Charles Van Doren, who as a young, well-spoken and handsome academic became one of TV’s first overnight sensations and just as quickly one of the first to fall from grace, as he became the public face of the 1950s quizshow scandals, has died. He was 93.
Van Doren died Tuesday in a retirement center near his home in Canaan, Conn., his son, John, confirmed to the New York Times.
Urbane and well educated, Van Doren was one of a handful of quizshow contestants who parlayed their winnings into lucrative careers outside the soundproof booth, as he transitioned from Columbia U. assistant professor into a celebrity, with a gig on NBC’s “Today” and the cover of Time. But that fame stalled as an unfolding investigation revealed that producers of some of the most popular quizzers were feeding answers to contestants in an effort to boost the drama quotient. Although Van Doren was initially untouched by the controversy, he eventually admitted his role, pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to a grand jury and testified before a congressional hearing in 1959. “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them,” he told reporters afterward.
But unlike many of today’s reality contestants, ever determined to beat the clock on their 15 minutes of fame, Van Doren disappeared from the limelight and waited almost 50 years before commenting about the scandal in any significant way in a long essay in the New Yorker.
In the introspective 2008 article, he told of being in on the deception at NBC’s “Twenty-One” from the start, coached on answers in a calculated effort to replace the reigning champion, Herbert Stempel, who also was coached but was less popular with sponsors. Producer Al Freedman would not only tell him what to say but how to say it: “Pause here; add this or that remark or aside; always seem to be worried, anxious; never answer too quickly, let the suspense build up,” Van Doren wrote. The Dec. 5, 1956, show in which he beat Stempel drew 50 million viewers, and it was only the start of his fame. The streak ended on March 11, 1957, when he was asked by host Jack Barry to name the kings of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Jordan, Iraq and Belgium. His opponent, a lawyer named Vivienne Nearing, named them all; he missed Belgium. It was no surprise because, as Van Doren put it, it was preordained in the “covert script.”
The consolation was walking away with about $128,000 in winnings and a three-year, $50,000 annual contract with NBC to consult on public service and educational programming.
NBC didn’t quite know what to do with the sensation on their hands. They even tried him out, briefly, as a Washington correspondent, before he settled into a more comfortable role as contributor to “Today” on cultural and literary events. As highbrow as it sounded, this work diverged from the more simple life of his father, the famous poet and critic Mark Van Doren, who even warned him that he was getting “caught up in something you may not really want.”
TV’s quizshow boom began to bust in the summer of 1958, when word started leaking that many of the most popular programs were rigged. Van Doren was questioned by Manhattan assistant district attorney Joseph Stone that October, and he later testified before a grand jury, but he lied about his role. Nearly a year later, just after he had completed a segment of “Today,” congressional investigator Richard Goodwin cornered him on the set and, informing him that his testimony contradicted that of others, including Freedman, asked him to testify in Washington.
On Nov. 2, 1959, Van Doren admitted his role, calling his actions “foolish, naive, prideful, and avaricious.” He returned to New York to find that he had lost his jobs at NBC and at Columbia. Along with Nearing and eight others, he pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, even though about 100 contestants had lied to the grand jury. No one went to jail.
In an age of anything-goes reality TV and a culture fed with nonstop doses of scandal, it’s hard to fathom how much of a furor the quiz show deception created. But it shattered a bond of trust between viewers and the relatively new presence in their living rooms, and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the scandals “a terrible thing to do to the American people.” In 1960, Congress amended the Communications Act to prevent fixing of gameshows, and the shows all but disappeared for a time.
Barry and his producing partner, Dan Enright, eventually returned with a series of gameshows in the 1970s, including “The Joker’s Wild” and “Tic Tac Dough.” Networks eventually abandoned limits on winnings, leading to the resurgence of the quiz format in 1999 with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and the return, briefly, of “Twenty-One” itself in 2000. And the launch of contestant-based shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” further tested how far producers could go in seeking dramatic arcs within the framework of standards and practices.
Van Doren, however, never sought to return. He went on to a career as editor at the Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago, working as an editor and authoring several books, including “A History of Knowledge” and works with longtime friend Mortimer Adler. After retiring from Britannica in 1982, he and his wife, Gerry, eventually settled in Cornwall, Conn., on longtime family property. Both were adjunct professors of English at the University of Connecticut, Torrington.
He was tempted to participate in a 1992 “American Experience” documentary on the quizshow scandals, with the lure of a show of his own, but he declined, largely on the advice of his wife. And despite a $100,000 offer, he declined to serve as a consultant on Robert Redford’s feature 1994 “Quiz Show,” even though he later wrote that he enjoyed John Turturro’s portrayal of Stempel. (Van Doren was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes.)
His name resurfaced again during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Donald Trump referred to the quiz show scandals in criticizing Hillary Clinton over reports that her campaign team once received a town hall question in advance.
It was clear in Van Doren’s 2008 New Yorker article that he was still wrestling with the scandals — the temptations triggered and the fame produced — even though generations had passed and the black-and-white sensations had faded into TV history.
“One of the best things about writing is that it’s private,” Van Doren wrote. ”I can sit with my thoughts without having to respond to people who say, ‘Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?’ Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am — or at least, I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on ‘Twenty One’ is still part of me.”
In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, a son and grandchildren.