Twenty One


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

Tabs

About

Far and away the most notorious quizling was Charles Van Doren, a contestant on NBC's Twenty One, a quiz show based on the game of blackjack. Scion of the prestigious literary family and himself a lecturer in English at Columbia University, Van Doren was an authentic pop phenomenon whose video charisma earned him $129,000 in prize money, the cover of Time magazine, and a permanent spot on NBC's Today, where he discussed non-Euclidean geometry and recited seventeenth century poetry. He put an all-American face to the university intellectual in an age just getting over its suspicion of subversive "eggheads."

From the moment Van Doren walked onto the set of Twenty One on 28 November 1956 for his first face-off against a high-IQ eccentric named Herbert Stempel, he proved himself a telegenic natural. In the isolation booth, Van Doren managed to engage the spectator's sympathy by sharing his mental concentration. Apparently muttering unself-consciously to himself, he let viewers see him think: eyes alert, hand on chin, then a sudden bolt ("Oh, I know!"), after which he delivered himself of the answer. Asked to name the volumes of Churchill's wartime memoirs, he mutters, "I've seen the ad for those books a thousand times!" Asked to come up with a biblical reference, he says self-depreciatingly, "My father would know that." Van Doren's was a remarkable and seductive performance.

Twenty One's convoluted rules decreed that, in the event of a tie, the money wagered for points doubled--from $500 a point, to $1000 and so on. Thus, contestants needed to be coached not only on answers and acting but on the amount of points they selected in the gamble. A tie meant double financial stakes for each successive game with a consequent ratcheting up of the tension. By pre-game arrangement, the first Van Doren-Stempel face off ended with three ties; hence, the next week's game would be played for $2000 a point, and publicized accordingly.

On Wednesday, 5 December 1956, at 10:30 P.M., an estimated 50 million Americans tune in to Twenty One for what host and co-producer Jack Berry calls "the biggest game ever played in the program." A pair of twin blondes escort the pair to their isolation booths. The first category is boxing and Van Doren blows it. Ahead sixteen points to Van Doren's zero, Stempel is given the chance to stop the game. Only the audience knows he's in the lead and, if he stops the game, Van Doren loses. At this point, on live television, Stempel could have reneged on the deal, vanquished his opponent, and won an extra $32,000. But he opts to play by the script and continue the match. The next category--movies--proves more Van Doren friendly. Asked to name Brando's female co-star in On the Waterfront Van Doren teases briefly ("she was that lovely frail girl") before coming up with the correct answer (Eve Marie Sainte). Stempel again has the chance to ad-lib his own lines, but-- in an echo of another Brando role--it is not his night. Asked to name the 1955 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, he hesitates and answers On the Waterfront. Stempel later recalled how that choice was the unkindest cut. The correct answer--Marty--was not only a film he knew well but a character he identified with, the lonesome guy wondering what he was gonna do tonight.

But another tie means another round at $2,500 a point. "You guys sure know your onions," gasps Jack Berry. The next round of questions is crucial and Van Doren is masterful. Give the names and the fates of the third, fourth, and fifth wives of Henry the Eighth. As Berry leads him through the litany, Van Doren takes the audience with him every step of the way. ("I don't think he beheaded her...Yes, what happened to her.") Given the same question, Stempel gets off his best line of the match up. After Stempel successfully names the wives, Berry asks him their fates. "Well, they all died," he cracks to gales of laughter. Van Doren stops the game and wins the round. Seemingly gracious in defeat, in reality steaming with resentment, Stempel says truthfully, "This all came so suddenly...Thanks for your kindness and courtesy."

The gravy train derailed in August and September of 1958 when disgruntled former contestants went public with accusations that the results were rigged and the contestants coached. First, a standby contestant on Dotto produced a page from a winner's crib sheet. Then, the still bitter Herbert Stempel, Van Doren's former nemesis on Twenty One, told how he had taken a dive in their climatic encounter. The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass, who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted in advance. Most of the high-drama match-ups, it turned out, were as carefully choreographed as the June Taylor Dancers. Contestants were drilled in Q and A before airtime and coached in the pantomime of nail-biting suspense (stroke chin, furrow brow, wipe sweat from forehead). The lucky few who struck a chord with audiences were permitted a good run before a fresh attraction took their place; the patsies were given wrist watches and a kiss off.

By October 1958, as a New York grand jury convened by prosecutor Joseph Stone investigated the charges and heard closed-door testimony, quiz show ratings had plummeted. For their part, the networks played damage control, denying knowledge of rigging, canceling the suspect shows, and tossing the producers overboard. Yet it was hard to credit the Inspector Renault-like innocence of executives at NBC and CBS who claimed to be shocked that gambling was not going on in their casinos. A public relations flack for Twenty One best described the implied contract: "It was sort of a situation where a husband suspects his wife, but doesn't want to know because he loves her."

Despite the revelations and the grand jury investigation, the quiz show producers, Van Doren, and the other big money winners steadfastly maintained their innocence. Solid citizens all, they feared the loss of professional standing and the loyalty of friends and family as much as the retribution of the district attorney's office. Thus, even though there was no criminal statute against rigging a quiz show, the producers and contestants called to testify before the New York grand jury mainly tried to brazen it out. Nearly one hundred people committed perjury rather than own up to activities that, though embarrassing, were not illegal. Prosecutor Joseph Stone lamented that "nothing in my experience prepared me for the mass perjury that took place on the part of scores of well-educated people who had no trouble understanding what was at stake."

When the judge presiding over the New York investigations ordered the grand jury report sealed, Washington smelled a cover up and a political opportunity. Through October and November 1959, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Oren Harris (D-Arkansas), held standing room only hearings into the quiz show scandals. A renewed wave of publicity recorded the now repentant testimony of network bigwigs and star contestants whose minds, apparently, were concentrated powerfully by federal intervention. At one point, committee staffers came upon possible communist associations in the background of a few witnesses. The information was turned over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a move that inspired one wiseacre to suggest the networks produce a new game show entitled Find That Pinko!

Meanwhile, as newspaper headlines screamed "Where's Charlie?", the star witness everyone wanted to hear from was motoring desperately through the back roads of New England, ducking a congressional subpoena. Finally, on 2 November 1959, with tension mounting in anticipation of Van Doren's appearance to answer questions (the irony was lost on no one), the chastened professor fessed up. "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception," he told the Harris Committee. "The fact that I too was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol." In another irony, Washington's made-for-TV spectacle never made it to the airwaves due to the opposition of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who felt that the presence of television cameras would undermine the dignity of Congress.

- Thomas Doherty

Highlights
Herbert Stempel on Dan Enright prepping him to "act" and cheat on Twenty-One, and on dealing with host Jack Barry
06:01
Albert Freedman on Charles Van Doren's appeal on Twenty One  
01:55
Steve Carlin on the Congressional Investigation into the game show Twenty-One
03:35
Charles S. Dubin on directing Twenty One, produced by Dan Enright just before the Quiz Show Scandals broke, and on being called to testify about it
05:10
Albert Freedman on coaching contestants on Twenty One  
02:56
Herbert Stempel on telling some friends early on that Twenty-One was rigged
00:52
Who talked about this show

Ted Bergmann

View Interview
Ted Bergmann on the fixed game show Twenty-One
01:48

Steve Carlin

View Interview
Steve Carlin on the Congressional Investigation into the game show Twenty-One
03:35
Steve Carlin on the start of the Quiz Show scandals 
04:00

Charles Dubin

View Interview
Charles S. Dubin on directing Twenty One, produced by Dan Enright just before the Quiz Show Scandals broke, and on being called to testify about it
05:10

Albert Freedman

View Interview
Albert Freedman on his dealings with Twenty One contestant James Snodgrass during the Quiz Show Scandals
03:02
Albert Freedman on the most difficult pre-test of all the quiz shows - on Twenty One - and how producers selected which answers to give contestants
00:51
Albert Freedman on how he came to work for Twenty One (to rescue the show from bad ratings)
03:13
Albert Freedman on the early contestants on Twenty One not being fed the answers and the show failing in the ratings
02:09
Albert Freedman on his duties as a producer on Twenty One - getting the best contestants and having the best questions
04:29
Albert Freedman on the pre-test to become a contestant and the ideal personalities for contestants on Twenty One  
03:10
Albert Freedman on his dealings with Herbert Stempel on Twenty One   
00:34
Albert Freedman on the interviews for contestants on Twenty One and writing questions for the show 
01:04
Albert Freedman on disliking Herbert Stempel, who was already the reigning champion on Twenty One when Freedman joined the show
02:04
Albert Freedman on coaching contestants on Twenty One  
02:56
Albert Freedman on certain contestants not getting answers on Twenty One and some contestants (James Snodgrasss) ignoring what producers wanted
04:53
Albert Freedman on the head of Geritol (Twenty One's sponsor) wanting Herbert Stempel off the program and how Freedman convinced Charles Van Doren to become a contestant
07:41
Albert Freedman on how he convinced Charles Van Doren to become a contestant on Twenty One (contd.)
01:40
Albert Freedman on whether or not he gave Charles Van Doren answers for his first appearance Twenty One  
01:47
Albert Freedman on Charles Van Doren's appeal on Twenty One  
01:55
Albert Freedman on Charles Van Doren's tie wins with Herbert Stempel on Twenty One and Van Doren having the questions in advance
02:29
Albert Freedman on how Charles Van Doren's appeal made Twenty One so entertaining and successful in the ratings; on how Van Doren boosted sales of television sets
02:46
Albert Freedman on Charles Van Doren becoming a celebrity because of his appearances of Twenty One and NBC and the advertisers taking over control of the program
02:48
Albert Freedman on the decision to have Charles Van Doren lose on Twenty One
00:32
Albert Freedman on additional wins being fixed on Twenty One and how the "entertainment factor" manufactured for quiz shows got out of control
01:18
Albert Freedman on his, Jack Barry's, and Dan Enright's reactions at the beginning of the Quiz Show Scandals when it was revealed that Dotto  was fixed and when Herbert Stempel went to the press about the fixing of Twenty One
03:35
Albert Freedman on Charles Van Doren contacting him when the D.A.'s office announced an investigation into the quiz shows (including Twenty One)
01:22
Albert Freedman on whether or not Twenty-One was on the air during the Quiz Show Scandals; on getting fired from the show
00:20
Albert Freedman on the resurrection of Twenty One
01:20

Julian Goodman

View Interview
Julian Goodman on Charles Van Doren's appearance on the public affairs show Comment
01:21

Monty Hall

View Interview
Monty Hall on briefly hosting Twenty-One and the subsequent quiz show scandals that emerged
04:33

Herbert Stempel

View Interview
Herbert Stempel on becoming involved with Twenty-One via producer Dan Enright
03:58
Herbert Stempel on Dan Enright prepping him to "act" and cheat on Twenty-One, and on dealing with host Jack Barry
06:01
Herbert Stempel on the format of Twenty-One  and how the game was played
01:31
Herbert Stempel on the broadcast facilities and set of Twenty-One, including the "isolation booth"
02:23
Herbert Stempel on his first Twenty-One  opponents having been coached as he had been
01:32
Herbert Stempel on the aftermath of his first appearance on Twenty-One and on the scripted banter on the show
02:03
Herbert Stempel on his initial lack of recognition from being on Twenty-One, and on meeting with producer Dan Enright before each air time to get instructions and answers
04:17
Herbert Stempel on the details of the monetary "wins" on Twenty-One
02:42
Herbert Stempel on telling some friends early on that Twenty-One was rigged
00:52
Herbert Stempel on the other members of the Twenty-One team, including host Jack Barry
02:05
Herbert Stempel on the producers inadvertently giving him a wrong answer to a question on Twenty-One
02:11
Herbert Stempel on Charles Van Doren, his final "opponent" on Twenty-One
01:16
Herbert Stempel on finally being "defeated" by Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One
03:24
Herbert Stempel on Dan Enright reneging on his promises to Stempel after his run on Twenty-One
03:27
Herbert Stempel on going public about the misconduct on the set of Twenty-One
02:38
Herbert Stempel on contacting the DA's office and testifying about the misconduct on the set of Twenty-One
03:51
Herbert Stempel on having his credibility questioned when he testified about misconduct on the set of Twenty-One
04:49
Herbert Stempel on the psychological impact the Twenty-One scandal had on him, and on the public perception of his testimony regarding Charles Van Doren
04:10
Herbert Stempel on the impact of the Quiz Show Scandals on America and his being asked to return to play on the revived version of Twenty-One,  and on trying out for Jeopardy!
03:43

All Shows

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
J
L
M
P
R
S
T
W