What would you do if someone offered you the chance to win a million dollars on a game show, even giving you the questions and answers ahead of time, to guarantee you a victory? Back in 1957, Charles Van Doren did not even own a television set, but someone suggested that he try out for a game show nonetheless. His first choice was Tic Tac Toe, but he was offered a spot on Twenty-One instead, which he accepted.
With a B.A. in Liberal Arts, an M.A. in Astrophysics, and a PhD in English, Mr. Van Doren was well educated and seemed well prepared for the questions posed by Twenty-One show host Jack Berry. Donning headphones as he stood in the isolation booth, Van Doren looked like a nice young man politely speaking into the large microphone as he answered each question in turn, trying to earn enough points to make it to 21. Professor Van Doren unseated Mr. Stempel and started a winning streak. However, as time progressed, the questions he was given became more and more difficult; he was up against tough opponents in the isolation booth next to him. Producers at NBC therefore offered to give Charles the questions and answers ahead of time. Van Doren's winning streak caught the attention of Time Magazine and he graced its cover on February 11, 1957. After several weeks, however, the Columbia University professor did lose to a lawyer named Vivienne Nearing but not before he won $129,000 (more than $1 million dollars today).
Charles Van Doren might have slipped back into obscurity after enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame if not for the whistle blower Herb Stempel who claimed that the quiz show was fixed, saying that he also had been given the questions and answers. The professor was called to testify in front of a House Subcommittee where he admitted on November 2, 1957 that he had accepted both the questions and the answers from Twenty-One's producers before the shows were telecast. As a result, Mr. Van Doren was dropped from NBC where he had guest hosted on the Today Show and he resigned his associate professor position at Columbia University. Although he left teaching, he was hired in 1962 at Encylopedia Britannica and he wrote several books including The Joy of Reading. More recently, he returned to academia, accepting a position as an adjunct professor at a Connecticut university.
Robert Redford directed a film based on the Twenty-One scandal called "Quiz Show" in 1994 starring Ralph Fiennes.
Photo courtesy http://upload.wikimedia.org.
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