Charles Van Doren, the 1950s rigged-quiz show winner and one of TV’s early examples of instant fame and the lightning-round failure that can follow, died Tuesday at a Connecticut retirement community. He was 93.
His death at Geer Village, Canaan, Conn., was announced to The New York Times by his son John Van Doren.
The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and noted Columbia University professor of English Mark Van Doren and novelist Dorothy Van Doren, the handsome 31-year-old Charles Van Doren was all too credible in his 14-week, $129,000 winning streak on the NBC quiz show Twenty-One in 1956-57.
But with rumors circulating about network rigging of the extremely popular prime time quiz shows, a congressional investigation ensued. On Nov. 2, 1959, Van Doren confessed that he had been given answers in advance.
The quiz show scandal, which engulfed other programs and contestants, was chronicled in the 1994 movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and with Ralph Fiennes playing Van Doren, who later broke his decades long silence about the scandal and noted that he turned down $100,000 to serve as a consultant on the film, according to The Times.
The scandal destroyed Van Doren’s reputation. He received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree perjury, but lost a Columbia University teaching job. According to The Times, he eventually left New York to take a low-profile position at Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chicago, where he eventually became vice president in charge of the editorial department, retiring in 1982. He authored a number of books including 1985’s The Joy of Reading and 1991’s A History of Knowledge.
Van Doren is survived by his wife Geraldine, whom he married in 1957 shortly after his Twenty-One appearances; son John; daughter Elizabeth; and three grandchildren.
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