My first step to wealth, fame and power -- the kind of wealth, fame and power that would have people acknowledging me as their philosopher king -- began in March.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the television quiz show that changed the way religious leaders are chosen and nations are formed, was seeking contestants and had scheduled an audition in Miami. This marked a change from the old method of telephone auditioning ("answering three questions increasing in difficulty"). Seven hundred-and-fifty people would get the chance to impress the producers in person -- a goal that still posed a high hurdle, as an estimated 50,000 people called in hoping secure one of those slots.
But my fingers were fast, my heart was pure, and I was among the invited. I was going to Miami, determined to transcend the ranks of the geeks and losers and, within two weeks, ascend to sit with the heavenly host.
My pursuit of the hot seat opposite host Regis Philbin had begun more than a year earlier. After dismissing the show for months, I was seduced and then addicted by the ease of the questions.
I know trivia. I know how much William Howard Taft weighed, I know that Julia Child was a spy in World War II, and that the French government is secretly run by an Iowa housewife name Betsy.
I know this despite an IQ that measures only in the mid-30s. What compensates is a brain equal in size to that of an African elephant's. While finding a good headband is difficult, nearly everything I have read or experienced in life, with the exception of wetting my pants in third grade, is lodged in my memory.
Unlike other contestants, I needed the money. That's why, in January of 2000, I made my first call to (800) 433-8321. I was presented with three questions that would determine if I would advance to the next round. The system worked like this:
When you called, Regis answered and explained the rules. Next, another voice came on and asked for your birth date and the last four digits of your Social Security number. I always got those two questions correct. Next came the "three questions increasing in difficulty."
They weren't kidding. The answers corresponded to the number on your phone keypad and unless you had a system to transpose the answers in 10 seconds, it got real dicey. The questions actually were pretty tough. Here's an idea of what they were like:
1) Put the title of this classic book in order:
2) Put these inventions in order of their discovery, from most recent to earliest:
A) stock ticker
3) Put these Nobel Prize winners in order of the country of their birth, starting in North America and going east:
A) John Steinbeck
B) Desmond Tutu
C) Elie Wiesel
D) Samuel Beckett
If you happened to answer the three questions correctly, the recorded voice came back to tell you that you had "advanced to the next round of the playoffs," and that they were looking for contestants "for the following tape dates." Then they would recite a list of five or six available dates in the upcoming weeks.
This was a crap shoot the size of a water treatment plant. Not only did you have to get the answers right, then you had to pick the right day because everyone -- everyone -- who qualified on the same day and selected the same taping date you chose had a shot at getting a call between noon and 3 p.m. the following day.
Consider the odds. About 400,000 people would call each day and roughly 4,000 would answer the three questions correctly. From that pool of 4,000, 40 were selected at random for each tape date. If you were among the 40, you received a call and had to compete with the other 39 in a sample "fastest-finger round," the show's term for punching in the correct answers ahead of the others. If you finished in the top 10, you would go to New York where the show was filmed. It was just that easy.
In the first two months, I answered the three questions correctly about 70 percent of the time. The aftershock of my intelligence was that in case they called, I would have to stay near a phone between noon and 3 p.m. the following day. I never let the phone out of my sight. If anything or anyone interfered with my mission to answer that phone, I became very upset. Once I even killed a man.
For two months I was always faithful to my cause. Almost always faithful.
Again I had answered the three questions, but by now I was getting embarrassed about telling my wife, Nancy, I had to sit by a phone for three hours. So when she asked if I wanted to run out to lunch, for the first time in my life I relied on call-forwarding to send calls to my cell phone.
Apparently I didn't know how the phone system worked because when I returned from lunch there were seven calls flashing on my answering machine.
Millionaire had called twice.
Over the following year I continued to call and try to answer the questions. The quest was made more difficult because the phone lines were only open a few days each month, sometimes I didn't know all the answers, and when I did know and waited by the phone the following day, they never called.
I felt like an idiot and the diagnosis was confirmed by a psychologist. Getting on the show superseded everything else. My quest revealed either a healthy desire for fame and fortune or an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Then, earlier this year, the rules changed. They opened auditions and it was in Miami that I felt I had the best chance to "go all the way," to "hit a homer," or, in the parlance of game-show contestants, to "grunt big for daddy."
I had appeared in commercials and performed stand-up comedy for several years so I was confident that, aside from a Texas Bull Rope Death Match, an audition would be my strong point.
My audition was on a Sunday morning at 8:45. I drove down to Miami and saw a line a half-mile long wrapped around the studios of WJWL, but since my audition was at WTVJ I kept driving. As I checked in I pulled out a few gems from my repertoire. I made sure the producers saw my Elvis gas-station shirt, a little ploy designed to show them that I was "hip" and "with it" -- a "real gone cat," as the kids say today.
Inside the studio, 125 people were waiting (six groups this size comprised the 750 tested that weekend). Since I purposely came in late, I had to take the last seat between a skinny guy with bad breath and a fat guy with worse breath.
The producers explained the rules of the show, repeated the rules again for some slow people, and then a third time for even slower people. By now, the producers were getting a might testy but remained calm enough to reveal the purpose of the morning meeting.
In minutes, we would take a 30-question written test. We would be given 12 minutes to complete the test. Those who passed the test (they never revealed the minimum passing score) would stick around and play a sample game. The producers would take notes and shoot video and, back in New York, decide who would be invited to the show.
The test was hard. Harder than an SAT, tougher than a doctor's boards, more mind-bending than a lawyer's bar exam. I wasn't sure if I would pass, but I knew if I did I had a shot with the live audition.
It took them about a half-hour to grade the tests and in that time I had a few chances to fulfill my master plan of chatting with the producers. I also talked to the fat guy with even worse breath. He had flown down from Philadelphia (Philadelphia!) so was already out the price of a plane ticket, a rental car and a hotel. He felt confident.
When they returned with the test scores, they announced they would read the number of the "passers" first and the "non-passers" second. My number was 31. A producer began to read. She read numbers much higher than 31. She read numbers in the vicinity of 31. She read numbers that began with a 3 and then landed on some other integer. She read 32, flipped the page and announced 30 and starting messing around with some three-digit numbers. Then, as she was winding down, concluded, " ... 57, 86, 31 and ..."
The fat guy with worse breath got up and waddled back to Philadelphia. I stuck around and learned that despite the fact 30 people had been smart enough to pass the test, about half of them were dopes.
This was evident when they set up a makeshift stage and groups of four were invited up to play a quick, pseudo-Millionaire show. Some people were as dull as chalk inspectors, others as caffeinated as Let's Make a Deal contestants. The quiz was followed by a Q&A in which contestants were asked questions such as, "Can you create a two-line poem about why you should go to New York?" A man (apparently named "Joe") barked, "My name's Joe, and I need the dough!"
When it was my turn I zipped through the quiz and, realizing some questions were being repeated, was ready with witty repartee and snappy patter. I had prepared a few bon mots, but I had left them in the car.
When they asked me to create my two-line poem, I replied calmly, "The snowflake falls silently from the lotus blossom." The producers stared and the other contestants were quiet. After a beat, I shrugged and explained, "It's haiku."
The producers laughed, but a few dopes muttered, "That ain't no haiku."
Screw 'em. Haiku or not, 10 days later I got The Call.
April 3 brought a new quiz. Over the phone they asked me a series of questions to confirm my eligibility to appear on the show. When I answered everything to the interviewer's satisfaction, he said, "This is the part I like. Congratulations. We want you to come up to New York next week to be a contestant."
It was the absolute worst time they could have chosen.
In addition to being the IBF cruiserweight boxing champ and fifth in line to the throne of England, I am also a correspondent for People magazine. That week, one of my assignments was to hit Disney-MGM Studios for the opening of the park's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" attraction and interview the high holy man of television game shows.
My one-on-one with Regis was already locked in.
The implications were astounding. Given access to Regis, I could give him a quick injection of thiopental sodium and convince him to disable every fast-finger console but mine, virtually assuring me a shot at the hot seat.
But I couldn't risk a trace of impropriety. I asked another reporter to cover for me. There were other considerations as well. I was on deadline for a Florida travel book, I had a major advertising project to complete, 12 years of taxes to log and record, and two other travel features to finish. Nancy and I also run a bed and breakfast (Mount Dora's Coconut Cottage Inn, and we had a full house.
The other distraction was similar to a major heart attack. The prospect that my life would change based on my ability to press four buttons faster than nine other research chimps led to shortness of breath. A tight feeling wrapped around my chest like Bill Clinton around a trailer park hooker.
Evenings were the worst. I usually get about eight hours of sleep a day and another seven at night, but with taxes, guests and deadlines I was figuratively getting only three seconds of sleep a night!
Still, I carved out time to visit the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" studio at Disney-MGM. Hearing that it was close to a carbon copy of the New York set, I wanted to see the playing field, see how the seats were placed, get used to the lights and music, and travel to New York with the home-field advantage.
It was different than I expected, but helpful. At first, though, when the lights and music came on, I cowered under my seat, which didn't help matters at all. Hours later when the night watchman found me, he gave me some sugar cubes and a sip of water, and I gradually adapted to the environment.
I was ready.
They promised three days in New York. We would leave on Tuesday, on Wednesday I would eliminate all contestants and win the game, and Thursday Nancy and I would flee the country and stash the earnings in a tax-free account overseas.
There were a few obstacles. The producers had given me a list of "appropriate clothes" I could wear on the show. I wasn't allowed to wear stripes (makes the cameras all jittery), turtlenecks (no place to clip the mike), anything black, or any hat, shirt, tie, belt or accessory that had a logo on it. That meant Monday was spent searching for the elusive "appropriate clothes" and a one-hour dry cleaners.
Another road block was living in Mount Dora, which is actually closer to the Kentucky border than it is to the Orlando airport. My sister, Pat, lives closer to Orlando International so we stayed with her for the luxury of sleeping in. I set the alarm for 5:45 a.m. I later checked with expert chronologists who confirmed that such a time exists.
After the previous week, I was moving on little but adrenaline and my addiction to library paste. Aboard the plane, however, I enjoyed falling asleep so much that I did it seven times during the flight. At JFK, we were met by a Russian driver who led us outside where a Lincoln Towncar was waiting. Class.
But Ivan walked past the Lincoln and we followed. He walked past several other nice cars and then walked nearly four miles en route to the Russian Front. Then he rounded the corner and there was the sleekest black limo I'd ever seen. It seemed long enough to span two zones.
On the ride into Manhattan, we were getting used to a lifestyle which in no way involved work. We took pictures inside the limo, and planned to take more to chronicle every moment of the next three days.
The driver took us to the Hotel Empire across from Lincoln Center. We had gotten up before breakfast and now it was 1 p.m. We felt we deserved a walk and after taking in some Broadway marquees, at 4:30 p.m. we went back to the hotel and took a nap. I awoke in time to collect my clothes and make a 6:30 p.m. meeting with the producers.
Looking back, I think this is where things started getting out of control.
Although the nine other contestants didn't deserve to win and should have been disqualified for reasons I could only imagine, we were all given the same instructions. We were told what clothes we should wear and the schedule for the following day, when our episode would be taped. That's also when they told us they were taping two shows on Wednesday, and since they didn't want to make two long and arduous trips the entire three blocks to the studio to collect the contestants, my group -- the later group -- would have to leave the hotel with the first group. This meant our 8:30 a.m. call time was advanced to 6:45 a.m.
I set the alarm again for 5:45 a.m.
I could see it was going to be a hard day's night. In my wardrobe was my pink shirt and Elvis tie. They told me I couldn't wear my pink shirt since it had a logo on it.
"I don't see it," I said.
"It's right there," said the producer, pointing. "Right there on the pocket."
I looked at the pocket. It was a plain pink pocket. I looked closer and still didn't see anything. I got out my electron microscope and put the pocket under it and then saw an imperceptible imprint of a logo stamped in the exact same color pink!
"See?" she said.
Disappointed that I'd have to wear my blue shirt, I then offered up my Elvis tie. I was told I couldn't wear that, either, since it could be construed as a logo. I blubbered like a baby, but it had no impact. I begged, pleaded, cajoled. I told them that on July 5, 1954, Elvis had fused gospel, hillbilly and blues into an amalgam called rock & roll. Still they said no.
Eventually, I accepted that my plan to go to bed early had fallen apart. We searched for blocks around the hotel until we found a Korean guy selling "100 percent silk" ties for 20 cents each so I bought a handful and made it to bed around 10 p.m.
My deteriorating nerves combined with the sound of traffic outside on Broadway (we were on the second floor) made things worse. I couldn't sleep for the noise outside and in my own head as I created fantasy conversations between Regis and myself that would go something like this:
Regis: "So you're from Mount Dora, Florida?"
Regis: "And you wrote "Great American Motorcycle Tours." (Pause) Oh, lord, you sure are a handsome rascal ... "
Me: "Well ... "
Regis: "And those abs. Grrrrrrrrrrr. I bet you can do 100 sit-ups. Please, let me ... Oh! It's like granite!"
Whoa, I'm sorry -- that's my fantasy conversation between me and Tina Louise.
Anyway, I fell asleep around 12:30 a.m., woke up around 2 a.m., fell asleep about an hour later, and woke up at 5:45 a.m. It was a miserable night and, I learned later, was the sleep pattern shared by the others.
Shortly before 07:00 (slang for oh-seven hundred), the contestants and their companions for both tapings gathered in the hotel lobby. Forty people (20 contestants and 20 companions) were loaded into a funeral procession of small buses driving through the unusually gray, gloomy and cold weather to the studio.
I was impressed that a multibillion-dollar network like ABC would go to the lengths they did to build an equally gray, gloomy, and cold studio. The building had few windows and the ones there opened to brick walls.
My taping wouldn't start until 4 p.m. and it was just after seven in the morning. The interim between now and showtime was made even longer by the monotony of nothing. You were told not to bring any books, magazines, pagers, computers, cameras, cell phones or newspapers. You were not allowed to bring anything that could link you to life on the outside.
Still, producers tried to put everyone at ease during interviews designed to give Regis something to ask you about. I told them about my secret marriage to Martha Stewart and how, each October, I perform an all-nude Esperanto version of "Our Town" at Mount Dora's IceHouse Theatre.
I overheard other contestants going so far as to embellish the truth, but these interviews helped pass some time and establish friendships with the producers. These friendships didn't extend to allowing us to walk the halls unattended, though. If you had to get a snack, a producer went with you. If you had to go, a producer ushered you to the restroom. They joined us as we walked upstairs, downstairs and to the dressing rooms. I felt as if they were playing Sgt. Schulz to my LeBeau.
We sat around and tried to eat and tried to sleep and two months later it was 10:30 a.m. and we all were brought to the set. It was much larger than on my TV (where it's only 19 inches on the diagonal). Here, a lawyer told us the rules and the stage manager showed us how to walk from our chair to meet Regis, how to climb into the "hot seat" and how we should exit the stage. We were told how to look at the camera and that we could use any gesture when we were introduced. I planned to kiss my biceps -- those lovely 22-inch pythons of steel -- in homage to wrestler Superstar Billy Graham.
It was now time to practice the fastest-finger round -- the final obstacle between me and buying The Beatles' music catalog.
Maybe it was karma, but all the disparaging remarks I'd made about "stupid contestants" who couldn't get the right answers may have come back to haunt me. When you're at the console it's far different and more difficult than it seems on TV.
We worked through the practice session as if it were a live show, with the stage manager reading the question twice (they edit out the first read) followed by the answers popping up on the screen in front of us. The difference here is that they are spread across the screen, not clustered together like on my television screen at home, and are lined up AC/BD although your punch-in pad is lined up AB/CD.
You can double-click on any letter or not press one hard enough and hit the "OK" button before you realize you've made a mistake. There is a delete button if you make a wrong entry, but the only clue you screwed up is your answer displayed on a screen that's about a half-inch high and four inches long. No one I saw used it, because in the studio it's hard to read a gray display when there's a clock running and a spotlight in your face and people to beat.
In rehearsal, there were cries of anguish after contestants locked in their answers, looked at the screen, and then realized what they had done. In rehearsal, I only got one out of five right.
Our group watched the taping of the first show from backstage and afterward we were manacled and handcuffed and led back to the commissary. Most of us tried to sleep on couches and benches but there was no peace.
Around 3:30 p.m. they took us to the dressing rooms (actually hideous closets) and to makeup. Considering the previous night and week and rehearsal, I was fairly calm. In fact, I was calm enough to slip my Elvis tie (hah!) out of my bag and put it on.
As the makeup lady dipped a sponge into the jar, she remarked, "That's a great tie ... ," and then added in a confidential whisper, "They know you're wearing that?"
I assured her that they had seen the tie.
Minutes later, the sound man came by to clip a mike on me. He paused. "Man, I like that tie," he remarked. Then, "They're cool with that?"
"Everyone has been so nice," I said.
As the taping approached, I convinced myself the outcome was predetermined. Since the questions already had been written and since everyone was going to be doing their best and one of us would know the answer faster than someone else, then that person was going to win no matter what.
If you've never watched the show, here's how it works: In the fastest-finger round, 10 contestants sitting at individual consoles are presented with a single question. The one who punches in the correct answer the fastest earns the chance to advance to the "hot seat." This is where you want to be because if you don't make it here, it's a waste of time.
When you reach the hot seat, Regis presents 15 questions with their value increasing depending on its difficulty. The amount approximately doubles at each question from $100 (simple) to $1 million (considerably difficult). If you are stumped by a question, you are given three "lifelines" to consult, either by using them all on one question or judiciously throughout the game.
The first lifeline is "Ask the Audience," whose members respond through keypads at their seats to create a group consensus posted on a bar graph. (That consensus is not always helpful or accurate.) Second is the 50-50, which eliminates two of the four possible answers so your odds improve (although not much since they told us the remaining answers are always the two most likely answers). The final lifeline is "Phone a Friend," which most contestants rely on for answering the most difficult questions.
By the time I arrived in New York, I had selected my five friends who would be waiting by the phone during the three hours the show would be taping. My selection of these people was ingenious, as I chose five friends and relatives whose knowledge covered a variety of topics. My friend John knew theatre and modern music, my brother Kevin knows about the Civil War, science, history and early 1900s music, my cousin-in-law Mark is a sports and history expert, and Aunt Arlene is a retired nurse who knows medicine and religion. My go-to guy was my neighbor Noel, who knows absolutely everything. Everything.
I never got a chance to call them because, as it turns out, I know absolutely nothing. Nothing.
With the audience seated, we took our places (I was at seat No. 4) and the experience was the same as in rehearsal, but with 150 people watching. When I was introduced, the bicep-kissing was replaced by a friendly wave. That pretty much concluded my appearance on national television because during the next two hours, I would miss every question.
With the help of a counselor, here is what I've been able to recall. Remember, the answers are farther apart on the consoles than they appear on TV and the alphabetical order is different and there are spinning lights and monks chanting and ... you are there:
1) Put these movies in order of their release, starting with the earliest:
A) "Brighton Beach Memoirs"
B) "Forget Paris"
C) "Remember the Titans"
D) "Total Recall"
This was easy and I would have got it right if I had known the answer. I hadn't seen any of them and could only assume they were foreign films or from the silent era. The guy who did know that it was ADBC won $125,000.
2) Put these European cities in geographical order going from north to south:
Fantastic! Podiatry was right up my alley. I punched in Oslo, Hamburg, Bern, Naples and pressed "OK." Then I looked at the display and saw I had hit C twice. My answer was CCBDA. Oslo doesn't have a twin city!
Weeks later, while wearing my pajamas and Kleenex-box slippers, I watched the video repeatedly and saw there was a chance I would have beaten the fastest contestant who went on to win $500,000.
3) Put these TV detectives in order of the show they appeared in, starting with the earliest:
A) Robert Ironside
B) Lennie Briscoe
C) Tony Baretta
D) Peter Gunn
knew three of these, but I couldn't place Lennie Briscoe. Lennie Briscoe? The others had shows named after them, but not Lennie Briscoe. I assumed someone named "Lennie" had to be older than Peter Gunn so I typed in BDAC.
While the winning contestant was in the hot seat, I was still saying to myself, "Lennie Briscoe?" Finally it hit me: Lennie Briscoe is on Law and Order -- a show I watch every week. If they had said Mannix or Columbo, a title character rather than a character on a show not named after them, I might have had a chance.
I was surprisingly nonplussed by the loss except for a slight depression a few weeks later when I realized I was still working for a living. I pushed that aside, and a month later I traveled to Savannah for another audition.
I aced that test, too, and passed the audition, which means I'm back in the "audition pool." This means I may (or may not) receive a call at some point (or another) and if I happen to be home to take the call (or if I'm out of town and learn how to work call-forwarding and then call them back by 5 p.m. that same day) and then I answer their eligibility questions correctly -- I SHALL RETURN!
And when I do I will know what to expect. I'll know to set my priorities and allow nothing to interfere with winning. I will call upon every ounce of knowledge, insight and Tonya Harding's goons to help me beat the other contestants.
Most importantly, I'll return to New York at peace with myself. I'm not a religious man, but after that last experience I know that a man filled with wisdom shall walketh beside me during my journey.
Gary McKechnie, of Mount Dora, really did write "Great American Motorcycle Tours," although it obviously didn't do him any good in a clutch situation.