Richard Goodwin published his book Remembering America in 1988, and its compelling chapter on quiz show fraud in the 1950s drew great interest from the entertainment industry. Both Richard Dreyfuss and partner Judith James suggested to director Barry Levinson that he and his Baltimore Pictures partner Mark Johnson consider developing the story as a feature project.
Paul Attanasio wrote a feature length script based on Goodwin's chapter and the events surrounding the show "Twenty-One." Baltimore gave the script to Robert Redford, who had starred in Levinson's film "The Natural" and had already directed three acclaimed films including the Academy Award-winning "Ordinary People." As an actor whose career had begun in New York during the early 1960s, Redford had a personal connection to the infancy of television and the topic instantly sparked his interest.
When one studio chose not to move forward into production, Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg stepped forward and made an aggressive bid for both Redford's services and Attanasio's compelling script.
Principal photography began in Manhattan on May 27, 1993, the result of Redford's wish to recapture the essence and authenticity of New York City as he had first seen it in the late 1950s.
"When I first came to New York at the age of 19 to study art and eventually acting, I thought that the seat of power was Rockefeller Center," recalls Redford. "I spent a lot of time there, watching skaters on the ice rink and looking up at the buildings. In those days, 'The Today Show' was on the street level, and there was a big window where you could watch the host, Dave Garroway. It was a really clever idea on the part of NBC because the audience could stand at the window and watch the show, and I stood there along with everybody else, waving my arms around to make sure if somebody saw me back home in California that they would know I was OK. That's a very vivid memory for me, and duplicating it had almost a Pirandello quality to it."
It was not only Redford's familiarity with Rockefeller Center that drew him to the script for "Quiz Show," but his own experiences with television productions of the 1950s and '60s. One little known fact is that Redford himself was a quiz show contestant in 1959 -- on a show called "Play Your Hunch," featuring Merv Griffin as its host. (He went on to create such legendary game shows as "Jeopardy" and "Wheel of Fortune.")
A struggling actor whose young wife was four months pregnant, Redford was eager to sign up when he learned that "Play Your Hunch" was paying its contestants $75.00. "An enormous sum to someone living on $50 a week," Redford says. In his audition, he was asked his occupation, but since "actor" was not an appropriate response for a contestant, he answered, "Artist." Unfortunately, he neglected to ask what he would be doing and on the day of the show, he was asked to stand behind a screen, one of three which revealed the silhouettes of the participants. The contestants out front were asked to identify which of three screens, X, Y or Z, concealed the twin brother of someone they could see in the foreground.
"All I could think about was the $75.00 because it was completely humiliating," recalls Redford. "All I am is a silhouette and I'm not even this guy's twin brother! So at the end, they present me with a fishing rod from Abercrombie & Fitch, but I tell them that I already have a fishing rod... where's the $75.00? They answer, 'That's it! It's worth $75.00.' And that was my first experience in television and quiz shows."
Fortunately, it was not to be the last because the talented actor went on to appear in a long list of TV productions (frequently as the villain) including Playhouse 90's "in the Presence of Mine Enemies" (1960); Hallmark Hall of Fame's "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" (1960); and "The Iceman Cometh," a Play of the Week. By 1964, he had made guest appearances on 28 television shows.
Redford easily recalls the celebrity that surrounded quiz show contestant Charles Van Doren. "I remember that the idea which so captivated the media about Van Doren was that he represented academic and cultural excellence," says Redford. "Those were the days when you would very often see academic achievers on the covers of magazines instead of people from show business or sports."
Time magazine wrote: "Just by being himself, he (Van Doren) has enabled a giveaway show, the crassest of lowbrow entertainment, to whip up a doting mass audience for a new kind of TV idol, of all things, an egghead."
Redford continues, "Although a lot of attention was paid to Van Doren's contribution to promoting education, it's important to remember that it was the producers who had control of the situation... the merchants, not the academics. They manipulated the academic under the guise of improving education but it was simply to create profit for television."
The casting of "Quiz Show" would present Redford and the production team with a unique challenge in that all three leading actors would be portraying individuals who are still living. John Turturro, a talented actor who also made his directing debut with "Mac," had met Redford previously as a participant in events at the Sundance Institute and he was the immediate first choice to play contestant Herbie Stempel, who is now in his early 60s.
"Playing a living person can be really helpful because you have a source there," recalls Turturro of his first dinner with the real-life Stempel and his wife. "I gained about 22 pounds for the role, took on his haircut, his tattoo, and a bad tooth that he hadn't taken care of at that time. But the trick is not doing a mimic of the character, but finding the overall qualities instead."
Rob Morrow, star of television's "Northern Exposure," was cast as Richard N. Goodwin whose personal memoirs, Remembering America, not only recount his quiz show experience, but also reflect on his years as a speech writer and political advisor for John and Robert Kennedy as well as Lyndon Johnson. Morrow spent a weekend with Goodwin and his wife, writer Doris Kearns, at their home in Massachusetts prior to starting the film, and came away with several personal characteristics including the ever-present cigar.
"He comes from a time when there was a general sense of hope that government could change the world for the better," says Morrow. "He was at most of the important events of the 1960s and when he graduated from Harvard Law School, had the kind of idealism that prevented him from taking offers from the big Wall Street firms."
The casting for the role of Charles Van Doren, took an interesting turn when Redford learned about a 30-year-old British actor named Ralph Fiennes who was co-starring in Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Although Spielberg's film was underway in Poland, Fiennes arranged to meet Redford in New York one weekend to discuss the pivotal role of Van Doren. And although Fiennes was portraying a loathsome Nazi captain in "Schindler's List," he possessed the charismatic qualities that would be integral to the part of Van Doren. Unlike his two colleagues, Fiennes would not have the opportunity to meet the reclusive Van Doren, who has declined public comment on the quiz show scandals since 1959. What he could do, however, was study kinescopes of Van Doren's numerous appearances on "Twenty-One."
"What I observed from watching the old shows," explains Fiennes, "is that Charlie was a very gifted actor. He had a quality of being slightly diffident yet charming, and adapted to the pretense of not knowing the answers, and then finding them by thinking aloud."
An Academy Award winner as best actor for his role in the 1966 film "A Man For All Seasons," Paul Scofield was cast as Columbia professor and poet Mark Van Doren, Charles' father. A native of England who is still very active in theater, Scofield admits to being more choosy when it comes to accepting film roles. In recent years, he has appeared in Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" and Franco Zefferelli's "Hamlet."
David Paymer, nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar in "Mr. Saturday Night," was cast as Dan Enright, the shrewdly ambitious producer of "Twenty-One." "Enright didn't see himself as the villain," says Paymer. "He was a producer and his purpose was to entertain the audience and create the most dramatic show possible. And he soon found out the best way to do that was to engage in some form of control, which is a euphemism for rigging."
Enright's longtime partner Jack Barry, the energetic host of "Twenty-One," is played by Christopher McDonald, who continually amused the cast and crew with his oily but earnest portrayal of a game show host who ran the game, but was also a pitch man for Geritol products. "I think Jack was both a showman in his heart and a frustrated actor," reflects McDonald.
Redford had a bit of fun when they cast director Martin Scorsese as the Geritol sponsor and director Barry Levinson as Dave Garroway, host of NBC's "Today Show." Dressed in the customary jacket and bow-tie, Levinson had the unenviable task of acting opposite a nervous chimpanzee, portraying Garroway's famous sidekick, J. Fred Muggs. Because there were no "movie chimps" available for the scene at Rockefeller Center, the production was obliged to hire a "birthday party" chimp who was rather unnerved by the lights and cameras.
"Filming in New York's great because there's such vitality here," says Rob Morrow, a native of the city. "In movie terms, it's as if we're working on one giant back lot."
Teaming up with production designer Jon Hutman, who had recently recreated the small town simplicity of rural Montana for his film "A River Runs Through It," Redford next faced the challenge of finding neighborhoods devoid of such distracting sights as modern skyscrapers and Japanese cars.
Working with a talented team of location scouts, Hutman covered almost every block in every New York City borough until he identified a selection of choices for Redford to review. From a former discotheque (The Red Zone) which was transformed into NBC Studios circa 1958, to the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel which still maintains the old-fashioned charm of the '50s -- and the National Arts Club, where the same Gramercy Park architecture has existed since the early 1900s, Hutman, art director Tim Galvin and set decorator Samara Schaffer, designed sets, supervised the building of new spaces from old elements, disguised doorways, re-furnished rooms, and blocked off streets to recreate a simpler time -- a Manhattan which bustled with activity and the promise of good things to come.
Among the key set locations were several blocks in Astoria, Queens, which served as home to contestant Herbie Stempel; a beautiful country home and grounds in Ossining, New York which substituted for the Van Doren family home in Cornwall, Connecticut; Fordham University, substituting for Columbia; and the magnificent New York Historical Society, which accommodated 10 days of filming for the climactic Congressional hearings, which, in the story, occur in Washington, D.C.
Also of note is Murdoch Hall, a 1930s Deco building across the river in Jersey City, which was home to the film's NBC Executive Offices that housed the network President as well as Barry-Enright Productions. Built in the 1930s as a WPA project, Murdoch Hall once served as a county seat, but in later years was converted into a nurses' dormitory which served the adjacent medical center, and now houses many social service programs for the community. The enormous white staircase, framed by etched glass and chrome railings, as well as the rust-colored marble pillars, were already standing, but paint, polish and furnishings transformed the site into an impressive executive domain.
But perhaps the best piece of visual nostalgia in the film is the return to Rockefeller Center, home to NBC's "Today Show" since the early 1950s. Filming on Saturdays, which allowed the crew the flexibility of working without the problems of parking and crowds, the production transformed the contemporary Banco del Ponce, at 49th and Rockefeller Plaza into the original "Today Show" set of the 1950s, replete with old-fashioned TV cameras and props.
In selecting his key production personnel, Redford had the good fortune to team with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who recently finished two projects: James Brooks' "I'll Do Anything" and Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence."
Ballhaus says, "There were three different color schemes for this movie. The world of the networks -- NBC was the cool world of grays. The world of the Van Dorens was warm and intellectual -- the yellows of a summer picnic. And the world of Herbie Stempel was bolder, bright greens and reds that you would see in a brownstone in Queens."
BACKGROUND ON NBC's "TWENTY-ONE"
Conceived and created by producer Dan Enright, "Twenty-One" was designed around two contestants, competing against each other in dual isolation booths. The object was to get 21 points by correctly answering questions valued in difficulty from one to eleven points. The general category was stated by the emcee, and the contestant chose the number of points he wished to attempt; if he answered a 10 point question and then an eleven point question correctly, he would have the necessary 21 points. Closed away in the booths, neither contestant could hear the questions and answers of the other.
In actuality (but altered for dramatic purposes), reigning champion Herbie Stempel first met Charles Van Doren on November 28, 1956, and after three weeks of tie games, Van Doren ousted him. During the long run of Charles Van Doren, the show was moved from Wednesday nights to Monday nights opposite "I Love Lucy." Although it never toppled "Lucy," by March, it had a very respectable 34.7 Trendex rating, and was the first NBC effort to show any sort of promise against the popular redhead.
On March 11, 1957, a bright female attorney named Vivienne Nearing defeated Van Doren, the revered quiz wiz. NBC bought all the assets of Barry Enright Productions just two months later, which include other programs besides "Twenty-One," for $2 million.
In 1959, a grand jury investigation of quiz show fraud was completed in New York City, but its findings were sealed by Judge Mitchell Schweitzer. That puzzled Richard Goodwin, who began his own investigation for the Congressional Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. When the hearings convened on October 6, 1959, Herbie Stempel was its first witness. Van Doren was ordered by NBC to send a telegram to the subcommittee requesting that they clear the cloud of suspicion around him. They also told him that his "Today Show" contract would be suspended if he did not attempt to testify in Washington, D.C. Charles Van Doren disappeared for one week, at which time he battled with his conscience and then returned to tell the truth to his parents and his attorney. He was the first witness to testify when the hearings reconvened in early November.
Ralph Fiennes' memorable speech to Congress in "Quiz Show" resonates with the sense of anguish Charles Van Doren undoubtedly felt as he publicly endured the disgrace of his dishonesty:
"I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last year. The past doesn't change for anyone. But at least I can learn from the past . I've learned a lot about life. I've leamed a lot about myself, and about the responsibilities any man has to his fellow men. I've learned a lot about good and evil -- they're not always what they appear to be. I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. I have deceived my friends, and had millions of them. In a sense, I was like the child who refuses to admit a fact in the hope that it will go away. Of course, it did not go away. I was scared, scared to death. I had no solid position, no basis to stand on for myself. There was one way out, and that was simply to tell the truth. It may sound trite to you, but I found myself again after a number of years. I've been acting a role for 10 to 15 years, maybe all my life, of thinking I've done more, accomplished more, produced more than I have. I've had all the breaks. I've stood on the shoulders of life, and I've never gotten down into the dirt to build, to erect a foundation of my own. I've flown too high on borrowed wings. Everything came too easily. That is why I am here today."