The Dallas Morning News
Central figure in ’50s game show scandal
HARTFORD, Conn. — Charles Van Doren, 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, has died. He was 93.
He died of natural causes Tuesday at a care center for the elderly in Canaan, Conn., said his son, John Van Doren. Funeral services will be private.
The handsome scion of a prominent literary family, Van Doren was the central figure in the TV game show scandals of the late 1950s and eventually pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to a grand jury that investigated them. 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 TwentyOne 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 Twentyone in late 1956 and early ’57, vanquishing 13 competitors and winning a thenrecord $129,000. NBC hired him as a commentator.
In a February 1957 cover story on Van Doren, Time magazine marveled at the “fascinating, suspensetaut spectacle of his highly trained mind at work.”
Later, as the triumph unraveled 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, Conn., 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 semiseclusion, refusing to grant interviews and even leaving the country for several weeks when Robert Redford’s film Quiz Show was released in the fall of 1994.
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 halfcentury earlier that he was “foolish, naive, prideful and avaricious.”
In 1962, Van Doren and nine other winners from three NBC shows — Twentyone, Tictacdough and Hilo — pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury that had investigated the scandal. They were spared jail terms by a judge who said the nation’s scorn was punishment enough.
Van Doren and his wife had two children, Elizabeth and John.
“He was a loving husband and a terrific father, and he’s going to be deeply missed,” John Van Doren said.