Albert Freedman, the game show producer featured in “Quiz Show” (1994), the Oscar-winning film by Robert Redford, died on April 11 at age 95. Although he was a secondary character in Redford’s film, played by Hank Azaria, in real life he was at the heart of a maelstrom of TV scandals during the Eisenhower era that pitted Jews against each other.
Freedman’s bosses were Jack Barry (born John Barasch), and Dan Enright, born Daniel Ehrenreich in British Palestine, who had worked on Israel’s radio network in 1951 and returned two decades later to offer Prime Minister Golda Meir advice about television broadcasting. Freedman had considerable prior experience with the boob tube. After service with the U. S. Marines during World War II, he wrote for the variety show of Pinky Lee (born Pincus Leff (1907–1993), a kiddie TV host who was the Pee Wee Herman of his time) as well as Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.”
In 1956, Freedman was hired to helm the game show “Twenty-One,” where his major headache was what to do with Herbert Milton Stempel, an American Jewish ex-G.I. who won lots of money on the program but was not a ratings magnet. Freedman’s solution was to cast as his opponent Charles Van Doren, the ultra-WASP-y son of Mark Van Doren, a lofty Columbia University professor of literature. Feeding questions to the younger Van Doren and pressuring Stempel to lose deliberately, Freedman helped create a televised paradigm of a Christian media hero, idolized by millions of Cold War-age Americans, conquering a Jewish opponent who was carefully coached by producers to look as nerdy and neurotic as possible. The Jewish producers had cast themselves as devils to Van Doren’s Faust, who sold his soul to Beelzebub, in this case for riches and the appearance of knowledge.
In a lengthy interview from the year 2000 for the Archive of American Television, Freedman expressed high dudgeon that in 1958, a County of New York grand jury had investigated rigged quiz shows, followed by a Congressional subcommittee investigation the following year. Congressional investigator Richard Naradof Goodwin (born 1931) was yet another Jewish protagonist in the story.
Even though the fixing Freedman had helped to arrange was not illegal at the time, he and his colleagues faced moral opprobrium. Unapologetic, Freedman declared that the shows were obviously entertainment, rationalizing and pooh-poohing genuine concerns about imposture. He scoffed that in promotional appearances for “Quiz Show,” Redford appeared to cite Freedman’s mendacity surrounding “Twenty One” as precedent for public lies from Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon and others. In his interview Freedman also complained that he did not get expert legal advice about how to prevaricate skilfully to his own advantage, rather than simply telling the truth. His stuffy, disgruntled tone about being arrested was akin to a self-righteous Republican senator caught misbehaving in a public lavatory.
The scandal was exposed partly because Stempel decided to make public his own experience, whereupon he was denounced by Freedman and others as unbalanced and mendacious. In his own interview from 2004 for the Archive of American Television, Stempel, who at age 90 still lives in Forest Hills, comes across as an avuncular if offbeat New Yorker, part Jimmy Breslin, part Joe Franklin, part Delmore Schwartz. After the scandal, Stempel worked for the New York City Department of Transportation as a professional witness in accident cases. As for Charles Van Doren, at 91 he continues to lead a life of privilege, with residences in Cornwall, Connecticut (on land bequeathed by his father); Key West, Florida; and Tuscany, Italy. His wife, the former Geraldine Bernstein, married him after being hired as a secretary to handle his vast fan mail. Soon after the scandal broke, Van Doren was rescued professionally by the American Jewish philosopher Mortimer Adler (1902 –2001), a friend of his father’s who would be baptized as an Episcopalian in 1984. Adler was on the board of editors at the Encyclopædia Britannica, where he had Van Doren hired as an editor. Adler would later collaborate with Van Doren on such books as “How to Read a Book” (1972); “The Negro in American History” (1969),; and “Great Treasury of Western Thought” (1977). In 2008, when Van Doren decided to break decades of silence about the scandal, he was paid by the word by Condé Nast to offer his musings in the glossy pages of “The New Yorker.” Van Doren described Freedman’s spiel, convincing him to get involved: “And [Freedman] launched into his argument—that, when all was said and done, these game shows were mere entertainment. ‘Even Shakespeare is entertainment,’ he said, although he conceded that the shows, unlike the plays, were presented as the real thing.”
After the meshugas hit the fan, Freedman sent a statement to The New York Times steadfastly denying that anything improper had occurred, apart from “showmanship, spectacle and illusion… Everyone knows that the magician doesn’t saw the lady in half.” Even so, the reality, rather than illusion, was that some participants found it easier to weather the ensuing storm than others. Freedman was out of a job, and traveled to Mexico and London, where he landed work with the European edition of Penthouse Magazine. Later earning a Ph.D. from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, an unaccredited, for-profit, degree-granting institution in San Francisco, Freedman remained defiantly unrepentant about all the quiz show goings-on, which seem to belong to a more innocent age, before mendacious reality show celebutards occupied corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.