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Charles Van Doren, the disgraced '50s quiz show champion, dies at 93

Van Doren testified before Congress on November 2, 1959 that he had been handed the answers by the 'Twenty-One' quiz show producers in advance and that he was also instructed on how to build drama to fool the viewers
UPDATED MAR 10, 2020
Charles Van Doren (Source : Getty Images)
Charles Van Doren (Source : Getty Images)

The disgraced '50-era quiz show contestant, Charles Van Doren, has reportedly died at the age of 93 in Connecticut. Van Doren made news in 1959 after it was found that he had disillusioned the viewers of a television quiz show after being handed the answers in advance.

Van Doren, born to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and critic Mark Van Doren and novelist Dorothy Van Doren, was an English instructor at Columbia University.

His son, John, while talking to the New York Times said that his father died at a retirement community in Geer Village, Connecticut, where he lived for several years. He is survived by his wife, two children, and three grandchildren.

Van Doren was a part of a quiz show scandal in the 1950s which resulted in him having to testify before Congress on how he had been given the answers to 'Twenty-One' in advance and how the entire show was rigged.

Robert Redford’s 1994 film 'Quiz Show' was based on the ensuing scandal and, in the film, Van Doren was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes.

Promotional portrait of quiz show, 'Twenty-One,' contestant Charles Van Doren accepting an envelope from an unidentified man c. 1958. The show was later mired in scandal when it was revealed that its producers regularly supplied contestants, including Van Doren, with answers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Reports state that Van Doren, a handsome, well-educated and well-spoken white man, acquired much fame during the TV game show craze in the mid-to-late 1950s. He had a natural screen presence and was eventually approached by 'Twenty-One' producers to defeat the show's long-running champion, Herb Stempel.

The producers approached Van Doren because the show's ratings had begun to fall down because of one consistent winner. Van Doren appeared on the show for 14 weeks, becoming a celebrity and winning $129,000, or over $1 million in today’s dollars.

He also appeared on the Time Magazine cover and signed a contract to appear on NBC shows for three years after his loss on 'Twenty-One'. Van Doren, on the show, would appear in a soundproof booth and wound answer very difficult trivia questions on everything from countries that border the Black Sea to Henry VIII’s wives.

Host Jack Barry stands at the podium as Columbia English professor and contestant Charles Van Doren (R) ponders an answer during a broadcast of the television game show, 'Twenty-One,' circa 1957. Van Doren later admitted to having answers fed to him by the show's producers. (Photo by NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images)

However, it was later discovered that the show was a hoax. Van Doren testified before Congress on November 2, 1959 that he had been handed the answers in advance and was instructed on how to build drama to fool the viewers, down to the details of learning how to mop his sweat during the show.

The scandal resulted in Van Doren losing his job at Columbia University. He later took on a pseudonym as a writer and editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica and wrote several other books.