy!’

Anyone watching the Oct. 28 episode of “Jeopardy!” would have thought contestant Peter Stein was having a grand old time.

The former executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and a longtime documentary filmmaker, Stein spent the half-hour TV game show smiling broadly, laughing and waving his arms in the air whenever a question — or answer — caught his fancy.

The happy face was not, however, always what it seemed. “I guess I have training as an actor,” the San Francisco resident told J. in a post-show interview. “Ultimately, I was having a lot of fun. But it’s all a bit of an out-of-body experience.”

Stein, 62, taped the show on Sept. 23 in a cavernous Hollywood studio. He and a dozen or so other contestants arrived at 7 a.m., as several episodes are taped in one day. “We all looked at each other and thought, is he here?” Stein recalled. “He,” as “Jeopardy!” aficionados know, was Matt Amodio, the “graduate student from New Haven, Connecticut” who was near the end of his 38-show winning streak and was seemingly unstoppable.

Unbeknownst to the contestants that day, Amodio had already been unseated, and Stein found himself on the set battling a different returning champ.

To the at-home audience, it looks easy. Three contestants stand at podiums close to the show’s host, and hit the buzzer to answer questions that appear on the big board in front of them.

Except, as Stein explains, the lights are blaring, it’s incredibly noisy, tensions are high, and contestants have to look far off to the side to see the questions. All that, plus they have to hit their buzzers ahead of their competitors. “It is quite stressful in the moment,” he acknowledged.

Unlike some other contestants, Stein says that being on “Jeopardy!” wasn’t a lifelong dream. He watched it a lot, but it was only in the spring of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, that he saw a commercial telling folks how to audition for the show. “I was 61, and I know the gray matter starts to disintegrate, so I thought, what the heck. Better do it before it’s too late,” said Stein, a Lowell High alumni.

San Francisco’s Peter Stein and “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik at the September taping. (Photo/Courtesy Jeopardy! Productions)
San Francisco’s Peter Stein and “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik at the September taping. (Photo/Courtesy Jeopardy! Productions)

He acquitted himself admirably on the show, getting off to a roaring start and clinching the first Daily Double question in the category of “U.S. Geography” (“What is the Mojave,” he answered, for $1,000). He also did well in the “Anne Rice” and “At the Ballet” categories, but less well in “K-Pop” and “Vikings.”

“Watching some of the other games before mine, I wished I had those categories,” he said, pointing to one category in the game right before his: “Foods that start with ‘f.’”

“I knew all of them — fondue, falafel, fajitas. That was in my wheelhouse; K-Pop, not so much,” he said.  “I was sorry there wasn’t a category ‘Great bar mitzvah scenes from Hollywood.’”

Stein says he was “excited” to appear on the show with new host Mayim Bialik, and even tried — jokingly, he says — to play the Jewish card. “I thought, if I wish her ‘Happy Sukkot,’ will I get extra points?” He did so, before the game began, but it didn’t help. Ultimately he came in third, missing the Final Jeopardy question that asked what capital city is 7,000 miles east and less than half a degree North of Sydney, Australia (correct response: Santiago, Chile).

“I wagered a lot on that last one,” he said. “I figured, go big or go home. And I’ve actually been to Sydney! I wish I had thought it through better, but you only have 30 seconds.”

As the third-place winner, he’s supposed to get a check for $1,000 — within 180 days, so he’s still waiting. Meanwhile, he’s getting ready for the premiere of “Moving San Francisco,” a documentary he co-produced and co-wrote on the history and future of the city’s transit system; it airs on KQED on Nov. 22 at 9 p.m.

His next project is still in development. It’s Jewish-themed and has a Bay Area connection, but he’s not ready to talk about it yet.

When he is, you’ll read about it here.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].