As a contestant on NBC's Twenty-One in 1956, Stempel went public with the revelation that he was given the answers to questions.

By Lynette Rice
May 31, 2020 at 04:17 PM EDT
Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; Everett Collection

Herb Stempel, the infamous Queens man who exposed how the NBC game show Twenty-One was built on lies and deceit, has died. He was 93.

His April 7 death was confirmed to the New York Times by his former stepdaughter. His passing had not been made public.

In December of 1956, Stempel was a winning contestant on the top-rated game show when Producer Dan Enright urged him to answer a question incorrectly. Enright had set his sights on a handsome Columbia University professor by the name of Charles Van Doren as the new face of Twenty-One, so he wanted Stempel to take a dive. Despite knowing that Marty won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955, Stempel begrudgingly said On the Waterfront, instead, and lost his high-profile gig on NBC. While disappearing in obscurity, Doren went on to become America's darling and Twenty-One's most winning contestant.

But not for long. Unhappy that Enright didn't follow through with a promise of more TV work, Stempel and other former contestants went public with the revelation that all of them – Van Doren included  – were given the answers. Twenty-One was fixed. Despite denials by Enright and NBC, ratings dropped and Twenty-One was canceled in 1958. Van Doren's reputation was forever tarnished and he went into hiding.

Van Doren died last year in Connecticut at 93.

The dark chapter in NBC's history was chronicled in the 1992 documentary American Experience: The Quiz Show Scandal and the 1994 Oscar-nominated movie Quiz Show that starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Stempel.

"I knew that the answer was Marty, but Dan Enright specifically wanted me to miss that question," Stempel told American Experience. "This hurt me very deeply because this was one of my favorite pictures of all times and I could never forget this. 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. On the day I was due to lose to Van Doren, I sat home, watching television in the morning. Every few minutes, an announcement would break in on WNBC, saying, 'Is Herb Stempel going to win over $100,000 tonight?' And I said, 'No, he's not going to win $100,000. He's going to take a dive.''

After the game show scandal, Stempel became a high school teacher in New York and later worked for the city’s Department of Transportation, according to the NYT.

Related content: