Charles Van Doren, Contestant in 1950s ‘Quiz Show’ Scandal, Dead at 93
Charles Van Doren, the 1950s quiz show contestant who infamously cheated his way to stardom by using answers he received in advance, has died at the age of 93. His son John told The New York Times that Van Doren died from natural causes at a retirement community in Cornwall, Connecticut, where he lived for several years.
Van Doren was born February 12th, 1925 in New York City, the son of Pulitzer Prize-awarded poet/critic Mark Van Doren and novelist Dorothy Van Doren. He attended both Cambridge University and Columbia University; he was teaching English at the latter college when he auditioned to appear on the NBC quiz show, Twenty-One, in 1957.
The decorated, 31-year-old professor appeared on the program for 14 weeks — from November 28th, 1956 to March 11th, 1957 — answering varied questions about history, medicine and geography, among other subjects. His winning streak, which earned him $128,000, made him a national star (including a Time cover) and helped catapult the show to massive ratings. After his final appearance, he signed a three-year contract with NBC, which included spots on The Today Show.
But, despite the network’s statements to the contrary, rumors swirled that his appearance had been fixed. On November 2nd, 1959, he finally admitted to congressional investigators that he’d been supplied the questions and answers in advance — even coached to add drama to his performances. He pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury but served no jail time.
The disgraced star subsequently lost his Columbia job and took on a pseudonym as a writer-editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica. In 2008, he detailed the complicated circumstances of his quiz ordeal in a massive New Yorker piece.
Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s Oscar-nominated 1994 film about the scandal.