They’re Naturals for ‘Quiz Show’

Movie directors are normally happy to create their magic behind the scenes and let their actors bask in the spotlight. But once in a while, they too like to step in front of the cameras.

The latest high-profile filmmakers to do just that are Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson, both of whom have key bit parts in Robert Redford’s Sept. 9 film, “Quiz Show,” a provocative drama based on the real-life late-'50s scandal about the rigging of the popular nationally televised game show “Twenty-One.” Redford, who clearly enjoys being on both sides of the camera himself, says, “Most directors I know are hams.”

In the film, Scorsese plays the fast-talking, hard-edged head of the company that produces Geritol, the quiz show’s advertising sponsor, and Levinson portrays the bow-tied Dave Garroway, host of NBC’s “Today” show.

The film stars Oscar-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes (“Schindler’s List”) as Charles Van Doren, the popular Columbia University professor who became the quintessential quiz show contestant; John Turturro as Herbert Stempel, the disenchanted contestant who blew the whistle on the program’s producers for duping the public, and Rob Morrow as Richard Goodwin, the young Washington attorney who led a congressional investigation into the quiz-show fraud.


Scorsese, notes Redford, “has his own personal style and delivery, so I found it interesting to have him play a tough character gently. And given his delivery style, in which he talks real fast, I thought it would make the character extremely menacing.”

Redford said that Scorsese also fit the physical type he was looking for. Because of legalities, Redford couldn’t use the real-life likeness or name of Matthew Rosenhaus, the late chief executive officer of the J.B. Williams Co., the toiletries company that owned Geritol. So the director fictionalized the character, avoiding naming him, basing his look and manner more on Charles Revson, the ill-tempered president of Revlon, sponsor of “The $64,000 Question,” another TV quiz show that was scrutinized during the scandal.

As for Levinson, Redford said that he has been friends with him since the two made “The Natural” in 1984. “There’s a part of Barry that likes to perform and he is fascinated with the ‘50s. So when I was thinking about casting Dave Garroway, I thought of Barry because he has that kind of easygoing, casual manner.”

Redford said that when he called Levinson and said, “Do you want to have some fun?” the director immediately said yes. What he didn’t know, laughed Redford, “was that I was going to throw a monkey at him"-- literally.


Levinson had to act opposite a nervous chimpanzee who was portraying Garroway’s famous sidekick, J. Fred Muggs. According to production notes on the movie, because there were no movie-trained chimps available for the scene at Rockefeller Center, the production hired another chimp “who was unnerved by the lights and cameras.”

Redford recalls Levinson saying to him, “The bow-tie is one thing, but a monkey?”

Levinson’s production company, Baltimore Pictures, which he previously ran with longtime producing partner Mark Johnson, originally developed “Quiz Show” at TriStar Pictures before Disney’s Hollywood Pictures acquired the project.

Redford said that working with Levinson and Scorsese as actors in the movie “was great fun.”


But, more important, were they paid scale?