The scion of a distinguished literary family, Charles Van Doren — who turns 83 on February 12 — was a professor of English at Columbia when he became a contestant on the popular quiz show “Twenty One” in 1957.
His youth, clean-cut looks, family background and spectacular winning streak made him an instant celebrity destined for 15 minutes of fame — and a lifetime of infamy.
After his eventual defeat, Van Doren returned to teaching but remained a TV star as a “cultural correspondent” for various NBC programs.
But in 1959 accusations of cheating arose. Though Van Doren initially denied them, he later admitted before a House Subcommittee that the show’s producers fed him answers in order to keep him on the show and boost ratings. Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from Columbia.
“The bigger they are, the further they have to fall.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Stoic, contrite, or simply bored?
In 1994 Robert Redford dramatized Van Doren’s story in the movie “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes.
After decades of silence on the issue, Van Doren recounted details of the scandal in the July 28, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. — CC