Entertainment

Monday 19 August 2019

Obituary: Charles Van Doren

Dashing young ­academic whose rise and fall as a ­corrupt game show contestant inspired the movie 'Quiz Show'

QUIZ SHOW ROW: Charming academic Charles Van Doren
QUIZ SHOW ROW: Charming academic Charles Van Doren

Charles Van Doren, who has died aged 93, was the central figure in one of the great dramas of the early years of television in America, the revelation that its quiz shows were often fixed and that his long winning run on the programme Twenty-One, which had captivated the nation, had been staged to secure higher audience ratings.

As he himself recalled half a century after the events of the mid-1950s which first made him famous and then notorious, Van Doren, then 30, was teaching English at Columbia University in New York when at a dinner party he met a television producer, Albert Freedman.

Freedman was looking for contestants for a new weekly television quiz that he co-produced. He was much taken by the handsome, clean-cut Van Doren, whose accomplishments included studying at Cambridge, a doctorate in English Literature and a master's degree in astrophysics. His father Mark Van Doren was a Pulitzer-prize winning writer and professor who had influenced the likes of Thomas Merton and Jack Kerouac.

Although Charles did not even own a television set, in November 1956 he made his bow on the quiz, which was hosted by well-known presenter Jack Barry. The aim of the game, which pitted two contestants against each other, usually a reigning champion and a challenger, was to be the first to accumulate 21 of the points awarded for questions of varying difficulty.

The greater the margin of victory, the more the winner received, with each such point worth $500. As Van Doren acknowledged, this was a fortune at a time when his salary was $4,400 and he was engaged to be married.

Audiences began to rise as he and the champion, the less telegenic Herbert Stempel, tied four times in a row. Eventually, after six weeks Van Doren prevailed and embarked on a four-month winning run of his own, with up to 50m Americans tuning in to see if this week he would get an answer wrong. Nothing stumped him, from the names of all the British prime ministers between the wars to those of the four countries bordering the Black Sea.

Only in March 1957 was he dethroned, after a lawyer, Vivienne Nearing, was able to take advantage of his not knowing the name of the king of Belgium. By then, the show had overtaken I Love Lucy to top the ratings and Van Doren had been featured on the cover of Time, received 20,000 letters from fans, and won $129,000 (now almost £1m).

He was signed up as a special correspondent by the NBC channel, at a salary of $50,000, and over the next few years worked for the Today television news programme and then reporting from Washington.

The only person who appeared unhappy (despite his own considerable winnings) was Stempel, who began to allege that, far from being a genuine battle of wits, Twenty-One was rigged.

At first, he was dismissed as being a sore loser, but in 1958 the authorities began to investigate the fixing of another television quiz, Dotto.

Matters quickly escalated to the point of a grand jury being empanelled, but Van Doren testified that there had been no deception. For a time, scandal seemed to have been averted; but other witnesses began to cooperate with the investigators. These included an artist, James Snodgrass, who claimed he had been fed answers to questions ahead of episodes of Twenty-One on which he had appeared, and had documented the timing by posting the material to himself.

After going into hiding for a time, Van Doren finally appeared before a congressional hearing into the affair in November 1959. He confessed that he also had been told the answers, going along with it because he thought that he would be "increasing respect for the work of the mind by my performances". Instead, he acknowledged: "I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them."

More details began gradually to emerge, supplemented after decades of silence by Van Doren himself in an article in the The New Yorker in 2008. The spur had been the anger of the show's sponsor, Geritol, a maker of health supplements, when the first episode of a show designed to showcase intelligence had turned farcical as the two contestants failed to answer any questions correctly.

In a panic, the producers had essentially resorted (as did other shows) to scripting the programmes. Not only were contestants told the answers in advance, but they were coached in how to give their responses - nervously, hesitantly or confidently - so as to make for greater entertainment.

Winners and losers were decided in advance, among them Nearing and Van Doren himself (who had known the name of the Belgian monarch). Moreover, Stempel too had been part of the same ring, to the extent that he had been told to appear as an impecunious student, with a cheap suit and a bad haircut, when in fact his wife was a woman of some means.

His genuinely formidable general knowledge had impressed the producers enough to make him a contestant, but they concluded that the audience did not warm to him and so had turned to Van Doren to supplant him.

Stempel had been particularly annoyed at being told to answer incorrectly a question about the winner of the Oscar for Best Film in 1955, as Marty, the right answer, was among his favourites.

The elder of two brothers, Charles Lincoln Van Doren was born in Manhattan on February 12, 1926. Aside from his father, his paternal uncle Carl, the biographer of Benjamin Franklin, was also a Pulitzer winner, while his mother Dorothy was a novelist and magazine editor.

After the scandal, which saw host Jack Barry disappear from television for a decade, Van Doren resigned from Columbia and took a job as an editor with Encyclopaedia Britannica. He worked for it until 1982.

He also wrote and co-authored several books and from 2005 taught for a decade at the University of Connecticut. He and his wife kept a second home for many years in Tuscany.

In 1994, Robert Redford made a film about the affair, Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes. It was nominated for several Oscars, although Van Doren later criticised it for taking dramatic licence with some events.

He had been offered a six-figure sum to act as a consultant to the producers but this time, in part at the urging of his wife, had not taken the money.

Only after he had seen the film did he realise that the driver of a car who had pulled up at his house apparently seeking directions had been Fiennes.

Van Doren revealed in 2008 that he had been sustained through the difficult period after his confession by a gift from his father. It was a gyroscopic compass - "the kind… where it will stay upright until the spinning stops".

It was accompanied by a card which read: "May this be for you the whirligig of time that brings in his revenges." Naturally, he knew the source of the quotation.

Charles Van Doren married, in 1957, Geraldine Bernstein. She survives him with their son and daughter. He died on April 9.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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