Herb Stempel, the Queens-born contestant who played a role in exposing American game shows as rigged in the 1950s, died April 7 at the age of 93. His stepdaughter Bobra Fyne confirmed his death to Deadline on Sunday. A spiritual predecessor to Ken Jennings, Stempel was an avid quiz show player since childhood. In 1956, he was a successful contestant on the show Twenty-One, though he eventually lost to opponent Charles Van Doren. In 1957, Stempel told New York Journal-American reporter Jack O’Brian the truth: He had been coached to give audiences a more exciting face-off and paid by Twenty-One producer Dan Enright to throw his final match against Van Doren, who the show (correctly) felt would be more popular with the audience.
Unable to corroborate his story, O’Brian couldn’t print Stempel’s account at the time. After another game show, Dotto, was revealed to be fixing matches in 1958, however, a New York grand jury convened, then a congressional investigation. Stempel and other former contestants testified about game show rigging, leading Congress eventually to ban the fixing of game shows in 1960 via an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934. After his brief bout of TV fame, Stempel returned to New York, where he taught high school social studies and worked for the Department of Transportation.
In the 1994 film Quiz Show, based on Richard Goodwin’s 1988 book Remember America: A Voice From the Sixties, John Turturro plays Stempel to Ralph Fiennes’s Charles Van Doren. The historical drama, directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio, received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, while Turturro himself received a Golden Globe nomination for the role.