NEW YORK – Herbert Stempel, a fall guy and whistleblower of early television whose confession to deliberately losing on a 1950s quiz show helped drive a national scandal and join his name in history to winning contestant Charles Van Doren, has died age 93.
Stempel's former wife, Ethel Stempel, told The Associated Press on Sunday that he died at a New York nursing home on April 7. She cited no specific cause of death.
Stempel’s long life was changed and defined by a TV face-off late in 1956, when he and Van Doren smoothly executed a fraudulent display of knowledge, gaps in knowledge and sportsmanship on “Twenty-One,” part of a wave of programs that offered big prizes for trivia experts. Confessions by Stempel and others badly tainted the young medium, helped lead to Congress’ banning what had been technically legal — rigging game shows — and to the cancellation of “Twenty-One” among others.
Interest was revived by the 1994 movie “Quiz Show,” directed by Robert Redford and starring John Turturro as Stempel and Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren, who died last year.
The undoing of “Twenty-One” was set off by declining ratings, and a producer’s refusal to uphold a dirty bargain.
Stempel, born in New York City and the son of Jewish immigrants, would boast of a “retentive memory” that had made him a quiz show star since childhood and a natural for “Twenty-One.” Hosted by Jack Barry, the program placed two contestants in isolation booths on opposite sides of the stage and challenged them on everything from modern sports to Civil War history. Stempel, identified by Barry as a 29-year-old G.I. Bill college student from Queens, had prevailed for six straight weeks and accumulated $69,500. But audiences were apparently bored and advertisers worried. Producer Dan Enright’s solution was to have Stempel lose to a more charismatic opponent, Van Doren, scion of a prominent scholarly family and himself a rising star at Columbia University. Stempel later said he agreed when Enright promised to make him a question consultant for “Twenty-One,” get him an appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” and allow him to compete on a future quiz program.
Stempel and Van Doren were an obvious contrast: The fair-haired and handsome Van Doren, and the relatively plain Stempel, a stocky, dark-haired man with glasses and a flat, nasally accent. Each duly played their parts: looking down, blinking nervously, wiping their foreheads and pretending to think out loud as they responded to such challenges as “Name the three heavyweight champions immediately preceding Joe Louis” and “Name the second, third, fourth, and fifth wives of Henry VIII and describes their fates.”
Stempel retained a wry sense of humor, responding “They all died” when asked about Henry VIII’s wives. But one wrong answer was personally painful: Which movie received the Oscar for best picture in 1955? As Stempel would explain, he knew the winner was “Marty,” the low-key drama starring Ernest Borgnine. He had seen it three times and related to its story of a lonely butcher in New York City. But he was told to guess “On the Waterfront,” the Oscar winner of 1954, and a film, ironically, about a boxer who throws a fight.
With tens of millions looking on, Stempel muttered “I don’t remember” three times, shook his head and weakly guessed, “On the Waterfront?” Upon Van Doren’s eventual victory, the contestants smiled and shook hands at center stage. Stempel, who still had nearly $50,000 in winnings, thanked Barry and the show’s staff for their “kindness” and “courtesy.” Barry in turn praised Stempel’s “courage” and “fighting spirit.”
Van Doren would continue winning for months, and was celebrated in a Time magazine cover story as “TV’s own health-restoring antidote to (Elvis the Pelvis) Presley.” Stempel, meanwhile, found himself shut out entirely. He would acknowledge his decision to speak out wasn’t a matter of conscience, but revenge. When he tried to get back in touch with Enright, he realized that the producer no longer was interested.
“He just completely forgot I ever existed,” Stempel later told the Archive of American Television. “He had a picture of Charles Van Doren in his office when I walked in there and all he could do was praise Charles Van Doren, tell me what a great contestant is.”
Stempel’s public declarations were initially dismissed, but as contestants on other shows made similar statements, authorities began to take action. A grand jury was convened in New York in 1958 and Congressional hearings began the following year, with Stempel and Van Doren both testifying and acknowledging their complicity. Van Doren, who had no further comment on the scandal until a 2009 essay in The New Yorker, was among those given suspended sentences for lying to the grand jury. Stempel would endure being “treated like a pariah” by his relatives and losing much of his prize money in an investment scam.
For years, he lived quietly in Queens with his second wife, Ethel (his first wife, Toby, died in 1980), working as an office manager, public school teacher and on the litigation support unit of the New York City Department of Transportation. He reemerged as a public figure in the 1990s, when “Twenty-One” was featured in a Julian Krainin documentary and in Redford’s movie, for which Stempel served as a consultant. He would say “Quiz Show” distorted his life and personality.
“I was a little miffed at the portrayal. I was showed to be a nerd, a square and a hyper little guy,” he told the Television Academy archive, remembering a humorous encounter with Turturro at a screening. “John walked over to me and he said to me, 'If you punch me in the nose I would understand why. ... And I didn’t want any trouble. I realized he played me over the top and so forth. He’s an actor. He’s told by the director, Redford, to play me in a certain way, and that’s how he played it. And I said, ‘No, John, everything’s cool.’
“And my wife, Ethel, is a very feisty woman, and she said, ‘Step aside, Herb, I want to take a crack at him.’”