I’ve long been fascinated by the train wreck known as the “1950’s quiz show scandals.” Although the practice of favoring certain contestants had been the norm for years on radio programs, it reached its height when quiz shows migrated to television and really big money came into the picture. In order to heighten the drama and capture the viewers, not to mention making the sponsors happy, “good” contestants were kept on through a variety of means—first by asking softball questions to which they already knew the answers, then giving tip-offs to what questions they would be asked, and finally flat-out supplying both questions and answers prior to a contestant’s appearance on the show. When the lid blew in 1958 as to how the television audience had been duped, reputations were ruined, shows were taken off the air and Congress, which never misses an opportunity to promote itself, swung into action.
One film I always stop to watch when I catch it on TV is Quiz Show, a 1994 release directed by Robert Redford, which focuses on the show “Twenty-One,” and its two most famous contestants—college instructor and literary scion Charles Van Doren (played by a pre-famous Ralph Fiennes) and whistleblower Herbert Stempel (John Turturro at his best). I remember when the film was released Redford came in for a great deal of criticism, both for portraying Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) as the man whose dogged investigation as a Congressional committee staffer broke the case, and for distorting the time frame during which these events played out. While both points are totally accurate, Quiz Show remains an excellent and intelligent film that focuses on those pesky ethical issues that mainstream films still won’t touch today.
In reality the scandal did not break with “Twenty-One” but through a complaint made to Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan by a disgruntled former contestant on “Dotto.” Damage control was temporarily had when “Dotto” was yanked off the air, but as the D.A.’s office continued to investigate these enormously popular shows (“The $64,000 Question” and “Tic-Tac-Dough” among many others), they began to fall like dominoes. “Prime Time and Misdemeanors,” authored by Joseph Stone, then the Assistant D.A. who headed the investigation and subsequent grand jury presentations, is a fascinating discussion, not only of these events but also of the personalities and motivations of the people behind the shows as well as the contestants. Ultimately some 26 former contestants lied to the grand jury about the rigging and their involvement. All pleaded guilty to perjury and received suspended sentences (the rigging itself was not then a crime though subsequently enacted legislation made it so). Interestingly, the one person whom the D.A.’s office could not shake was Dr. Joyce Brothers, a former winner on “The $64,000 Question,” among whose associate producers (and riggers) was Shirley Bernstein (sister of Leonard). She remained adamant that her appearances on the show had not been rigged, though in reading Mr. Stone’s book it’s evident he didn’t believe her but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth taking on a young, personable female psychologist who had won all that money as an expert on boxing.
Although Joseph Stone’s book is shot through with a great deal of lawyer ego, and worse yet, doesn’t have a “family tree” as to who appeared on or produced which show, it’s a terrific read. Even better is Julian Krainin’s thoughtful documentary, “The Quiz Show Scandal” which originally appeared on PBS’s American Experience. Although the “Twenty-One” story takes up a great deal of the film, there’s so much more, including a wonderful interview with Sonny Fox, whom my baby boomer generation remembers best as the host of “Wonderama.” In Krainin’s film he describes his utter failure as a big-money quiz show host (a terminal case of screwing up the questions), but more somberly, he tells the story of Patty Duke’s appearance before the House subcommittee investigating quiz show rigging in late 1959, long after that first complaint made it to the Manhattan D.A. Prior to creating the role of Helen Keller on Broadway in The Miracle Worker, she had appeared on “The $64,000 Challenge” and been coached by Shirley Bernstein as to which areas of knowledge she needed to bone up on. Appearing before the subcommittee as a scared and pressured 12 year-old, she initially lied under oath, but when gently prodded by one of the committee members, broke down and spilled the entire story. This, along with kinescopes of the original programs which show Van Doren, Stempel and other contestants in action, makes Krainin’s film a must-see.
Redford’s Quiz Show, which for tighter drama compresses the three-year time span during which the scandal played out, features a roster of wonderful performances, including Paul Scofield (whom I thought was robbed of a Best Supporting Oscar) as Mark Van Doren, Charles’s father; David Paymer as Dan Enright, producer of “Twenty One;” and perhaps most memorably, Martin Scorsese, as the corporate head of “Twenty-One”‘s sponsor. His appearance reminds me of Anna Deveare Smith’s role in Philadelphia—a welcome respite from some rather grim proceedings. You can sense his delight throughout his big scene as he squares off against Rob Morrow’s Richard Goodwin:
While Herbert Stempel talked and talked—and talked—from the time he first tipped off television critic Jack O’Brien in 1958 that all had not been well in “Twenty-One”-land, Charles Van Doren kept his silence for over 50 years, until his account appeared in “The New Yorker.” It’s the flip side of Stone’s book, and in fact, Van Doren describes his frightening encounter with the Assistant D.A. in the article. In the final analysis you may be of two minds, as I was. On the one hand, you feel for him—he became involved in something despite his better judgment (as well as the advice of his future wife) and appears to have been pained by the entire experience even before the rigging scandal broke. Who does not share that elemental fear of being found out—“They’ll know I’m not smart”? But covering up by lying to a grand jury is something altogether different, and this is the aspect of the story that remains the most elusive, not only as to Van Doren but with respect to the others who did so. Perhaps they themselves will never know why.