NEW YORK — In the isolation booth, Herb Stempel bit his lip to show tension. He dabbed sweat from his brow and sighed into the microphone. And as 50 million viewers hung in suspense, he seemed to agonize over the question in his last appearance on the rigged NBC quiz show “Twenty-One.”
What movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955?
It was Dec. 5, 1956, and Mr. Stempel, a City College student from Queens, was in his eighth week on the show, posing as a nerdy know-it-all. He had won $49,500. But his new rival was Charles Van Doren, a golden-boy Columbia University instructor, and the uninspiring Mr. Stempel was scripted to take a dive.
“On the Waterfront,” he said, knowing the answer was “Marty,” one of his favorites.
While Van Doren went on to become the most celebrated (and, later, vilified) contestant of the quiz-show era, on the cover of Time magazine and inundated with fan mail and contract offers, Mr. Stempel might have become a forgotten man. Instead, he helped blow the cover off one of the major scandals of the age, telling the news media, prosecutors, and congressional investigators that it was all a hoax.
Mr. Stempel, who became a high school social studies teacher in New York and later worked for the city’s Department of Transportation, died April 7. He was 93. His death, which was not publicly announced, was confirmed by a former stepdaughter, Bobra Fyne.
The disgraced Van Doren retreated from public life for decades. Mr. Stempel, in contrast, assisted in the production of Robert Redford’s Oscar-nominated 1994 movie, “Quiz Show,” which starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Mr. Stempel, and in a 1992 documentary for the PBS series “American Experience.”
In the documentary, he told how contestants were given answers in advance and coached on how to act and even what to wear. “The reason I had been asked to put on this old, ill-fitting suit and get this Marine-type haircut,” he said, “was to make me appear as what you would call today a nerd, a square.”
Mr. Stempel was a paid consultant on the Redford film and made a cameo appearance as another contestant talking to an investigator. In the wake of renewed public interest in the quiz-show scandal, he gave lectures and made radio and television appearances, including one on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” taped in the same NBC studio “Twenty-One” had used for live broadcasts.
Herbert Milton Stempel was born in the Bronx on Dec. 19, 1926, a son of Solomon and Mary Stempel.
Mr. Stempel, who was later dubbed a ‘‘high-strung Human Univac’’ after the 1950s supercomputer, displayed an uncanny intelligence and viselike memory from his earliest years. Raised by a widowed mother during the Great Depression, he spent long hours at New York City libraries and showed particular aptitude for geography and history. As a boy, he participated in radio quiz shows.
‘‘When I was a kid,’’ he later joked, ‘‘someone said, ‘If you ask Herb who built the great pyramids, he’ll say, ‘‘Do you mean day shift or night shift?’’ ’ ”
By age 29, he was an Army veteran attending the City College of New York on the G.I. Bill and struggling to support his wife and toddler son. He thought he found a solution to his financial strains when, on Sept. 12, 1956, he watched the premiere episode of the NBC game show ‘‘Twenty-One.’’
He quickly sent off a note introducing himself to the show’s producers. ‘‘I have thousands of odd and obscure facts,’’ he wrote, ‘‘and many facets of general information at my fingertips.’’
Producer Dan Enright and host Jack Barry agreed to test Mr. Stempel’s knowledge and found that he scored better than any previous applicant. Enright soon made Mr. Stempel a proposition: ‘‘How would you like to win $25,000?’’
The offer, however, hinged on Mr. Stempel’s willingness to obey instructions about how the game could be conducted.
‘‘I had been a poor boy all my life and I was sort of overjoyed,’’ he would later tell a congressional panel investigating game shows in 1959, ‘‘and I took it for granted this was the way things were run on these programs.’’
Inspired by the card game blackjack, ‘‘Twenty-One’’ featured two contestants who sat in isolation booths and were required to answer questions of increasing difficulty in an effort to win 21 points. The debut episode was a ratings dud, and sponsors demanded rapid improvement.
The producers decided to ramp up drama by treating the contestants as characters and turning their interactions into a tightly choreographed soap opera. The result was a television tour de force that battled radio programs, newspapers, and magazines for commercial and cultural influence at the dawn of the TV age.
‘‘I was assigned to play the role of a nerd, a human computer,’’ Mr. Stempel told the Washington Post in 1994.
Weekly rehearsals ensued. On the day before each show, he was given the questions and answers and coached on lip-biting, brow-mopping, stammering, sighing, and other theatrical gestures. “Remembering the questions was quite easy,” he told investigators, “but the actual stage directions were the most difficult thing, because everything had to be done exactly.”
‘‘He was the antithesis of the image he presented on the air,’’ said Steve Beverly, a professor of broadcast journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and an authority on game show history. Beverly said Mr. Stempel’s on-air personality was ‘‘almost a cartoon character.’’
Mr. Stempel’s dominant — and preordained — run on the show lasted from Oct. 17 to Dec. 5, 1956. He was dethroned by Van Doren, the telegenic and suave son of an intellectually prominent family who at the time was a novice English instructor at Columbia University.
‘‘Once I saw him,’’ Mr. Stempel told the Los Angeles Times decades later, ‘‘I knew my days on the show were numbered. He was tall, thin, and WASPY, and I was this Bronx Jewish kid. It was as simple as that.’’
In exchange for losing to Van Doren, who participated in the deception, and for signing a false statement that he had not been coached, Mr. Stempel was promised more television work by Enright. But no jobs materialized. Like several other disgruntled former contestants, Mr. Stempel went public with accusations that quiz shows were fixed.
There were denials by networks and producers, but the ratings plummeted. “Twenty-One” was killed in 1958, and the shows’ heyday faded.
There were no criminal laws against rigging quiz shows then, but some participants lied to grand juries and were convicted of obstruction of justice or perjury. Van Doren pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received a suspended sentence. Whistle-blowers were not charged.
At a 1959 congressional hearing where an episode of “Twenty-One” featuring Mr. Stempel was viewed, he said he had not returned the money he took from the show because he felt he had earned it. “Actually,” he said, “may I say that I was not a quiz contestant in this program, in my opinion. I was an actor, as you probably have noticed by watching the kinescope.”
‘‘I wouldn’t call him a saint or a sinner,’’ TV historian Wesley Hyatt said of Mr. Stempel. ‘‘More than anything else, he was just a human being who was caught in a situation that was unprecedented. He did some wise things, and he did some not-so-wise things.’’
Mr. Stempel’s first wife, the former Tobie Mantell, died in 1980, and his marriage to Ethel Feinblum ended in divorce. Mr. Stempel had a son from his first marriage, Harvey, who he leaves. Additional information on survivors was not immediately available.
After the scandal, Mr. Stempel told the Post in 1994, he lost his game show winnings to a Florida con artist running an off-track-betting scheme. He bounced around jobs and eventually became a researcher in the New York City transportation department.
Unlike Van Doren, who found work at Encyclopaedia Britannica and avoided the public spotlight before his death in 2019, Mr. Stempel was a garrulous presence in documentaries about the quiz show era.
In a 2004 interview for the Archive of American Television, Mr. Stempel recalled that over the previous decade, whenever the movie “Quiz Show” was shown on TV, his telephone rang and an unidentified caller asked, “What picture won the Academy Award for 1955?”
Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary.