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Called in to question: The show that brought TV into disrepute

Twenty One host Jack Barry with contestant Charles Van Doren (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images) - Credit: NBCUniversal via Getty Images

RICHARD LUCK looks back at one of the greatest and most defining scandals of the TV age.

Among this year’s most anticipated dramas is ITV’s Quiz. Starring Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen, Fleabag’s Sian Clifford, Catastrophe’s Mark Bonnar, and, as TV’s Chris Tarrant, Bafta winner Michael Sheen, the three-part series focuses on the 2001 game show scandal which saw Major Charles Ingram splutter his way to success on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? only for his skulduggery to be sniffed out.

But long before the coughing major’s infamous television appearance, a game show scandal rocked America to such a degree that those involved were summoned before Congress.

As Charles Ingram’s transgressions have now been dramatised, so Charles Van Doren’s indiscretions were brought to the big screen by Robert Redford in 1994. However, if you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated Quiz Show, you only know so much about the scandal that held 1950s America in thrall. For rather than an isolated incident, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the television sensation that was Twenty-One were symptomatic of a fraud that enveloped countless programmes and all the major networks.

But first, some background. The phenomenal success of television in the 1950s was in large part due to the popularity of the game show. Being relatively cheap to stage, programmes like The $64,000 Question, Tic-Tac-Dough and Twenty-One were loved not only by the public but by the TV execs who could use the popularity of their programming to demand huge sponsorship fees.

Should you ever have a mind to watch vintage American TV shows, you’ll be struck by how every programme is ‘brought to you’ by one product or another.

Often it was huge corporations who lent their names to a particular evening’s entertainment: The Colgate Comedy Hour, The US Steel Hour, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, Kraft Television Theater – to settle down for a night in front of the gogglebox in 1950s America was to expose yourself to the early successes of the Mad Men era.

In the case of NBC’s Twenty-One, the programming was endorsed by Geritol, an iron and vitamin supplement designed to rid America on that most wretched of conditions, ‘tired blood’. Since the pharmaceutical firm had a lot of money riding on the show – some $3.5 million – so they had a lot of say so regarding its content.

When the debut programme tanked, in large part because of the ignorance of the contestants, Geritol insisted that changes be made and fast. As Twenty-One producer Dan Enright recalls: ‘From that moment on, we decided to rig Twenty-One.’

To ensure the show lived up to the sponsor’s expectations, Enright and his producing partner Al Freedman first set out to find an everyman contestant that viewers could get behind. Step forward the ‘unstumpable’ Herbert Milton Stempel, a former GI-turned-postal worker with an extraordinary head for facts and figures.

Not that Stempel’s intellect was particularly important since Enright and Freedman had agreed that, in order to ensure each programme had the right outcome, native New Yorker Herb would be supplied with the right answers.

And so it was that for six weeks in the autumn of 1956, Herb Stempel put to the sword America’s finest minds. This was no mean feat since Twenty-One’s format was far from straightforward. At the start of the show, reigning champ Herb and his new opponent entered separate isolation booths, within which the competitors could not see or hear one another nor the audience. Host Jack Barry would then announce the category for the first round and ask the challenger to select a point value between 1 and 11; the higher the value selected, the more difficult the question. If they answered correctly, the points were added to the challenger’s score; get it wrong and the points were subtracted. The formula would then repeat, only with Herb in the hot seat. Throughout this – really rather laborious – procedure, the host ensured that neither competitor was aware of their rival’s score.

The ultimate aim was to score 21 points. Should the challenger attain said score first, they were free to listen to the champion as they tried to tie the game. Fail to get the question right, and a new champion was crowned. If a show ended in a 21–21 tie, the scores were erased and a new game was played.

Though Twenty-One had plenty of shortcomings on the formatting front, the viewing public simply couldn’t get enough of Herb, the guy from Queens with the glasses and the unfortunate hair who’d never graduated college but seemed to know everything about everything. Then Stempel’s star began to fade, and Geritol, Enright and Freedman decided that a change needed to be made.

The answer to their prayers came in the shape of novelist, university educator and scion of a literary empire, Charles Van Doren. Son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark, nephew of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Carl, Van Doren lived in the largest of literary shadows.

Quite why he should have wanted to appear on a game show was anyone’s guess. Was he desperate to be something other than Mark Van Doren’s son? Did he just want to have some fun and make a little money? Either way, Enright and Freedman couldn’t believe their luck when young Charles walked blinking into their arena.

Handsome and charming, Charles Van Doren was very much the opposite of the nervy, nerdy Herb Stempel. A series of draws between the two men drove Twenty-One’s ratings to new heights. Come December 6, 1956, more than 15 million Americans were watching as the unthinkable occurred and Herbert Stempel was finally stumped. And on such an easy question. As the man himself would later recall:

‘The question was, ‘What motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?’ I knew that the answer was Marty, but Dan Enright specifically wanted me to miss that question. This hurt me very deeply because this was one of my favourite pictures of all times… As I was trying to come up with the answer, I could have changed my mind. I could have said, ‘The answer is Marty’… I would have won. There would have been no Charles Van Doren, no famous celebrity.’

But instead, Herb said On the Waterfront, as he’d previously agreed to, and shortly thereafter the Stempel era was over.

As for Van Doren’s spell on the programme, it proved such a success that he wound up on the cover of Time.

Having been convinced to go along with the fraud on the grounds that it would do wonders for the cause of education, Charles Van Doren racked up $129,000 during his three month-long winning streak. When he eventually lost to lawyer Vivienne Nearing on March 11, 1957, Charles was offered a lucrative three-year deal with NBC. And that might have been the end of it were it not for something called Dotto.

Dotto was a CBS/NBC game show that was doing pretty good business right up until it was scrapped overnight in August 1958. The man responsible for the plug being pulled was stand-by contestant Edward Hilgemeier who’d happened upon a notebook belonging to fellow competitor Marie Winn. When he realised that the book contained the questions and answers that were to be used during Winn’s appearance, Hilgemeier went to the authorities. In next to no time, Dotto disappeared from the TV schedules.

Within four months of Dotto’s cancellation, The $64,000 Question, Tic-Tac-Dough and Twenty-One were also taken off air. Aware that a tsunami of trouble was coming their way, the execs hoped such drastic measures would negate the necessary for increased oversight. Rather than quelling official interest, this sudden scrapping of hugely lucrative media entities only increased the curiosity of lawmakers.

In New York, prosecutor Joseph Stone convened a grand jury. Those game show contestants who appeared before it either denied all knowledge of a fix or freely admitted to having gone along with the demands of the producers.

And while all this was going on, Herbert Stempel was busy telling anyone who’d listen about the stink behind the scenes on Twenty-One. Conversations with journalist Jack O’Brian had led to Herb going before Congress in 1957. Two years later, on November 2, 1959, Charles Van Doren also made his way to Washington to face the music.

Van Doren’s appearance before Congress provides Robert Redford’s Quiz Show with its ending. As for how the decorated actor-director came to make his movie, they’d been talk of a film about the scandal dating back to the 1970s. In the late 1980s, Oliver Stone expressed an interest in the subject.Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Steven Soderbergh (Sex, lies and videotape) also had a movie about the Twenty-One affair on the go, only for Tim Robbins and Richard Dreyfuss – their choices to play Van Doren and Stempel respectively – to walk off the project.

It was then that Redford entered the picture. A hot talent once again on the back of Indecent Proposal’s unfathomable success, Redford used that acting ‘triumph’ to nail a gig to both produce and direct Quiz Show. Besides a keen interest in the American condition and a passion for truth and justice, Redford had a personal interest in the game show scandals, having appeared as a contestant on Merv Griffin’s Play Your Hunch in 1957.

Fobbed off with fishing equipment instead of a $75 fee and asked to change his occupation from actor to painter as apparently they’d had too many of the former on the programme, he knew that TV in the ’50s was a rum deal. What’s more, when watching Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One, the 22-year-old Redford had been convinced that the university professor was hamming it up for the cameras. ‘We were experiencing a fundamental breach in morality,’ he would later claim in one of his more self-righteous moments.

Hiring Washington Post journalist Paul Attanasio to adapt Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice From The Sixties, the director cast the new-to-film Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren while the role of Stempel went to John Turturro.

Naturally, for the purposes of drama, names were changed, composite characters created and timelines drastically altered. Rather than a cog in a vast machine, Goodwin became lead Congressional investigator, a showy part that wound up going to Rob Morrow of Northern Exposure fame.

And the icing on the cake? Redford convinced Sir Paul Scofield to come out of retirement and play Charles’ father, the eminent Mark Van Doren.

The film Redford wound up making resembles a particularly well-mounted episode of Mad Men. Attanasio’s witty-to-the-point-of being-too-pleased-with-itself screenplay allows all the actors to shine, with Mira Sorvino particularly good as Dick Goodwin’s better half and David Paymer and Hank Azaria quite excellent as Enright and Freedman, the men who put the fix into effect.

With so much acting talent on display, it’s a little odd that Quiz Show’s key speech should be delivered by a director, Martin Scorsese who portrays the Geritol executive who insists that Stempel be replaced. ‘NBC is gonna go on,’ the exec explains to Dick Goodwin. ‘The quiz shows will be back. Why fix them? Think about it – you could do exactly the same thing just by making the questions easier. See, the audience didn’t tune in to see some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.’

And as his character explains why Congress’s quiz show investigation was bound to run aground, so he also points up the enduring appeal of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a scandalised game show that has now returned to prime time.

Sure, each affair had a few sacrificial lambs: the Millionaire fiasco culminated in Charles and Diana Ingram receiving fines and suspended prison sentences, as did their accomplice Tecwen Whittock. Meanwhile in the States, Charles Van Doren was publicly shamed before being allowed to return to his teaching job and accept a lucrative deal to write for Encyclopaedia Britannica. But after spending a few years on the sidelines, all the TV figures involved in the rigging of game shows were back producing – you guessed it! – game shows. Only Herbert Stempel really suffered; his reward for eventually coming clean being a lifetime spent working for New York’s Department of Transportation.

There’s a reason why both Quiz and Quiz Show ought to be of particular interest to modern audiences, namely the evolution of social media. For there was a time when, mounting one’s high horse took long enough to give the victim time to get out of the way. Had Charles Van Doren or the Ingrams been found to be at fault in 2020, they’d have been hounded out on Twitter before the first ad break.

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