Herbert Stempel, at one time the most famous Army veteran in America, died at age 93 on April 7. His death was confirmed this weekend by his former stepdaughter, Bobra Fyne.
Back in 1956, Stempel was perhaps the biggest television star the young medium had ever seen as the reigning champion on the television quiz show "21." Imagine if "Jeopardy" was the No. 1 show in prime time when champions Ken Jennings or James Holzhauer made their legendary runs.
Americans were shocked when Stempel missed what seemed like an easy question about which movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1955. Stempel answered "On the Waterfront," even though he'd seen the actual winner, "Marty," in theaters three times.
He lost that night to Charles Van Doren, the handsome Columbia University instructor who went on to dominate "21" with a 14-week winning streak that earned him the cover of Time magazine and a lucrative contract as a "special cultural correspondent" for the "Today" show.
There was a problem, though. Every single match in both Stempel and Van Doren's streaks was rigged.
Stempel was born in the Bronx on Dec. 19, 1926, and showed both intelligence and an aptitude for quiz shows at an early age. He represented his elementary school, P.S. 6, on the radio quiz "Americana History" in the 1930s and remained undefeated for several weeks. At Bronx High School of Science, he played on the school's winning "Kid Wizards" trivia team.
After high school, Stempel enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the 311th Regiment of the 78th Infantry Division on the front lines in Europe at the end of World War II. He later attended counterintelligence school and remained in the Army until 1952.
After he completed his service, Stempel took a job at the U.S. Post Office and married his wife, Toby. When he applied for his shot on "21," Stempel was attending City College of New York on the GI Bill.
In the early days of television, producers looked at game shows as just another form of storytelling and saw no problem with scripting the matches to maximize their drama and entertainment value. That's the mentality Stempel encountered when he signed up to be a contestant on "21."
When producer Dan Enright started feeding him answers to make sure he won, Stempel went along with the charade, both because he could use the prize money and he convinced himself to buy into the producer's defense of the practice. When he was instructed to intentionally lose to Van Doren, Stempel was promised a $250 per week job as a question consultant on "21" and another television job as a panelist on competing game show "High Low."
When Enright failed to honor their deal, Stempel grew a conscience and told his story to both the media and the Manhattan district attorney. Television's first scandal blew up, and eventually Congress got involved and held televised hearings on the issue.
At first, Enright fought back and called Stempel "nuts" in the media, but eventually Albert Freedman, the "21" producer who had coached Van Doren, was indicted for perjury. A host of television game show producers came forward to admit their own shows were rigged, and eventually Van Doren came clean and stopped denying his role in fixing the show.
Van Doren was fired by the "Today" show and retreated to obscurity until Stempel agreed to participate in a 1992 PBS documentary "The Quiz Show Scandal." That program inspired Robert Redford's 1994 movie "Quiz Show," in which John Turturro played Stempel and Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren.
"Quiz Show" was a surprise hit and earned four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director for Redford, Best Adapted Screenplay for Paul Attanasio and Best Supporting Actor for Paul Scofield, who played Mark Van Doren's disappointed father.
Stempel wasn't pleased that Turturro portrayed him as such a whiny nerd, and the actor greeted Stempel at the movie premiere by saying, "If you punch me in the nose, I would understand why." Stempel, who obviously had learned a thing about show business over the years, was willing to give Turturro a pass, but his wife wasn't as forgiving. "She said, 'Step aside, Herb,'" he recalled. " 'I want to take a crack at him.'"
Television game shows were banished to daytime television for the next 50 years, even though they've begun to make a prime time comeback in the 21st century after "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" became a phenomenon. If you grew up in the '60s or '70s, there was still a sense from older people that going on a game show was a slightly seedy pursuit.
Reality shows have brought back the scripted versions of "real life" to entertainment, and the No. 1 competition reality show "The Bachelor" and all its spinoffs are at least as fake as any game show caught up in the 1950s scandals.
Stempel always freely acknowledged that he actively participated in the rigged game shows and might have kept his mouth shut if "21" producer Enright had kept to his end of their bargain.
That doesn't drain all the righteousness from his quest to bring down the system. He was a regular guy who wasn't blessed with TV good looks. Producers decided that no one would ever believe a man like him, but Stempel fought back and changed the system.
Every time you watch "Jeopardy" or "Wheel of Fortune" or "The Price Is Right," you're seeing something close to a legitimate competition, and that's all thanks to Herb.
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