Herb Stempel, Whistleblower Who Inspired Robert Redford Film ‘Quiz Show,’ Dies at 93

Stempel, who was played by John Turturro, exposed how “Twenty-One” was rigged for ratings

Last Updated: May 31, 2020 @ 3:15 PM

Herb Stempel, the federal whistleblower who exposed how the NBC game show “Twenty-One” was manipulated for ratings, died last month at the age of 93. His death was confirmed this weekend by Stempel’s stepdaughter to The New York Times.

Stempel’s story was told in the Robert Redford film “Quiz Show,” which starred John Turturro as Stempel and earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Stempel, an Army veteran attending school on the G.I. Bill, applied to be on “Twenty-One” and was handpicked by producer Dan Enright to be the star of the show, portrayed as an American underdog making thousands for his family.

Stempel was given the answers to questions in advance, winning thousands during his run on the show.

But as ratings began to level off, Enright turned his attention to Columbia professor Charles Van Doren, seeing him as a new star to keep viewers interested. Herb Stempel was convinced to intentionally miss the final question and allow Van Doren to win after Enright promised that he would find him a slot on a panel show. Not only was that promised never honored, but Stempel said he felt personally humiliated when the question he was forced to throw was to identify the winner of the 1955 Best Picture Oscar.

“I knew that the answer was ‘Marty,’ but Dan Enright specifically wanted me to miss that question. This hurt me very deeply because this was one of my favorite pictures of all times and I could never forget this,” Stempel said in a 1992 interview with PBS’ “American Experience.” “A few seconds before that, as I was trying to come up with the answer, I could have changed my mind. I could have said, ‘The answer is “Marty.” instead of “On the Waterfront.” I would have won. There would have been no Charles Van Doren, no famous celebrity. Charles Van Doren would have gone back to teaching college and my whole life would have been changed.”

After attempting to expose “Twenty-One” through the press, Herb Stempel went to the authorities. “Twenty-One” became the basis of a New York State investigation that questioned the show’s producers, including Enright, who denied Stempel’s claims and dismissed him as jealous of Van Doren’s success. When the grand jury’s findings were sealed by a judge’s order, the investigation escalated to the federal level.

In February 1957, Stempel testified before Congress about his offer to throw the game to Van Doren, but it wasn’t until another contestant came forward with notes he took of questions provided to him by producers that Van Doren and the “Twenty-One” producers finally confessed. The scandal resulted in changes to the Federal Communications Act outlawing rigging of game shows.

Herb Stempel would not discuss “Twenty-One” for another 35 years, until he was approached by PBS for an interview on “American Experience.” While Stempel said he didn’t like his portrayal by Turturro on “Quiz Show,” he made multiple media and public appearances following the show’s release, including an appearance on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in the very same NBC studio where “Twenty-One” was recorded.

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