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A Key Player From 1950s Television Has Died

Apr 10, 2019  •  Post A Comment

A man who was at the center of one of early television’s first big scandals has died. The New York Times reports that Charles Van Doren died Tuesday at Geer Village, a Connecticut retirement community where he had lived for several years. He was 93.

No cause of death was reported.

Van Doren became famous during the 1950s heyday of quiz shows.

“For 14 weeks, from Nov. 28, 1956, to March 11, 1957, Mr. Van Doren captivated audiences of up to 50 million people with performances on the NBC quiz show ‘Twenty-One,’ answering questions, like: ‘The Black Sea is connected to the Aegean Sea via two straits and a smaller sea. Name (1) the two straits, (2) the smaller sea, and (3) the four countries that border the Black Sea,'” The Times reports. “Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: ‘The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.’”

But it later came out that the show had been rigged, and Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor and a member of a distinguished literary family, described by The Times as “a rare specimen: a handsome, personable young intellectual with solid academic credentials, a faculty post at a prestigious university and an impressive family pedigree,” had been given the questions and answers in advance.

After the scandal erupted, Van Doren confessed to Congress in 1959 that the show had been rigged. He also admitted that he had been coached to make his appearances more dramatic.

His confession came after he had brought in $129,000 in winnings from the show — the equivalent of more than $1 million today.

“He had also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, received some 20,000 fan letters, brushed off dozens of marriage proposals and signed a $150,000 contract to appear on NBC shows for three years,” The Times notes.

Below is one of the Van Doren episodes of “Twenty-One” that played a role in the scandal …

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