ROBERT REDFORD FEATURE
In Quiz Show, ROBERT REDFORD exposes the television scandal that rocked 1950s America.
Anwar Brett gives him a starter
n the l950s. America was just enjoying a
comfortable period of social. economic
and political stability when it was revealed
that the nation’s most watched television
quiz show had rigged the winning run of its
most charismatic contestant in order to boost its ratings. [I may not sound much in these cynical times. but the bond of trust between broadcasters and public was irrevocably broken. never to be fully restored. In Quiz Show. the latest film directed by Robert Redford. the story is faithfully re-created.
A struggling actor at the time. Redford watched the performances ofCharles Van Doren on the top-rated Twenty One just as everyone else did. On the show contestants in sound-proof booths answered questions of varying difficulty. aiming to reach a score of 2] before their opponent. Broadcast at the same time as I Love Lucy. it experienced a massive boost in its ratings. much to the delight of network executives and sponsors. But while the scandal rocked the nation and marked a decline in trust between the people and the institutions they had taken to be above reproach. Quiz Show is not an attack on television so much as greed.
‘Television itself isn’t evil.‘ Redford insists. ‘lf that was the case. you would have to say that radio. film and anything that transmits images to the public is evil. I think it’s powerful and dangerous. it has fallen short of its potential. but I don’t think it’s evil. There’s always a threat to
the issue of trust where you have a merchant mentality in a controlling position. Trust implies morality. and money and profit and morality have little to do with each other.
Where Charles Van Doren was the golden boy groomed by the television network for instant stardom on Twenty ()m’. Herb Stempel was to be the fall guy. A nervy. eccentric New Yorker with a phenomenal memory for trivia. he was the champion who was humiliated by a defeat engineered by the show‘s producers. Played by John 'l‘urturro. the role was one of two he was
offered by Redford. the other being that of
Senate investigator Richard Goodwin. But the biggest surprise came with the casting of Van Doren himself. when Redford offered it to British actor Ralph Fiennes. last seen in Sc/u'rul/cr 's List.
‘There’s always a threat to the issue of trust where money’s involved. Trust implies morality, and profit
and morality have little to do with each other.’
When the scandal broke at the time. the network bosses and advertisers denied any culpability. the producers conveniently took the fall and Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren were disgraced by the revelations. Unsurprisingly. the TV industry carried on regardless. ‘Nothing really changed.‘ sighs Redford. ‘except people no longer believed in television the way they had before. There had been 36 quiz shows on each week and they all just disappeared because they wanted to get as far away as possible from the lire. They came back years later. but in the afternoons when they didn‘t command such attention. Everybody
Popping the question
quickly forgot about it because there was no law broken. nobody Went to jail. The only thing people remember is Charles Van Doren because he was so humiliated in public and he was such a big star. It would be like finding out that Elvis Presley really didn’t sing on his records.’
While Redford has a track record for directing films with a social conscience, a more immediate and personal reason drew him to this particular subject. ‘I can see how seductive Van Doren’s dilemma could be.’ he explains. ‘When I was twenty years old, I was married, my wife was just about to have our first child. and we were living on the money that she earned from working in a bank while l was finishing acting school. She made $55 a week. and that’s what we lived on in 1959. I knew that it was just a question of time before I would have to quit school and get a job. Then someone told me they were auditioning for a quiz show downtown. I asked if it paid anything and they told me $75 — almost two weeks’ money.
"l‘hey chose me to appear on the show and asked what my occupation was. I said “I’m an actor", which I thought was appropriate. They told me that if they had an actor on it would violate some rule or other. So I said I’d been a labourer and an artist. They said artist was good. I had a moral choice at that moment. but at that time it was completely insignificant because no one knew who I was. It was for $75 after all —I needed it. So what Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel did is really the same thing, just with greater magnitude. The difference between $75 and $25000 is pretty big. So what if that man had said he would offer me $25,000 to say I was an artist for the rest of my life? Who knows what I would have done?’ Cl Quiz Show opens in Scotland on Friday 17 Marc/1.
Ralph Fiennes (left) and John Turturro (right) get ready to face the questlons In Gull Show
The List lO-23 Mar I995 9