Charles Van Doren, the telegenic Ivy League scholar whose winning run as a 1950s game show contestant made him a central figure in an answer-rigging scandal that raised enduring questions about deception in popular entertainment, died April 9 at a retirement community in Canaan, Conn. He was 93.
His son, John Van Doren, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.
Dr. Van Doren became a full-fledged television celebrity at a time when the networks dominated the airwaves and commanded the viewership of tens of millions of Americans. He came to embody the illusion, which at the time seemed reality, that quiz show contestants justly earned the fame and fortune that transformed them from ordinary people into cultural idols.
To later generations, his story was known in large part through director Robert Redford’s 1994 movie “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes as the handsome college professor who dazzled audiences with his erudition and then disappointed them with the revelation that it had all been a ruse.
“I have deceived my friends,” he said at the time, “and I had millions of them.”
Dr. Van Doren was an unlikely candidate for TV stardom. He was an author, historian and Columbia University educator whose father was a renowned scholar and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. His mother and uncle also made distinguished contributions to American letters. Dr. Van Doren was a polymath, with a master’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate in English.
In 1955, he was making $4,400 a year as an English instructor at Columbia. He did not even own a television set. By chance, he met at a party Albert Freedman, a TV producer who saw in the tall, lanky and urbane academic the potential for stardom — and high earnings as a quiz show participant.
Years later, in the New Yorker magazine, Dr. Van Doren wrote an account of the conversations that led to his appearances on the NBC game show “Twenty One.”
“They want me to find a contestant who can beat Herb Stempel,” Freedman said, referring to the then-champion, who was portrayed as a walking library from the Bronx with a tight haircut and bad suit.
When they met again, Freedman laid out the plan.
“I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it,” he said. “I swear to you, no one will ever know.”
The first matchup was on Nov. 28, 1956. It pitted two fundamentally different New Yorkers against each other: Dr. Van Doren, cast as the charming, engaging WASP, and Stempel, who was Jewish and a student at the City College of New York. They battled to three draws, forcing the decisive finale.
The NBC show, inspired by the card game blackjack, featured two contestants in isolation booths who were required to answer questions of increasing difficulty in an effort to win 21 points.
The questions could be devilish, and Dr. Van Doren practiced a carefully manufactured act as he contemplated them.
“Name the second, third, fourth and fifth wives of Henry the Eighth, and describe their fates,” host Jack Barry said during the episode in which Dr. Van Doren finally bested Stempel.
“Oh, my goodness,” replied Dr. Van Doren, eliciting a laugh from the audience. “You want me to name the second, third, fourth, fifth wives — and what happened to all of them?”
“That’s right,” Barry replied.
“Well, I’ll have to think a minute,” Dr. Van Doren said.
More laughter. Dr. Van Doren worked his way through the answers. He gazed into space, gestured with his hands, stammered a bit, scratched an eyebrow, put a hand to his mouth, bit his lower lip, murmured or asked himself questions aloud.
On occasion, he seemed to delve into his mind’s recesses before returning with a snap of his fingers and a needed fact. When Dr. Van Doren finally produced the last piece of needed information — Catherine Howard had been beheaded — he smiled broadly, uncoiled in relief and mopped his brow to excited cheers.
On occasion, Dr. Van Doren deliberately gave incorrect answers, aiding the illusion of truthfulness.
On Dec. 5, 1956, he unseated Stempel and embarked on a reign that lasted until the following March. He won a then-staggering total of $129,000 before being dethroned by Vivienne Nearing, a New York lawyer. (Asked to name the kings of six countries, Dr. Van Doren missed the Belgian monarch.)
“Twenty One” was not conceived as a rigged show, but veteran producer Daniel Enright and his staff had made it one to keep it on the air. (A sponsor was said to have called Enright after its lackluster premiere to demand improvements: “Do whatever you have to do, and you know what I’m talking about,” he said.)
They cast “real people as protagonists in a continuing serial,” said Ron Simon, curator of radio and television at the Paley Center for Media in New York. “The question is: How difficult is it for regular people to continue a narrative without a script?”
By the late 1950s, suspicions had been aroused about game show cheating and Congress convened hearings. “Twenty One” was ensnared after former contestant James Snodgrass supplied incontrovertible evidence of the fixing — registered letters that were mailed before a given episode was recorded and that contained the questions to be asked and their correct answers.
Dr. Van Doren, who had previously denied involvement in cheating on “Twenty One,” confessed before the congressional committee in 1959. He described the difficulty he had extricating himself from his celebrity and wealth. NBC had awarded him a three-year, $150,000 consulting contract that included regular appearances on the “Today” show, where he was allowed to speak about 17th-century poetry or any other topic he wished.
“I was almost able to convince myself that it did not matter what I was doing because it was having such a good effect on the national attitude to teachers, education, and the intellectual life,” Dr. Van Doren said.
Columbia, where he had recently been made a professor, accepted his resignation. He was fired by NBC. In 1962, in a New York courtroom, Dr. Van Doren was one of several associates of “Twenty One” and other shows who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor perjury in connection with earlier grand jury testimony denying cheating. He received a suspended sentence.
Dr. Van Doren was never entirely forthcoming about why he initially agreed to be on a rigged show.
“I’ve been acting a role for 10 or 15 years, maybe all my life,” he said after his involvement in the scandal emerged. “It’s a role of thinking that I’ve done far more than I’ve done, accomplished more than I’ve accomplished, produced more than I’ve produced. It has, in a way, something to do with my family, I suppose. I don’t mean just my father, there are other people in my family. But I’ve been running.”
Charles Lincoln Van Doren was born on Feb. 12, 1926, in New York, the son of Mark Van Doren and the former Dorothy Graffe, a novelist and editor. His uncle Carl Van Doren won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Benjamin Franklin.
Charles Van Doren’s childhood was largely spent in a Manhattan rowhouse and at the family home in the Connecticut countryside, both frequented by prominent intellectuals.
As a young man, he developed wide-ranging interests that made him an ideal contestant for “Twenty One.” He attended Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art, approaching concert-level talent as a clarinetist. At 16, he undertook the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis. He was an aviation cadet during World War II, a period in which he made a profitable study of poker.
He received his advanced degrees from Columbia, researched poetry while on a fellowship at the University of Cambridge in England and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He hitchhiked across Europe, ran out of money and headed back to New York to start a career as an English instructor at Columbia, where he shared an office with his well-known father.
After the quiz show scandal, Dr. Van Doren joined the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s editorial staff, becoming a vice president. He wrote or co-wrote several fiction and nonfiction books. And he returned to education, teaching English at the University of Connecticut’s Torrington campus not far from his home in Cornwall.
Survivors include his wife since 1957, the former Geraldine Bernstein, of Canaan; two children, John Van Doren and Elizabeth Van Doren, both of New York City; and three grandchildren.
For decades, Dr. Van Doren declined to discuss “Twenty One” publicly. In his New Yorker essay, he recounted that Julian Krainin, a producer of Redford’s “Quiz Show,” said the director wanted to pay him $100,000 to consult on the film.
“Our family had a meeting, sitting around our kitchen table,” Dr. Van Doren wrote. “John, our son, was for my taking the money. ‘They’re going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do,’ he said. ‘Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t you?’ ”
Dr. Van Doren agreed with his son; his daughter did not. Neither did his wife, who urged him: “Please don’t be a fool.”
The next day, Dr. Van Doren decided to forgo involvement and the money.
“The contract lay on the table in the kitchen,” he wrote. “I picked it up and tore it into pieces. Just at that moment, the phone rang. Gerry answered. ‘It’s him,’ she said, and handed me the phone. After I’d told Krainin our decision, I hugged Gerry, held on to her for a long time.”