Before filming began, Ralph Fiennes wanted to speak with Charles Van Doren in person to get his accent down for the role. However, no one thought Van Doren would want to help with the film. Ralph Fiennes and a film staff member drove to the rural Connecticut town where Van Doren lives. They found him sitting in a chair outside his house. Fiennes pretended to be a lost driver and asked him for directions.
In January 1957, Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren actually had a series of three scripted ties, and Van Doren finally won on the fourth game. While Van Doren lost to Vivienne Nearing, he actually tied her three times before losing. He had beaten her husband, Victor Nearing, earlier in the year. In April 1957, he signed a 3-year, $150,000 contract to appear on Steve Allen's show, guest host the Today (1952) show, and be a panelist on NBC's radio show, "Conversations."
No part of the game show cover up was against any law, and no one went to prison. Individuals were prosecuted for obstruction of justice and perjury for their part in covering it up. It led to massive changes in laws regarding contests. Most quiz shows were canceled, and the genre nearly died. One of the few to survive was a bowling show; the sport is difficult to fix on television. In the 1970s, a new generation of game shows used puzzles and word play rather than trivial knowledge. Limits restricted the length of a championship run and amount that could be won.
Producers Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson had their names taken off the credits even though they had been instrumental in getting the film made. They settled instead for a namecheck for their production company, Baltimore Pictures. They felt that listing eleven producer credits for one film was far too many.
Herb Stempel's son was an infant at the time of the quiz show scandal. Stempel had been trying to tell people that the show was fixed long before he lost his run, but he was ignored. In May 1958, the CBS game show Dotto (1958) was exposed as rigged. When Stempel published his accusations in August 1958, people paid attention.
In the film, the last question that Charles Van Doren answers correctly to defeat Herbert Stempel is worth 11 points, about a Civil War general who placed Ulysses S Grant under arrest. In the real December 5th, 1956 episode of Twenty One, this was actually the very first question asked of Van Doren that night, and was worth 8 points.
Despite knowing the correct answer, Herb Stempel deliberately answers incorrectly when asked what movie won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1955. Ironically, the incorrect answer he gives, On the Waterfront, is a movie in which the main character, a prize-fighter, also takes a dive by intentionally losing a boxing match that he could have won.
Early in the film, when someone says that "There's a rumor Eisenhower died," Charles Van Doren's mother, Dorothy, quips, "How would they tell?" This is actually a quote from Dorothy Parker, the American writer and poet, which she said when she heard that former President Calvin Coolidge had died in January 1933.
When Martin Scorsese's character is on the phone conspiring to get Herb Stemple (who is from Queens) off the show, he ends the phone call saying, "Queens isn't New York!" Martin Scorsese was born in Corona, Queens.
In the film Dick Goodwin mentions that the Reuben Sandwich as being the only "truly invented" sandwich in the world and he credits a Reuben K (actual name Reuben Kulakofsky) as having invented it. It was entered into a national sandwich competition in 1956 by a Fern Snider. Truth is that the inventor of the sandwich is unknown and the recipe goes back to about 1908 which is about 20 years before Mr Kulakosky first invented it.
In 1973's The Way We Were, the 'Robert Redford' character was defined by the phrase "everything came too easy." In 1994's Quiz Show (1994), directed by Redford, the Van Doren character used the same phrase about his own life.
Charles Van Doren mentions there being a split infinitive in a document he is to sign. A notorious example of this is on Star Trek (1966) : "...to boldly go where no man has gone before". The correct grammar is "to go boldly" because there isn't supposed to be another word between "to" and whatever verb follows.
When he first talks to James Snodgrass, Richard Goodwin mentions that he was on "Twenty-One," on January 13 (presumably 1958), before Van Doren. Van Doren was on the show from November 28, 1956-March 11, 1957; Snodgrass's games against Hank Bloomgarden came after that because the first known date for which Snodgrass wrote down everything he was supposed to do was for the May 20, 1957 broadcast.
After Charles Van Doren says that he can picture the King of Belgium, "right down to that Habsburg lip," Herbert Stempel knows that Van Doren is planning to give the wrong answer. The King of Belgium did not have the Habsburg lip, a genetic deformity caused by generations of inbreeding. He was a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and there were no Habsburgs within at least four generations of his ancestry.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Charles Van Doren talked to the grand jury through his lawyer, saying he was innocent and "it is silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." He offered to appear before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, so they subpoenaed him. In November 1959, he confessed. He told reporters at the following press conference that he had been, "living in dread for almost 3 years."