Sweating Bullets on the Hot Seat as a Know-It-All Phone-a-Friend

Here’s the highlight of my week: I was a Lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

I was a phone-a-friend for a guy who not only isn’t my friend, I don’t even know him! His name is Ken Krantz, and he reads my column. He faxed me out of the blue to be a phone-a-friend in sports, where he felt weak.

Apparently, you’re allowed five phone-a-friends, whom you designate in advance. This got me thinking about whom I would choose. Obviously, Catherine Zeta-Jones. I don’t care if she doesn’t know squat. This is my only chance to get her home phone number. I agreed to be Ken’s phone-a-friend. In a couple of days, I got a call from a woman who briefed me on the rules: On the day Ken was going on “Millionaire,” I had to be available by phone from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. There was no guarantee Ken would make it to the hot seat. But if he did, I had to camp near my phone.


Between 4 and 7, I had to let my phone ring three times, and then pick up.

“You’ll receive a call that your friend is in the hot seat,” she said. “The next call will be from Regis. When you answer, say, ‘Hello.’ ”

“Can I make small talk with Regis?” I asked.


“Can I tell him a joke? You know: A rabbi, a priest and Frank Gifford are in a spy plane over China, and . . .”


“No. Don’t tell Regis any jokes,” she said. “Pay attention to the question. If you don’t know the answer, or if you’re making a guess, tell your friend. If you’re certain, let him know. After 30 seconds the call will be automatically terminated. Do you understand?”

“I’m scared I won’t know the answer,” I said.

“Oh, come on, Mr. Kornheiser, you’re a professional sportswriter. Most of our sports stuff is simple. Here’s one from last week: ‘Who holds the Olympic record for consecutive bull’s-eyes in the women’s rapid-fire prone rifle event?’ Heck, you probably know the answers to all the riflery questions, not just the easy ones.”


“Well, sure, I’m a professional. But let’s say I inexplicably have a brain lapse. Can anyone be in the room with me to help?”

“Sure. You can have as many people as you want. But you only have 30 seconds. And only you can speak over the phone.”

Then I went to towel off. I had enough water running down my spine to irrigate the Negev. I went through the sports staff at the Washington Post and lined up eight experts. The plan was: I would say the question out loud, recite possible answers, then look to them for the correct answer.

Can’t you buy some more time? someone asked.

Buy some time? Like “Wheel of Fortune”? “Oh, Regis, excuse me, I’d like to buy another 30 seconds.” Of course not.

I sat by the phone. At 5 p.m. I got the call from “Millionaire.”

“Ken is in the hot seat. The next call could be from Regis. Are you ready?”


Am I ready? I was born ready.

Then I threw up.

I gathered everybody in my office. At 5:30, the phone rang. I picked up on the third ring and said, strong and clear, “Hello.”

I heard, “Tony?”

And I said, “Regis, how are you, buddy? How’s that dopey solid color shirt and tie thing working out for you?”

Except it wasn’t Regis. It was a guy from “Millionaire” calling to tell me that Ken used his lifeline, “so you’re free to go.”

He used his lifeline? On what?

“On a music question. That’s all I can tell you.”

I was crestfallen. I know music! Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ferry Cross the Mersey. Little Millie Small, My Boy Lollipop. I even know the long-lost third Righteous Brother, Olaf. Ken could have called me.