Before the TV Quiz Show Scandal broke in the late 1950s, Herbert Stempel was destined to be a little-remembered contestant on the NBC quiz show "Twenty-One." However, as the man who helped expose Charles Van Doren, the most famous quiz show contestant of all, Stempel earned a place in television history.
When Stempel was chosen as a contestant, he was a 29-year old college student, who had a prodigious memory and a remarkable fund of knowledge. He had graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and had scored an impressive 170 on an IQ test. He worked at the Post Office before enlisting in the army in 1944. He left the army in 1952 to attend City College of New York on the G.I. Bill.
Like millions of other Americans, Stempel had watched the popular TV quiz shows of the day. After seeing two telecasts of "Twenty-One," Stempel wrote a letter to Barry and Enright Productions, the show’s producers. He wrote, introducing himself as a married man with a 14-month old son and went on to give the reasons why he believed he would be a strong contestant:
Doctors have told me and many of my friends say that I have a very retentive, if not photographic memory, and I have thousands of odd and obscure facts and many facets of general information at my fingertips. I have stayed home continuously watching many television shows and I answer so great a bulk of the questions that my wife has continually urged me to try out for your fine show.
A few days later, Stempel received a reply and was invited in. After he took the 3 1/2-hour test he was called by the staff producer. Stempel had answered 251 items out of 363 successfully, the producer told him, the best test performance on the show until that time. Stempel was to be a contestant.
"You want the viewer to react emotionally to a contestant," explained Daniel Enright, one of the producers of "Twenty-One." "Whether he reacts favorably or negatively is really not that important. The important thing is that he react." Enright believed viewers would react negatively to Stempel. "[They] would watch him and pray for his opponent to win."
Enright visited Stempel at his home and told his new contestant: "Play ball with me kid and you’ll win $24,000 just like that." Over the next five weeks, Enright would sit down with Stempel and go over particular questions and answers before each show -- including deliberate mistakes. The two would also discuss stage directions, including gestures to use, when to pause and what exactly to say. In the dressing room before each session, both men would do a run-though to make sure Stempel knew the script for that evening.
Stempel was aware of the game plan and learned it well. "The reason I had been asked to put on this old, ill-fitting suit and get this Marine-type haircut was to make me appear as what you would call today, a nerd, a square," Stempel remembers. As planned, Stempel came across as a somewhat smug contestant who struck viewers as a know-it-all.
Stempel’s string of successes brought him close to $50,000, no small change at the time. Stempel’s final opponent was Columbia University English professor Charles Van Doren. Enright scripted what would happen next: Three ties would ensue. When that happened, Stempel figured Van Doren was also in on the fix. Before the fourth and final match between the two men Enright told Stempel that while he had brought the ratings up, they had reached a plateau. "We feel it is time for a change," Enright told Stempel. That change was clearly the well-bred Van Doren.
Before Stempel’s last appearance, he asked Enright if he could play honestly against Van Doren, arguing that the match was really a duel between his CCNY versus Van Doren’s Columbia University. Enright again explained that the success of the show necessitated Stempel’s leaving and told Stempel that he might be able to find him a full-time job on a quiz show down the road.
On the morning of Stempel’s last show, promotions were aired featuring Jack Barry, the host of "Twenty-One," saying: "Tonight, here on "Twenty-One," Herbert Stempel, our 29-year-old G.I. college student, can win $111,500 -- the highest amount of money ever to be won on television." Stempel remembers the spot. "Every few minutes, an announcement would break in saying, ‘Is Herb Stempel going to win over $100,000 tonight?’ and I said, ‘No, he is not going to win $100,000. He’s going to take a dive.’"
On the show that evening, in a decisive question, Stempel was asked, "What motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?" Stempel knew the answer was "Marty" -- it was one of his favorite movies. But instead of answering correctly, Stempel gave the answer "On the Waterfront." With Stempel’s scripted blunder, Van Doren became the new "Twenty-One" champion.
Backstage after the show, Stempel overheard someone say, "Now we have a clean-cut intellectual as champion instead of a freak with a sponge memory." Afterwards, Stempel fumed about his loss and Van Doren’s fast-rising popularity -- something Stempel had never gained during his reign as champion.
Before he lost, Stempel had told several friends, including reporter Dave Gelman of "The New York Post," that the show was fixed. But no one took Stempel seriously, and his whistle-blowing fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t long before Stempel lost all his earnings. In early 1957, he started appearing at Enright’s office regularly demanding more money or a job.
Fearing blackmail, Enright convinced Stempel to sign a document stating that he had not received any help with his answers. In return, Stempel now was promised a panelist slot on a future program after his college graduation. In June 1957, the promised job fell through when Enright said all his shows had been sold to NBC. A bitter Stempel went back to the press. This time he talked to the New York "Journal-American," which investigated the charges but could find no corroborating witnesses, and thus didn’t print Stempel’s story.
When the rigging of the CBS game "Dotto" show was revealed in May 1958, official sources finally listened to Stempel. In August 1958 the "Journal-American" finally published Stempel’s accusations.
Van Doren, who had repeatedly denied Stempel’s charges, finally confessed to being part of the fix before a Congressional committee investigating quiz shows. Yet when the hearings were over, the crowd of reporters mobbed Van Doren, making it clear that Van Doren, whether a star or confessed liar, still outshone the vindicated Stempel.