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In the isolation booth, Herb Stempel bit his lip to show tension. He dabbed sweat from his brow and sighed into the microphone. And as 50 million viewers hung in suspense, he seemed to agonize over the question in his last appearance on the rigged NBC quiz show “Twenty-One.”
What movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955?
It was Dec. 5, 1956, and Mr. Stempel, a City College student from Queens, was in his eighth week on the show, posing as a nerdy know-it-all. He had won $49,500. But his new rival was Charles Van Doren, a golden-boy Columbia University instructor, and the uninspiring Mr. Stempel was scripted to take a dive.
“On the Waterfront,” he said, knowing the answer was “Marty,” one of his favorites.
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While Mr. Van Doren went on to become the most celebrated (and, later, vilified) contestant of the quiz-show era, on the cover of Time magazine and inundated with fan mail and contract offers, Mr. Stempel might have become a forgotten man. Instead, he helped blow the cover off one of the major scandals of the age, telling the news media, prosecutors and congressional investigators that it was all a hoax.
Mr. Stempel, who became a high school social studies teacher in New York and later worked for the city’s Department of Transportation, died on April 7. He was 93. His death, which was not publicly announced, was confirmed by a former stepdaughter, Bobra Fyne.
...The disgraced Mr. Van Doren retreated from public life for decades. Mr. Stempel, in contrast, assisted in the production of Robert Redford’s Oscar-nominated 1994 movie, “Quiz Show,” which starred Ralph Fiennes as Mr. Van Doren and John Turturro as Mr. Stempel, and in a 1992 documentary for the PBS series “American Experience.”
In the documentary, he told how contestants were given answers in advance and coached on how to act and even what to wear. “The reason I had been asked to put on this old, ill-fitting suit and get this Marine-type haircut,” he said, “was to make me appear as what you would call today a nerd, a square.”
Mr. Stempel was a paid consultant on the Redford film and made a cameo appearance as another contestant talking to an investigator. In the wake of renewed public interest in the quiz-show scandal, he gave lectures and made radio and television appearances, including one on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” taped in the same NBC studio “Twenty-One” had used for live broadcasts.
Herbert Milton Stempel was born in the Bronx on Dec. 19, 1926, a son of Solomon and Mary Stempel. A gifted student with a prodigious memory, he attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science and scored at genius level on an I.Q. test. He worked for the Post Office, was in the Army from 1946 to 1952 and enrolled at City College under the G.I. Bill.
Mr. Stempel married Tobie Mantell in 1954. She died in 1980. They had a son, Harvey. Mr. Stempel married Ethel Feinblum after his first wife’s death.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Like many Americans, Mr. Stempel was fascinated by popular quiz shows like “The $64,000 Question,” “Tic Tac Dough” and “Twenty-One.” They promised big money and seemed erudite, calling for a command of history, poetry, science and art. Mr. Stempel wrote to “Twenty-One,” took a test and was invited on the show.
But before his first appearance, he testified later, the producer Dan Enright offered him a Faustian bargain: “How would you like to win $25,000?”
“I was sort of taken aback,” Mr. Stempel responded, “and I said, ‘Who wouldn’t?’”
Weekly rehearsals ensued. On the day before each show, he was given the questions and answers and coached on lip-biting, brow-mopping, stammering, sighing and other theatrical gestures. “Remembering the questions was quite easy,” he told investigators, “but the actual stage directions were the most difficult thing, because everything had to be done exactly.”
In exchange for losing to Mr. Van Doren, who participated in the deception, and for signing a false statement that he had not been coached, Mr. Stempel was promised more television work by Mr. Enright. But no jobs materialized. Like several other disgruntled former contestants, Mr. Stempel went public with accusations that quiz shows were fixed.
There were denials by networks and producers, but the ratings plummeted. “Twenty-One” was killed in 1958, and the shows’ heyday faded.
There were no criminal laws against rigging quiz shows then, but some participants lied to grand juries and were convicted of obstruction of justice or perjury. Mr. Van Doren pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a suspended sentence. Whistle-blowers were not charged.
At a 1959 congressional hearing where an episode of “Twenty-One” featuring Mr. Stempel was viewed, he said he had not returned the money he took from the show because he felt he had earned it. “Actually,” he said, “may I say that I was not a quiz contestant in this program, in my opinion. I was an actor, as you probably have noticed by watching the kinescope.”
...In a 2004 interview for the Archive of American Television, Mr. Stempel recalled that over the previous decade,
whenever the movie “Quiz Show” was shown on TV, his telephone rang and an unidentified caller asked,
“What picture won the Academy Award for 1955?”
Richard Sandomir and Johnny Diaz contributed reporting.