Brian Donovan isn't the kind of guy who would dress up like a prune danish or dive for quarters in a vat of molasses on nationwide TV.
But as a youngster in Bethesda, he was fascinated by "The $64,000 Question," and ever since, he has wanted to appear on a television quiz show.
Recently, the 33-year-old lawyer did just that -- and his performance made "The $64,000 Question" look like peanuts.
On the syndicated game show "Tic Tac Dough," carried here by WJLA-TV, Donovan won $148,850 in cash and prizes -- including six cars and enough washers and dryers to open his own laundromat. Last week, Donovan became the biggest winner in the game's history by surpassing the previous record of $124,050 in prizes.
A 1963 graduate of St. John's College High School in the District and Our Lady of Lourdes grade school in Bethesda, Donovan moved to California after he was graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1968.
Since his appearances on "Tic Tac Dough" began airing in Washington last month, he has received dozens of calls from old high school buddies and family friends. His parents and sisters, who live in Maryland and Virginia, have been accepting congratulations from area viewers who have been caught up in the excitement of his success.
"I went on the show as a lark," said Donovan, a modest, amiable man who was constantly chided by the show's producers for not getting excited enough when he won another $1,000 or his third Laz-E-Boy chair. "But it turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Donovan beat 32 persons in 21 consecutive appearances, all taped in January and February and broadcast here through last Friday, when he finally lost the game.
The shows are taped on Saturdays and Sundays, Donovan said, beginning at 4:30 p.m. and ending at 9:15 p.m., with about three hours of preparation beforehand.
"They try to create the illusion of being a daily show," explained Donovan, who had 15 minutes to change clothes between tapings. "I had to be there at 1:30, and since I drove 60 miles from my house (in Orange County) to the studio, I left home at noon and usually didn't get back until 11 at night."
Donovan originally tried out for "Jeopardy" after he saw a newspaper ad for contestants last fall.
"It's a hard show and a dignified ahow which requires intelligence, not just luck," he said. "I took a written test where you get 10 minutes to answer 36 fill-in-the-blank questions. I passed the test and came back for a practice game, but I never heard from them."
So in December he decided to try out for "Tic Tac Dough." "I figured all these people were giving money away right up the road, so why not try out. I really didn't tell anybody but my wife, because I was afraid people might think it was silly or undignified."
After passing a written test, Donavan said he was interviewed by one of the producers "to see if I had a personality any better than a rock. I figured that since 'Tic Tac Dough' is a personality show, I wouldn't be effervescent enough to qualify. I thought I was smart enough, but I wouldn't dress up like a pizza."
After Donovan lost a practice game he thought he was through, but the next day the producers asked him to come back and appear on the show.
"They suggested I buy an almanac, so I spent an hour reading one," said Donovan.
He waited in the studio eight hours before he was called for the first game. Although he was "wiped out and extremely nervous," he won $1,100 plus a bonus of $3,500 in cash and prizes.
"I started getting greedy and stayed up till 2 a.m. that night playing practice games of Tic Tac Toe and reading the almanac," he admitted.
Although Donovan appeared cool and confident on the show, he said he used to pace the studio between tapings and couldn't eat because of nervousness.
"After a while I didn't see the dollar sign -- I just concentrated on the numbers as a score because I just couldn't comprehend winning that much money," he said. "And you don't have to be a genius by a long shot because most of the questions aren't that difficut."
Donovan attributed his success to reading the entire Los Angeles Times every day, reading news magazines, having a broad range of interests and a good education.
"If you went to Catholic schools in the mid-50s, you learned to spell," laughed Donovan, whose favorite category in the game was spelling, followed by sports, World War II and pop music. His least favorite categories were opera, art and classical music.
"St. John's was noted as a jock school and all I really cared about was being a big time athelete, which accounts for my interest in sports. And academics was just something you did at St. John's -- it was another form of competition."
The prizes are currently arriving at the condominium where Donovan and his wife Mary live. He said he will try to sell or give to charity many of the prizes, like a hot tub and a swimming pool, that he can't use.
"I'm rapidly becoming a federal income tax specialist," added Donovan, who said the value of his winnings are about five times his annual salary. He figures he'll get to keep about half of what he won, and plans to invest the rest after he buys a new motorcycle.
Donovan's family is understandably pleased -- and surprised -- by his success.
"Brian's the first one in our family who ever won anything like that," said his father, Ramey Donovan, a retired National Labor Relations Board judge. "I was impressed by the way he handled himself on TV."
But one of his friends found nothing unusual in Donovan's performance.
"Brian was always more or less a book of miscellaneous information," said Arthur (Skip) Endres, a former high school classmate and now a lawyer with the House Judiciary Committee. "It didn't surprise me at all that he did so well, considering the extent of the knowledge he had."
After weeks of being recognized and stopped in restaurants and on the street, Donovan finds that life is returning to normal.
"I was disappointed to lose, but I was sort of relieved in a way," he admitted. "It's quite a strain to be on five shows a day.... Anyway, this was only a passing fancy.
"But Dr. Joyce Brothers started on her way to fame by winning on 'The $64,000 Question.' Who knows where this will lead?"