Herbert Stempel, the contestant on NBC’s “Twenty-One” who helped uncover the quiz show rigging scandals of the 1950s, died on April 7 at the age of 93.
Stempel was born in the Bronx on Dec. 19, 1926, the son of Solomon and Mary Stempel. He was a gifted student with a prodigious memory. As a child, he represented P.S. 6 on the radio show “Americana Quiz,” and remained undefeated for weeks. He attended Bronx High School of Science and scored at genius level on an I.Q. test. Stempel worked for the post office, served in the U.S. Army from 1946 to 1952 and enrolled at City College under the G.I. Bill.
Stempel was also a fan of quiz shows like “The $64,000 Question,” “Tic Tac Dough” and “Twenty-One.” He wrote to “Twenty-One,” took a test and was invited on the show in 1956.
Stempel was provided with coaching on the answers and directions on how to deliver them and won about $50,000 in five weekly appearances on “Twenty-One.” Producer Dan Enright then selected Charles Van Doren, a dapper English instructor at Columbia University, to replace Stempel on the show. Stempel lost by deliberately giving the wrong answer to the question of which movie had won the Academy Award in 1955, saying it was “On the Waterfront” instead of “Marty.”
A promise by Enright to find Stempel another panel show slot went unfulfilled. Stempel then called several journalists to assert that “Twenty-One” was rigged while Enright insisted that Stempel was bitter about losing. The scandal broke open in 1958 when Albert Freedman, a “Twenty-One” producer who had coached Van Doren, was indicted for perjury. Van Doren subsequently pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury.
After the scandal, Stempel became a high school social studies teacher in New York and later worked for the New York City Department of Transportation. He assisted in a 1992 documentary about the scandal for the PBS series “American Experience” and was a paid consultant on “Quiz Show,” which also starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren. Stempel made a cameo appearance in “Quiz Show,” portraying a different contestant being interviewed by a congressional investigator, portrayed by Rob Morrow.