Academic at the centre of the Quiz Show scandal

Born: February 12, 1926;

Died: April 9, 2019

CHARLES Van Doren, who has died aged 93, was the dashing young academic whose meteoric rise and fall as a corrupt game show contestant in the 1950s inspired the movie Quiz Show and served as a cautionary tale about the staged competitions of early television.

The handsome scion of a prominent literary family, Van Doren eventually pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to a grand jury that investigated the claims of corruption over quiz shows. He spent the following decades largely out of the public eye.

“It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on Twenty-One is still part of me,” he wrote in a 2008 New Yorker essay, his first public comment in years.

Before his downfall, he was a ratings sensation. He made 14 electrifying appearances on the show Twenty-One in late 1956 and early ’57, vanquishing 13 competitors and winning a then-record $129,000. NBC hired him as a commentator.

In a February 1957 cover story on Van Doren, Time magazine marvelled at the “fascinating, suspense-taut spectacle of his highly trained mind at work.”

“Just by being himself,” Time wrote, “he has enabled a giveaway show, the crassest of lowbrow entertainments, to whip up a doting mass audience for a new kind of TV idol — of all things, an egghead.”

Later, as the triumph unravelled into scandal, he initially denied he had been given advance answers, but he finally admitted that the show was rigged.

He retreated to his family’s home in rural West Cornwall, Connecticut, after telling a congressional committee in 1959 that he was coached before each segment of the show.

After spending much of the 1960s and ’70s in Chicago, Van Doren and his wife, Geraldine, returned to Connecticut, residing for years in a small brown bungalow on the family compound. They did some teaching but largely lived in semi-seclusion, refusing to grant interviews and even leaving the country for several weeks when Robert Redford’s film Quiz Show was released in 1994.

Van Doren refused to cooperate in the movie’s making and declined to meet with actor Ralph Fiennes, who portrayed him in the film. Fiennes later told People magazine that after Van Doren brushed him off, he knocked on his door pretending to be lost so he could observe Van Doren’s movements and speech patterns.

Van Doren broke his silence in 2008, writing an account of his downfall in The New Yorker and how he finally had publicly admitted a half-century earlier that he was “foolish, naive, prideful and avaricious.”

“People who knew the entertainment business didn’t have much doubt about what was going on, although they didn’t speak out,” he wrote.

In light of the large profits the rigged game shows were making, he added, “why would they?”

In 1962, Van Doren and nine other winners from three NBC shows — Twenty-One, Tic-Tac-Dough and Hi-Lo — pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury that had investigated the scandal.

Van Doren later joined the Institute for Philosophical Research, a non-profit Chicago think tank, and worked at Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica for many years.

Van Doren and his wife had two children, Elizabeth and John.