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Charles Van Doren, 1950s Quiz Show Scandal Participant, Dead At 93

Charles Van Doren is seen talking to reporters after court in New York in 1962. Van Doren died this week at 93.

One of the contestants at the center of the 1950s quiz show scandal has died. Connecticut resident Charles Van Doren was 93.

Van Doren came from a family of New England academics. His father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Charles was a junior teacher at Columbia University when his prep-school good looks made him the golden boy of an NBC quiz show called “Twenty-One.”

“From New York City, Charles Van Doren!”

Van Doren appeared on the show in 1956 to challenge the champion, Herb Stempel. The hosts took turns asking both men tough trivia about history and culture – and Van Doren always rose to the challenge.

“Who was the commanding general of the Union Army at that time?” “Oh yes, I know his name. The fellow’s Halleck. H.W. Halleck.” “You are right!”

But “Twenty-One” was rigged. Van Doren was fed the right answers, and Stempel was told to get them wrong. Stempel spoke to the Television Academy Foundation decades later about the incident.

“I assumed that I was gonna be a cooked goose, that they were grooming him to take my place.”

Stempel said he told reporters for years the show was rigged, but no one believed him. He said he blamed Van Doren, at the time one of TV’s most popular personalities, who insisted the show was real.

“He could have come forward and said, ‘Yes, I was part of this,’ and that would have been the end of it. But for three years, every time I saw him questioned, he’d say, ‘Maybe he was given the answers, but I wasn’t.’”

A scandal on another quiz show eventually led to the discovery that “Twenty-One” and several others were rigged for ratings. Van Doren was called to testify before Congress and finally admitted his role. Here’s a moment from his testimony as performed by Ralph Fiennes in the 1994 film “Quiz Show.”

“I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”

Van Doren pled guilty to perjury. The scandal shook public faith in the institution of television and led to new FCC regulations. Van Doren went on to a long career as an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica and rarely spoke publicly on the scandal. Meanwhile, Herb Stempel –  Van Doren’s nemesis – is still alive at 92.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.