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'Stoney' Jackson, 88; Conflicted Quiz-Show Winner

April 21, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the eruptions over fraud in TV quiz shows of the 1950s, many of the whistle-blowers were sore losers who fumbled the answers under the unforgiving glare of studio lights.

What history may most remember about Charles E. "Stoney" Jackson Jr. was that he was a sore winner.

A peripatetic minister and writer who never had much money and let it slip through his fingers when he did, Jackson had a moment of fame in 1956, when he won $20,000 on two of the era's top-rated shows--"The $64,000 Question" and "The $64,000 Challenge."

Later, he told anyone he could--including a congressional committee--that the shows' producers fed him answers. In so doing, he became a character in one of the decade's most disillusioning morality tales.

Jackson, who died of renal failure March 24 in Denver at age 88, was remembered as one whose dreams and ethical views always placed him just outside the margins of acceptability.

He founded several organizations, including the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, but lost control of them to others. He was also an advocate for the homeless and a professional curmudgeon, who once ran two of his dogs for president on the slogan that it was "better for a dog to go to the White House than for the White House to go to the dogs."

Passion for Sports, Devotion to Christ

The son of a clergyman, Jackson was a graduate of Transylvania College in Kentucky, where he played football and was a welterweight boxer. He was ordained in the Disciples of Christ Church in the early 1940s.

After a series of ministerial positions in small Southern towns, he returned in 1949 to his hometown of Tullahoma, Tenn., where he developed a scheme that combined his passion for sports with his devotion to Christ.

He organized Tennessee high school teams in a Christian football bowl with the goal of using the proceeds to open a home for wayward boys. But he wound up $25,000 in debt.

In 1955, CBS introduced "The $64,000 Question." It enthralled audiences with contestants isolated in separate booths who answered questions pulled from a vault guarded by a dark-suited banker. It was followed a year later by "The $64,000 Challenge," which pitted the original show's winners against new contestants.

Jackson wrote to the producers of "The $64,000 Question" in late 1956. He offered himself as an expert on football, boxing and movie Westerns, but failed to elicit much of a response.

Then, he hit on a topic he felt sure would earn him the hot seat: great lovers. The producers called back right away, but changed the category to "great love stories."

After cramming for 10 days, he was flown to New York, where he was quizzed informally by producer Mert Koplin. Jackson did well enough to go on the show that night and win a second appearance at a future date.

But something had rubbed him the wrong way. During his session with Koplin, whenever he had faltered over an answer, Koplin supplied it.

Back in Tullahoma, he talked about his uneasiness in sermons at church and in a speech to a local merchants' group. No one shared his qualms. In fact, one friend told him flatly: "Shut up and don't be an idiot!"

So Jackson did. He returned to New York and enjoyed the free lodging in a posh hotel and pampering by the show's staff.

"I'm in hog heaven," he said when he passed the $8,000 mark after correctly answering a question about Longfellow's "Evangeline," a question that Koplin knew he could answer correctly.

But when he reached $16,000, the warm glow of celebrity turned suddenly to ice. The staff stopped laughing at his jokes. They stopped talking to him altogether.

A young production assistant finally clued him in: The cold shoulder was a signal to stop winning. If he ignored it, she said, the producers would toss him a question they knew he couldn't handle and he would be booted off the show.

Jackson accepted the $16,000 and said goodbye on camera.

Two months later, he was rewarded with an invitation to compete on "The $64,000 Challenge."

Again, before show time, he met with a producer, Shirley Bernstein, who casually began discussing great love stories.

At one point she asked if Jackson was familiar with the author of a 19th-century poem similar to Christopher Marlowe's "Hero and Leander." When he said he didn't know, Bernstein told him. "It was Thomas Hood," she said.

The question came up on Jackson's second week on the show. His rival, a sexagenarian named Doll Goosetree, drew a blank.

When it was Jackson's turn, he almost blurted out, "I know the answer because Shirley Bernstein gave it to me." Instead, he gave the correct answer and won $4,000. By the rules of the game, his reign was over, and he left the show.

Later, he found out from Goosetree that she had been told to bone up on Shakespeare. Thus misled, she was bound to lose. Jackson was outraged "because they cheated both of us," he recalled in an interview with Associated Press in 1994.

'Most of Us Have a Good Bit of Larceny'

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