Wednesday, 10 June 2020


My obituary of Herbert Stempel appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. In case you missed it in the paper paper, and don't have a digital subscription, this is the piece as I filed it...had I had more space, I would have discussed in greater detail the move in American TV from 'working class' programmes which is obvious, especially in sitcoms: Jackie Gleason's bus driver and William Bendix's factory worker gave way to the affluent suburban males like Robert Young, or those who served as pipe-smoking suit-wearing office-going husbands for the likes of Donna Reed. My mother never dressed like that when she served us dinner! But the difference between Stempel and Van Doren is part of that move to aspirational shows that would encourage viewers to buy the sponsors' products. And course it was also a perfect preview of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, with JFK as Van Doren and Stempel as Nixon. Finally, I didn't mention this, but I always wondered if the Israelis had not watched 21 before they put Adolf Eichmann on trial in his glass box.And of course I would ave written more about the dangers of believing 'reality' television is actually real.

Herb Stempel, who has died aged 93, was the central figure in the scandal of fixed television quiz shows that shocked 1950's America. The nation followed his prize-winning rise on '21' and ultimate defeat by Charles van Doren never suspecting all was scripted, like a wrestling match, to build up drama. Stempel returned to the public eye in a 1992 television documentary, leading to Robert Redford's 1994 movie Quiz Show, in which Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren and John Turturro was Stempel.

Quiz shows broke American television's domination by sitcoms, westerns and detective shows, and offered large cash prizes. When Stempel watched '21' he thought he might do well, and with good reason.

Stempel was born in New York. His father Solomon, a postman, and mother Mary were both Jewish immigrants. When Stempel was seven his father died; the family moved from Queens to a poorer neighbourhood in the Bronx, living on public assistance. A precocious student, he skipped a year in primary school, where he won a number of fountain pens on a radio quiz called 'Americana'. He gained a place at the highly-selective Bronx High School of Science, again excelling at quizzes on a team called the Kid Wizards. He enrolled at City College of New York but left to enlist in the Army, serving until 1952, including as an intelligence analyst. He returned to New York, took a job, like his father, in the post office, married his first wife, Tobie Mantell, and returned to CCNY on the GI Bill.

He wrote to 21, then sat a 3 ½ hour exam on which he claimed he scored the highest-ever result, 251 of 363 questions correct. But when Dick Enright, the show's co-producer along with its presenter Jack Barry, visited his house to offer him a spot, he asked if Stempel would like to make $25,000. Knowing what was implied, Stempel agreed. He was groomed to be 'the heel', the man the audience wanted to see lose. He was given a buzz cut, dressed in ill-fitting suits, even supplied with a cheap watch whose ticking was audible in the contestants' booths, all “to make me appear what you would now call a nerd.” He was coached with answers, but more importantly in his delivery, how to seem anguished, torn, worried. Viewers of modern quizzes like 'Millionaire' will recognise the symptoms.

Van Doren was the baby-face hero. The sponsors wanted a clean-cut, middle-class type who reflected the moves in sitcoms from 'urban' workers to affluent suburban consumers. He was part of New York's premier literary and academic family; the contrast between his light-suited cool and Stempel's intensity foreshadowed the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Stempel was promised that if he lost without fuss he would have a consulting job, appear on another quiz, 'Hi-Lo' and be booked on other network programmes, like Steve Allen's talk show. He agreed, but was galled by the question he was told to miss: 1955's Oscar-winning movie. Marty, the correct answer, was one of his favourites; ironically, the wrong answer he gave, On The Waterfront, is about a boxer who takes a dive in a crucial match.

None of the promises came true. Enright 'completely forgot I existed,' Stempel told the documentary. He reneged on $20,000 of Stempel's ostensible $69,000 winnings, and got him to sign a document saying he was never coached. Even worse, Van Doren's brother John would win $80,000 on High-Low. Stempel blew the whistle to a paper, but not until another quiz show, Dotto's, cheat sheet became public was he believed. Fixing a TV show broke no laws, but after the judge sealed New York's grand jury investigation, a Congressional probe found Van Doren, Enright and others guilty of perjury.

Stempel lost most of his winnings to an investment con. He taught, then worked as a legal investigator for New York's Transportation Department. He was a paid consultant on Redford's film, and played a cameo as a witness. He disliked Turturro's overly-whining portrayal of him, but told interviewers he understood. After all, as he had years before told Congress, “I was not a quiz my opinion, I was an actor”.

He died 7 April 2020 in a nursing home in Queens. His former step-daughter, Barbara Fyne, confirmed his death, which was not announced.

Herbert Milton Stempel b 19 December 1926 New York City
died 7 April April 2020 New York
m (1) Tobie Mantell died 1980 m (2) Ethel Feinblum, divorced
survived by son, Harvey from his first marriage

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