The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ returns, let’s remember one of the most iconic scenes in game show history

On a Friday night in November 1999, millions of Americans settled in to watch “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” ABC’s hit game show. They had no idea they were about to witness one of the most memorable lines in TV history.

John Carpenter, a 31-year-old Internal Revenue Service employee from Hamden, Conn., sat across from host Regis Philbin; on the previous night’s episode, Carpenter answered the first two trivia questions correctly, earning the chance to move on the next day. He had 13 more questions to try to win the coveted $1 million prize, which no contestant had been able to do yet on the months-old show.

As viewers know, not only did Carpenter become the first $1 million winner, but he pulled it off with such panache that two decades later, it’s hard to forget. On Wednesday, “Millionaire” returned to ABC prime-time for a special run of celebrity episodes to celebrate the franchise’s 20th anniversary. But there will never be a moment like Carpenter’s.

During his episode, Carpenter didn’t use any lifelines (phone-a-friend, ask the audience, narrow down to two choices) as he effortlessly climbed to the the million-dollar question: “Which of these U.S. presidents appeared on the television series ‘Laugh-In’?" The options were Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. As a breathless Philbin reminded him, if Carpenter got it wrong, he would drop to $32,000.

“Um,” Carpenter said, laughing. “I’d like to call my parents right now, use my lifeline.” Once he got his father on the phone, he delivered the iconic quote: “Hi, Dad. I don’t really need your help. I just wanted to let you know that I’m gonna win the million dollars.”

The audience members exploded in cheers and Philbin was in disbelief. “The U.S. president who appeared on 'Laugh-In’ was Richard Nixon, that’s my final answer," Carpenter concluded.

“Well, my gosh!” Philbin exclaimed, and turned to Carpenter’s wife in the audience. “What can I say except: Debbie, you’re going to Paris, and this is the final answer heard all around the world. He’s won a million dollars!”

Looking back, Carpenter calls the whole experience a “whirlwind." Though it was long before social media, the riveting clip has racked up millions of views on YouTube in the years since, and people frequently search for him on Twitter to message him about his famous win. How did he have the composure to say that on television?

“It was a spur of the moment thing. I’m a little bit of a smartass,” Carpenter joked in a recent phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “I look back on it and — well, thank God I was right.”

The immediate aftermath was a blur, he said: “It was very surreal, for all I knew it could have been a big practical joke or something.” He was whisked backstage and to many press appearances, and was warned to keep the news a secret until the episode aired on TV the following night. Somehow it leaked out anyway, but it didn’t matter — viewers were thrilled and it fueled even more interest in the series, leading to huge ratings for ABC.

He truly doesn’t know how he decided to say that line to his dad, but he’s amused at how much the scene makes the rounds on social media. (Twitter users have called it an “all-time TV moment”; “one of the most savage things I’ve ever seen"; “the TV equivalent of Babe Ruth calling his homerun.”) Even before Philbin read the question, Carpenter said, he knew he would use one of his lifelines so he didn’t seem like an “arrogant jerk” who didn’t need help. But when he realized he knew the answer was Nixon, he figured he would call his dad and tell him the news.

After taxes, Carpenter earned about $600,000 of the prize money. He still works at the IRS, and at the time of his win, people were shocked he planned to keep his job. “It’s a hell of a lot of money, but I live in New England,” he said. “If I lived somewhere else, maybe it would be different.” He lives a normal life: He plays on a trivia team at a local brewery, and one of his teammates didn’t know until recently that he was the “Millionaire” guy.

Even years later, however, he still vividly remembers surreal details of that wild time: The day after Carpenter’s episode aired, he was invited to appear on “Saturday Night Live" as part of the cold open. The skit starred Darrell Hammond playing a celebrity who was running for president and wanted Carpenter to be his running mate. And who was Hammond’s celebrity character, whom the writers thought would be the most hilarious example of a possible presidential contender? Donald Trump.

Read more:

Ken Jennings talks James Holzhauer ‘feud,’ Brad Rutter’s losses and that brutal Bloomberg tweet

We talked to Brad Rutter about that ‘Jeopardy!’ tournament to ask: What happened, Brad?

From ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ to ‘The Wire,’ 15 shows worth rewatching right now