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Herb Stempel, the contestant on NBC’s Twenty-One who helped expose the rigged television quiz shows of the 1950s after he was “defeated” by Charles Van Doren, has died. He was 93.
Stempel, portrayed by John Turturro in the 1994 docudrama Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford, died April 7, The New York Times reported. His death was confirmed by a former stepdaughter, Bobra Fyne.
As a bespectacled Bronx native with an IQ of 170, Stempel appeared on Twenty-One, hosted by Jack Barry, for six weeks in 1956, winning $49,500. He later said that he was given all the questions and answers in advance by Dan Enright, a producer and co-creator of the show, and knew the eventual outcome of every game he participated in — including the one in which he would lose to the photogenic Van Doren.
Stempel said he was particularly embarrassed in his matchup with Van Doren when, after being asked to name the winner of the 1955 Oscar for best picture, he followed orders and replied On the Waterfront when he knew the correct answer was Marty, which he had already seen three times.
What he did on Twenty-One “was not illegal,” Stempel said in a July 2004 interview for the Archive of American Television, “but it wasn’t quite kosher.”
Stempel said he considered pulling a double cross but “took a dive” to Van Doren because Enright had promised him a job as a question consultant for $250 a week on Twenty-One as well as a gig as a permanent panelist on another game show, High Low.
When it became clear that Enright would not honor his end of the bargain, Stempel contacted several newspaper reporters and then the Manhattan district attorney, and soon the infamous quiz show scandal was off and running, with Congress getting involved.
“From the time you stepped into the isolation booth, you knew what you had to do, you knew exactly what you had to say,” Stempel said. “It was like an actor going onstage. In the final analysis, I wasn’t even really a game show contestant. I was an actor performing a role, as my other opponents were.”
Van Doren — who won $128,000 on Twenty-One and parlayed that success into jobs at NBC as a White House correspondent and as a cultural reporter on the Today show — insisted for months that everything had been on the up and up, at least for him. Eventually, though, he did admit to lying, and his TV career was ruined.
Herbert Milton Stempel was born Dec. 19, 1926, in the Bronx. His father, Solomon, was a postal carrier and his mother, Mary, a housewife.
When Stempel was 7, his father died and his mother needed public assistance to make ends meet. She received $50 a month, and $28 of that went to pay the rent. “I always felt a little bad that I didn’t have a dad, because all my friends did,” he said.
Stempel skipped second grade, loved history and geography, and enjoyed hanging out at the library. By the time he was 8 or 9, he was “an omnivorous reader,” he said. “I began to realize I had a very exceptional memory. … I could read a page, and six months later I could give you the gist of what I had read.”
While in elementary school, Stempel represented P.S. 6 on Americana Quiz, a radio show. He remained undefeated for weeks, winning several Eversharp fountain pens in the process.
He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1944 and enrolled at City College with the goal of becoming a teacher. But first, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent seven years in the service, the last few as a counter-intelligence agent.
Back at City College as a senior, Stempel watched Twenty-One and wrote a letter to its producers, saying he had “thousands of facts and figures at my fingertips” and wanted to be a contestant.
At an office on Madison Avenue, Stempel took a three-and-a-half-hour, 363-question trivia test (questions included “Who was the first American soldier killed in World War I in France?” and “What is the width of a goalpost on a football field?”) and came up with a record-setting 251 correct answers, he said.
“I never was an expert in one particular subject,” he noted. “But I had across-the-board knowledge, and in-depth knowledge too.”
Enright visited Stempel at his apartment in Forest Hills in Queens and “started to ask me questions. I knew the answers to most of the questions. Some other questions I didn’t know the answers to, and he filled me in,” Stempel recalled. “Then he leaned back on the couch and said, ‘How would you like to make $25,000, just like that?’
“I immediately understood what he was saying, obviously, because he wasn’t about to give me $25,000 for appearing on the program when I could have been easily defeated and gone off with nothing. Once I said, ‘Who wouldn’t?’ I became part of the game show hoax.”
He was told he would be on Twenty-One the following night. The producer then picked through Stempel’s closet and selected his father-in-law’s baggy old suit, a frayed blue shirt, a “terrible-looking tie” and an old Timex that “ticked like an alarm clock” (the watch would be near a microphone and “build up the suspense”) for Stempel to wear on the show. He also was told to get a “Marine-type haircut.”
“The whole aim was to make me into a nerd, a square, a human computer,” Stempel said.
The next afternoon, Enright ran Stempel through a series of questions and answers and was told how many points he would earn on the program. (On Twenty-One, two players, each in a soundproof booth, attempted to amass a winning 21 points by answering questions assigned a number value up to 11. The higher-numbered questions were tougher.)
Stempel said Enright showed him how to nervously bite his lip and take deep breaths before answering as a way to create suspense. He indicated he received an advance payment of $18,500, “knowing I was going to be winning more than that.”
Sponsored by Geritol, Twenty-One aired on Wednesdays from 10:30-11 p.m., live in front of a studio audience at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. Stempel said every show he was on was choreographed, right down to his banter with Barry. (He departed from the script just once when he made a spontaneous joke about the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives.)
The air conditioning was periodically turned off in his booth so viewers would see him sweat.
When he learned that he was going to face Van Doren — a clean-cut Columbia University professor and member of a prominent New York literary family — Stempel knew his “goose was cooked.” He was correct. Enright informed him that Twenty-One‘s ratings were “going south, and we feel it’s time for somebody else to take your place.”
With an estimated 50 million people tuning in, Stempel and Van Doren met on Nov. 28, 1956, and, after a couple of tie games, Stempel was dethroned the following week. Van Doren kept winning until March 11, 1957, and would make the cover of Time magazine.
Meanwhile, Enright was dismissing Stempel at every turn. And not only did he not get what he was promised, Stempel saw Van Doren’s brother, John, appear as a contestant on High Low and walk away with $80,000.
For many months, Stempel stood by his story that Twenty-One was rigged while Enright called him bitter and nuts. In summer 1958, Albert Freedman, a Twenty-One producer who had coached Van Doren, was indicted for perjury. A photograph of Freedman in handcuffs at a police station led producers on other game shows to admit that their programs were rigged.
In 1959, Van Doren pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury and lost his job at NBC. Others involved with game shows like The $64,000 Question and Dotto were disgraced as well.
Though vindicated, the whole thing had an impact on Stempel. “I was really down in the dumps, it affected me for many years,” he said. “When I was recognized, I wasn’t Herb Stempel, I was the guy who destroyed Charles Van Doren. My answer was ‘No, he destroyed himself. He insisted for three years that he was telling the truth and I was lying.'”
Stempel said he quickly lost most of his prize money to a con artist through a bad investment.
Stempel, who went on to work as a legal researcher for the New York City Department of Transportation, agreed to participate in the 1992 PBS documentary The Quiz Show Scandal. It “attempted to show how America lost its innocence,” he said. “People believed everything they saw on television. After the scandals, they didn’t.”
On Redford’s Quiz Show, Stempel was paid a reported $30,000 to serve as a consultant, but he said he visited the set just twice and had only one conversation with Turturro. He thought the movie was “about 40 percent true.” (Ralph Fiennes portrayed Van Doren, while David Paymer was Enright, Hank Azaria was Freedman and Christopher McDonald was Barry.)
Stempel said he was miffed that Turturro portrayed him as “a nerd, a square, a hyper sort of a guy,” and at the Quiz Show premiere, the actor said to the real-life game show contestant, “If you punch me in the nose, I would understand why.”
Stempel realized that Turturro was only doing his job, but his wife, Ethel, wasn’t as generous. “She said, ‘Step aside, Herb,'” he recalled. “‘I want to take a crack at him.'”
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