The Con Game |


The Con Game

Popular quiz whiz Charles Van Doren admitted "Twenty-One" was rigged on Oct. 23, 1959.

It’s hard to imagine now, but a long time ago, in a simpler, more trusting world, people used to believe just about anything they saw on TV. That all changed on Oct. 23, 1959, when Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren admitted that the popular NBC quiz show Twenty-One was rigged and that he’d helped hoodwink America.

The dapper Van Doren hit the jackpot in December 1956 when he defeated Twenty-One champ Herbert Stempel, a smart, schlumpfy contestant who bored audiences but won almost $100,000. During Van Doren’s 11-week, star-making stint on Twenty-One — loosely based on the card game blackjack — the show joined The $64,000 Question and What’s My Line? in the top 10. It couldn’t have worked out better if it had been scripted.

Which, of course, it was. Rumors that some quiz shows might be fixed had surfaced as early as 1957, and in August ‘58 a New York County grand jury began investigating charges against CBS’ short-lived Dotto. That inquest eventually implicated Twenty-One (by then canceled), leading to congressional hearings. Stempel testified that he’d been fed questions in advance. Van Doren, however, denied everything. ”[Van Doren] insisted that maybe I was helped, but he wasn’t,” recalls Stempel, now 72 and a New York City Department of Transportation employee. ”He had to have been coached. If they’re telling me…what questions to answer and what questions to miss, they obviously have to be doing it to the other person too.”

But the public wasn’t as savvy, and many believed Van Doren’s story. Unfortunately for him, other insiders were starting to back up Stempel’s accusations — including Twenty-One’s producer, Albert Freedman, who changed his testimony and admitted the fraud. On Oct. 23, Van Doren and his lawyer had a private meeting with a prosecutor, and, 10 days later, the college instructor told Congress that he was ”involved, deeply involved, in a deception.”

Even in our media-wary era, the scandal still resonates. There was, for example, the 1994 Robert Redford film Quiz Show, which went on to score a Best Picture nomination. And now, inspired by the success of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, NBC is working on a revamped version of Twenty-One, set to shoot sometime before the end of the year. ”We have to play it on the level, there’s no question about that,” says NBC senior VP Rick Ludwin. ”But frankly, the fact that it has a notorious past is a plus. We wouldn’t be generating as much interest if we were bringing back Supermarket Sweep.”

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