"The 64,000 Challenge"
Interview with former Quiz Show Host
Sonny Fox on "The $64,000 Chalenge"
I did a lot of game shows in my life, but I guess the one that would be most interesting in the context in which you're talking about now is "The $64,000 Challenge." I had not very much experience as a performer at that time. I first began to be a performer in 1954 in an educational station in St. Louis in a converted girl's gymnasium and then eleven months later found myself doing a show on CBS called "Let's Take A Trip," which was taking two children on sort of an electronic field trip every week — live, remote location, no audience, no sponsors — out of a new CBS News and Public Affairs. And then eleven months after that I found myself in Studio 54 on Sunday night at ten o'clock live, doing "[The] $64,000 Challenge." I only say that because the context is one of a very inexperienced performer being plunged into this maelstrom, this pressure cooker, if you will, of two sponsors, three ad agencies, a live studio band and a live studio audience, all of which was quite awesome. But you have to understand that in those days because of the success of "[The] $64,000 Question" the original show and a sister show of "Challenge," which was on Sunday nights at ten — I'm sorry, Tuesday nights at ten, "[The] $64,000 Question" was on at Tuesday nights at ten — had totally fascinated a nation. It took a few weeks for that to take a hold, but then when Gino Protto, the shoemaker who was an expert on opera, won $64,000, he became a star, and others followed and they became real stars. Life Magazine featured them. They were followed all over the place.
And I remember one night walking down on a Tuesday night, walking down on a summer's night, in the streets of New York, and the windows were opened, and out of every window I heard the same sound and the sound was of "[The] $64,000 Question." Now when "[The $64,000] Challenge" went on the air it was Sunday night at ten, live, and it was a much awaited event of course, and a much per sought after hosting job. I was not sure I was right for it and, as a matter of fact, when I first did an audition, it was on audio tape, and Joe Case, who was then the Producer/Director, called me and said, "What do you think? I said, "I wouldn't hire me if I were you." Well anyway it ended up where I was hired.
After I did the pilot we went out to dinner, and Charles Revson, the Revson of Revlon who is the chief sponsor at that time, along with Kent of the program, said we may have to change your name because nobody will believe a man named Sonny is giving away all that money. And I think I said something like, "Well for the money you're prepared to pay me you can call me anything you want." Anyway, the first night of "$64,000 Challenge" the announcer said, "And here is your host, Bill Fox." I stood there for a moment until somebody said, "That's you." And I went out, and the first week I was Bill Fox even though at noon on CBS I was Sonny Fox and in my bio I was Irwin Fox. Later that week, after the first show, I got a call from the EPI, the producer, saying we have a problem about your name. I said, "What is it?" They said, "There already is a Bill Fox on the rolls of AFTRA," the union, and you cannot use somebody else's name if it's already established, even though, even if it were my own name. I said, "Oh." And then he said, "What is your real name." I said, "Irwin." There was a pause. The kind of a pause that went on just to be too long. I said, "Right." I said, "I have a great idea. Why don't we just change my name every week and people who hate the show will just tune in to watch to see what they're calling me this week." The second week on "$64,000 Challenge" the host, the announcer, said, "And ladies and gentlemen, here is your host, Sonny Fox."
The Anatomy of the "Fix"
When we started "[The] $64,000 Challenge," I understood that the contestants were extremely well questioned about what their expertise was so that when the questions were structured, they were directed toward the strength of those people, no matter how complex the question seemed to be. And if they wanted them to continue -- if they didn't want it to continue, then they would structure the questions away from them. That was my understanding, and later it was confirmed by the people but, for instance, if somebody took -- and this was a true case -- if somebody took as his expertise eighteenth century English poets and indeed was encyclopedic about eighteenth century English poets, the producers would say your category is English Literature, which was legitimate, I suppose. Now while they were going with him up this ladder of plateaus they would ask him questions that were very complex but about eighteenth century English poets. If they decided looking at the ratings that he wasn't building, that he wasn't that interesting, that people didn't care that much about him, they should really dump him. The way they, I thought, they controlled it was that suddenly they would ask him a question about Beowulf at which point his eyes would glaze, jaw would hang slack and defeat would creep over his visage. And that was probably the way they controlled events in the beginning. Imperfect as it was they still measured some degree of control.
The Secret "Questions"
Okay, at the beginning of either both "[The $64,000] Question" and "[The $64,000] Challenge" we introduced the Vice President of Chase Manhattan, who came on bearing the questions for the day which had been kept in the vaults of the Chase Manhattan Bank all that week, thereby protecting, of course, the honesty of the show. However, we didn't say it was the only set of questions that was in that vault. And indeed there was a set of questions in the vault and indeed the Vice President brought them on. But indeed I had another set of questions in my dressing room before the show, of necessity, because I had to go over certain pronunciations of some arcane names or words, and some of the questions were awfully complex, and we had to kind of track them so that I wouldn't be seeing them for the first time on the air. So there were, of course, duplicate sets of questions. A fact which I'm sure was not unknown to the members of the network staff and others who worked around the show. Nevertheless, to the American public, that presence of the Vice President of Chase Manhattan was sort of a reassuring note about the virtuous honesty of these shows.
Contestant Patty Duke
Well, Patty told me this at lunch one afternoon and I was absolutely appalled, because when Patty was on "[The] $64,000 Question," doing spelling, they coached her -- I know who it was from Patty but I will let Patty mention the name if she wants to -- coached her in the answers. That's when she was about twelve. Three years later she's about fifteen, she was summoned down to the Senate to testify in their investigation and she was coached again in how to lie to the U.S. Senate. And she went down and she testified and she lied until she was ready to step down when one of the Senators looked at her and said, "Now Patty, is everything you told us here today the truth." At which point she broke down and started to cry and said, "No." They put her back on the stand and then she told the whole story. To me the appalling enormity of this still strikes me. To coach a twelve-year-old into how to lie and then to coach a teenager into how to lie again to the U.S. Senate is to me the most poignant and startling demonstration of how widespread and deep this sort of corruption had led us. And it was a sort of -- I don't think it was immoral so much as amoral. I think that's what I would call it. It was the pursuit of ratings and success and wealth and anything that worked, worked. And the excuse was, heck this is just entertainment -- this is all it's all about. Well, maybe some people can convince themselves about that when they're putting on a television show. I don't know what the justification is when you're coaching a teenager to lie to the Senate to save your hide. I don't know, I don't know how you go about explaining that one away.
Contestant Joyce Brothers
Okay. Interesting story about how Joyce Brothers got on "[The] $64,000 Question." She went down originally and presented herself as a psychologist, and she had an expertise in something and, I'm not sure I remember what it was, but it certainly wasn't boxing. And they said to her, "Well you're wonderful as a personality but we're looking for those dramatic juxtapositions." The marine officer who is an expert cook. The shoemaker who knows about opera. Those kinds of anomalies. That's what we're looking for. For instance, if you knew about boxing we'd.... She went home and -- one thing you have to know about Joyce is she's absolutely, she's purposeful in her life. I mean, if she wants something she goes after it. And she wanted to be on this show and she started studying about boxing and she made herself into a boxing expert and she did not come on it as a boxing expert. She invented herself as a boxing expert. And she came on, she came back and said I'm a boxing expert. I'm a psychologist who knows about boxing. And they tested her and she did, and they put her on. Now the story that I understand, I'm not sure whether I got this from a prime source or a secondary source so I can't be absolutely a hundred percent certain that I'm telling you the truth, but I think it is. At about $16,000 they thought they would knock her off. They didn't think Joyce Brothers was building. So they asked her a particularly tough question, and she got it.
So at $32,000 they decided really to get rid of Joyce, and this time instead of asking her questions about boxers they asked her a question about referees, which they knew she didn't know anything about. But they underestimated Miss Brothers because she had been studying every week in-between and she knew about referees by the time they asked her about referees. And she got $32,064. And they said what the heck let her go. They went back to her strength and she hit. You know she hit $64,000 and she became quite famous as a result and she still is. She's still writing her columns and everybody knows the name Joyce Brothers. So she really rode that one to stardom and fame. Others had their brief time of fame. Their names were household words for a few months. They did personal tours. As a matter of fact, "[The] $64,000 Challenge" was invented to take advantage of the stardom of "[The] $64,000 Question." Here "Question" had spent all this time making these people stars and then they would just, there was nothing to be done with them and that didn't sit right so they said well wait a minute. If we bring them back and have them challenged, then we have a second crack at them, hence, "[The] $64,000 Challenge." It was a way of merchandising, if you will, and profiting from what happened on "Question." And then they would manufacture stars and then "Challenge" would pick them up and continue that. So that's why "Challenge" was born.