He Was a Ratings Sensation. Then It All Fell Apart

Charles Van Doren is dead at 93
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 10, 2019 1:43 PM CDT
He Was a Ratings Sensation. Then It All Fell Apart
In this April 2, 1957 file photo, Charles Van Doren and his bride, the former Geraldine Ann Bernstein, arrive from their Puerto Rican honeymoon at the former Idlewild Airport in New York. Van Doren, who admitted his television quiz show performances in the 1950s had been rigged, died on Tuesday.   (AP Photo, File)

Charles Van Doren, the dashing young academic whose meteoric rise and fall as a corrupt game show contestant in the 1950s inspired the movie Quiz Show and served as a cautionary tale about the staged competitions of early television, died of natural causes Tuesday in Connecticut. He was 93. The handsome scion of a prominent literary family, Van Doren was the central figure in the TV game show scandals of the late 1950s and eventually pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to a grand jury that investigated them. He spent the following decades largely out of the public eye. "It's been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on Twenty-One is still part of me," he wrote in a 2008 New Yorker essay, his first public comment in years. More from the AP's obituary.

  • Before his downfall, Van Doren was a rising young academic at Columbia and a ratings sensation. He made 14 electrifying appearances on Twenty-One in late 1956 and early '57, vanquishing 13 competitors and winning a then-record $129,000. Among those competitors: Herbert Stempel, who later went public and said contestants were fed the answers to the questions prior to the show. He said he was told to lose because the show's producers thought Van Doren had star potential.
  • Van Doren initially denied he had been given advance answers, but he finally admitted that the show was rigged. He retreated to his family's home in rural West Cornwall, Connecticut, after telling a congressional committee in 1959 that he was coached before each segment of the show.
  • In 1962 he and nine other winners from three NBC shows pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury that had investigated the scandal. They were spared jail terms by a judge who said the nation's scorn was punishment enough.
  • After the scandal broke, Van Doren lost the $50,000-a-year job as a commentator that NBC had given him when he defeated Stempel. He also was dropped from the faculty at Columbia.
  • After spending much of the 1960s and '70s in Chicago, Van Doren and his wife, Geraldine, returned to Connecticut, residing for years in a small brown bungalow on the family compound. They did some teaching but largely lived in semi-seclusion, refusing to grant interviews and even leaving the country for several weeks when Robert Redford's film Quiz Show was released in the fall of 1994.
  • Van Doren refused to cooperate in the movie's making and declined to meet with actor Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed him in the film. Fiennes later told People magazine that after Van Doren brushed him off, he knocked on his door pretending to be lost so he could observe Van Doren's movements and speech patterns. Van Doren disclosed that he eventually did watch the film.
(More obituary stories.)

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