Bob Bestler

‘Twenty-one’ minutes of fame: Man’s death brings back memories of TV triumph, scandal

Charles Van Doren died April 9. He was 93.

That little obituary may not mean much to anyone under the age of 70, but for the elders among us it spells the end of the most insidious scandal in television history.

Van Doren was the biggest and most popular winner on a show called “Twenty-One.” Subsequent investigations revealed that he had been fed answers to intricate questions on his way to winning $129,000 (about $1 million today). The scandal was the subject of the 1994 movie, “Quiz Show,” with Ralph Fiennes portraying the beleaguered Van Doren.

It’s hard to imagine today, but in the 1950s, with just three TV networks, prime-time game shows became, well, the biggest game in town.

First there was “The $64,000 Question,” which would make a psychologist named Joyce Brothers an international star as an expert on boxing.

Then came “Twenty-One,” a game in which two contestants competed against each other.

For 14 weeks, from Nov. 28, 1956 to March 11, 1957, Van Doren took on all comers, answering questions ordinary people could not — name the four vice presidents in the 1920s, name the four Balearic Islands, name the common names for caries, myopia and missing patellar reflex.

America could not get enough of this brilliant, humble man.

The late writer David Halberstam, in his book “The Fifties,” wrote, “Of all the people associated with the quiz show scandals, the one who remains most indelibly burned on most people’s memory is Charles Van Doren . . . he captivated the audience as no one else ever did. His manner — shy, gentle, somewhat self-deprecating, like a young, more intellectual Jimmy Stewart — was immensely attractive.”

His popularity was intoxicating; it revealed, maybe for the first time, the power of television.

During his run, Twenty-One attracted as many as 50 million viewers; my own family was among them, watching every episode.

In many ways, Van Doren was our first reality-show star, a person with no particular entertainment talents who became a household name. (Can you spell Kardashian?)

As the New York Times wrote in its obituary, the 31-year-old Van Doren “appeared on the cover of Time magazine, received some 20,000 fan letters, brushed off dozens of marriage proposals and signed a $150,000 contract to appear on NBC shows for three years.”

Not bad for college teacher who had been making $4,400 a year.

The end came, according to a script written by producers, when Van Doren missed the name of Belgium’s king, disappointing his millions of fans.

As the scandal unfolded, Van Doren insisted he was never coached, but finally he gave in. On Nov. 2, 1959, he confessed to congressional investigators that the shows had all been rigged, he had been given answers in advance and coached on how to make his appearances more dramatic.

He lost his teaching position and his rich NBC contract. Ever remorseful, he eventually became an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica.

And clearly, with his confession, America lost a bit of its innocence.

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