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Charles Van Doren (1926–2019), disgraced champion in 1950s TV quiz show scandal

by Kirk Fox

Became a star until it was revealed the quiz show was rigged.

Charles Van Doren was at the center of the infamous 1950s TV quiz show scandal. The tall sophisticated Columbia University professor, the son of noted poet Mark Van Doren, won $129,000 (more than $1 million dollars today) on the game show “Twenty-One” in 1956-1957. He became a big celebrity in TV’s golden age, featured on the cover of Time magazine, getting a job as a cultural reporter on the “Today” show.

An investigation into the fixing of game shows by Congress revealed that Van Doren had been given the answers to questions by producer Albert Freedman in order to beat champion Herb Stempel, knowing Van Doren would be better for ratings. Van Doren pled guilty to perjury, receiving no jail time, but was forced to resign from Columbia. He then worked for Encyclopedia Brittanica, retiring in 1982. The scandal was the subject of the Robert Redford film, “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren.


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Died: Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Who else died on April 9?)

Details of death: Died at the age of 93, confirmed by his son, John.

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Van Doren on being talked into the scandal: “He came right out and said it: ‘I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it.’ He held up his hand. ‘I swear to you, no one will ever know. It will be just between you and me. Jack Barry won’t know and Dan Enright won’t, either. Stempel won’t know — I’ve got a way to handle that. The sponsors won’t know — anyway, they’ll be so happy they won’t give a damn. And the audience will never know, because I won’t tell them, and you won’t, either.’” —Van Doren in The New Yorker magazine in 2008

On his refusal to be a consultant for the film “Quiz Show”: “Our family had a meeting, sitting around our kitchen table. John, our son, was for my taking the money. ‘They’re going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do,’ he said. ‘Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t you?’ [The next day,] the contract lay on the table in the kitchen. I picked it up and tore it into pieces.” —Van Doren in The New Yorker, 2008

Full obituary: The New York Times

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