In innocent '50s, many refused to believe scandal

September 23, 1994|By Jonathan Storm | Jonathan Storm,Knight-Ridder News Service

Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" goes back to a simpler, more innocent time. A soundproof booth was considered a high-tech marvel, and a college teacher could become a national hero by biting his lip, answering a few questions and winning $129,000.

Charles Van Doren, antihero of the real 1950s quiz-show scandals, became America's darling in a few weeks in the winter of 1956-1957. He continued to fight off all comers for 3 1/2 months, agonizing melodramatically over answers to questions on a show called "Twenty-One."

He was cheating the whole time, coached by producer Albert Freedman, but Americans -- even cynical newspapermen -- could not, or would not, believe it.

The New York Journal-American wouldn't print the story of contestant Herbert Stempel, who said "Twenty-One" producers had forced him to step aside for Mr. Van Doren.

Finally, nearly a year and a half after Mr. Van Doren's 3 1/2 -month streak, a would-be contestant on a show called "Dotto" got proof, a competitor's notebook that contained answers to future questions. The Post wouldn't run his story, but passed it on to the Federal Communications Commission, Colgate-Palmolive and Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan.

NBC's "Dotto" was canceled immediately. Mr. Stempel's tale ran a couple of weeks later in several New York papers, a grand jury was convened.

Eventually, Congress got into the act, and on Nov. 2, 1959, almost two years after his wealth and fame began, Mr. Van Doren finally admitted that he had been coached.

Days later, CBS president Frank Stanton canceled every network show that awarded any sort of prize.

Mr. Van Doren lost his $4,500 job as an associate professor at Columbia and was forced to relinquish the $50,000-a-year salary that a grateful NBC was giving him as roving reporter for "Wide Wide World" and, ironically, as narrator for "Frontiers of Faith."

Since 1959, he has striven to avoid publicity. He now lives quietly in Connecticut.

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