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A Behind-The-Scenes Look At 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' From A Contestant Who Won $500k

Updated June 14, 2019 23.3k views14 items

When the American television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? became a national craze and a pop culture phenomenon in 2000, I immediately decided that I wanted to be a contestant. I've always loved trivia and strange arcane facts others have difficulty remembering. I'm usually the person in any office or social setting that is the go-to-guy for a difficult crossword answer, or a hard-to-remember fact. After a six-month ordeal, I got my wish and found out personally what it was like behind the scenes of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?—from the auditions to being in the "Hot Seat" to what Regis Philbin is really like. 

My personal experience also included some remarkable circumstances, a few coincidences, and, frankly, a great deal of luck that allowed me to walk away with a staggering amount of money. Many of these events were either edited out or not discernible to viewers at home. Here is my own behind-the-scenes story of what it was like to appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?     

  • A Miracle Occurred, And Then Was Almost Rescinded

    Video: YouTube

    I barely paid attention as the taping started up again. I began to calculate how many people I would have to tell that I didn't make it. Losing on Jeopardy by $2 and now missing the Hot Seat by six-tenths of a second had to be some kind of record for game show nightmares. I braced myself for one more question and Regis read it to the contestant. Instead of pausing to think it over, the contestant immediately came up with the correct answer. That meant the taping would continue. 

    The next question was a relatively easy one about which individual in the Godfather series did not win an Oscar. This time, the contestant hesitated. He decided to use one of his lifelines and ask the audience, who gave him the wrong answer. He went with it and, suddenly, he was toast. Now, we would get a fourth Fastest Finger opportunity.

    The stage crew scrambled quickly back to their places and I focused on the question. I had to put four rock songs with the word "Don't" in the title in order. I was reasonably confident and this time only two contestants got it correct, my time the fastest by over two seconds. Regis excitedly beckoned me over to the Hot Seat, and in an exhilarated daze I stumbled in his direction.

    But as soon as I sat down, I got a strange feeling. Regis, who had been so ebullient moments before, looked away from me toward the stage manager who was speaking into his headset. They both ignored me. In a hyper voice, the stagehand kept saying "Are we good or do we need another?" Clearly, someone was looking at the last sequence and they were taking a long time. Long enough for me to think that maybe there might be a problem.

    The show's lawyer told us that any glitch meant the Fastest Finger would have to replayed. I was about to have a seizure when the stagehand blurted out "Good to go, Regis!" Regis lifted his head, looked me square in the eye, and enthusiastically said "Congratulations." Incredibly, I was in the Hot Seat, only the second time the show had featured five contestants in one episode.  

    Later, between my dad in the audience and some things I heard from the stagehands, I pieced together what happened to cause the drama. The woman who had gotten all four Fastest Fingers in rehearsal had not gotten a single one correct during the actual taping. Before the last opportunity, she complained that something was wrong with her keypad, but to to no avail.

  • Regis Saved Me Early On

    Video: YouTube

    Once I sat down in the Hot Seat, I quickly answered three easy questions and the taping ended. My dad and uncle, a New York native, spent a night on the town, just happy I made it into the Hot Seat. The next day, I went to my office and told my co-workers what happened and they freaked out.

    By midday on Tuesday, July 25, I was making my way back to ABC studios and into the locker room. This time, I was the focus of the new contestants. We lined up and when Regis got to me, he asked what I had done the night before. When I told him we all went to an Irish pub, he laughed out loud: "I love it, I'm going to use that!"

    We walked out onto the stage and it really hit me. I was about to appear on the highest-rated television show in America to try to win $1,000,000. As Regis did a little intro, I reached for a glass of water and saw my hands visibly shaking.

    I got to $1,000 without much of a problem, but then things started to get rocky. I needed to use one of my lifelines to poll the audience for a $2,000 question about a scooter called the Razor. As someone with no kids, I had no idea what it was, but the audience gave me the right answer.

    At $4,000, I got what I thought was a really tough question about a 19th-century chemical compound used to provide stage lighting. I reasoned that "Carbonic Oxide" was a chemical compound, and I told Regis I thought that was the right answer. He responded by saying, "Are you sure, or is that a guess?"

    I knew from watching the show that when Regis said that, he believed you were wrong. He wasn't provided the answers until you both saw them, but clearly here he had an opinion. When I hesitated, he suggested I use my 50/50 Life Line which eliminates two answers. It left "Boric Acid" and "Lime." Something stopped me from blurting out "Boric Acid" and as I looked around the studio, the two options repeated in my mind. There were TV lights everywhere and suddenly the word lime and light connected for me.

    "You are in the limelight," I said out loud to Regis. He laughed and then said sarcastically, "Phil, you're a genius!" probably believing this was a pretty easy question. Lime was the correct answer, but I was now out of two lifelines. Typically, most of our exchange was edited out of the broadcasted version.

  • I Blew All Of My Life Lines Too Soon

    At this point, I was both surprised and frustrated by the questions I had gotten. What happened to all of the easy questions I had watched for months in my living room? These were really hard. It didn't get any better when, at $8,000, I was asked who starred in the 1970 film Hercules In New York. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an option, but 1970 seemed awfully early for him to be in a film. I used my last lifeline, the "phone-a-friend," where you can call one of five pre-selected individuals who are standing by. Luckily, that panned out and Arnie was the right answer but now, at just $8,000, I was out of lifelines.

    I got a breather at $16,000, when I came up with the university that awards the Pulitzer prize (Columbia) but, during the break, Regis barely talked to me and the contestant coordinator was practically shaking his head sympathetically. My early demise felt like a foregone conclusion. I could also see out into the contestant's row, and clearly they were mentally preparing for an imminent Fastest Finger contest. I figured I would try and take this one question at a time and hang in, but my dreams of $1,000,000 now seemed laughably absurd.

  • I Reached The $32,000 Level By Paying Close Attention

    The $32,000 question is a big level on the show. If you get it correct, you can't leave with less than 32 grand, regardless of what you do later. But if you miss at the $32,000 level, you leave with $1,000. I figured I was due for a layup, but I almost burst out laughing at the question: "Who sings the theme song to the TV show Dawson's Creek?" I shook my head and said, "You're killing me here, Regis." The audience laughed as Regis gently suggested I could bail with $16,000 if I chose to walk away without guessing incorrectly.

    I had no interest in that option, although I really had no idea what the answer was. Three of the options were big stars - Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, and Alanis Morissette - but the fourth, Paula Cole, I had never heard of and said so. I thought she might be obscure enough to record a TV show theme. 

    This time, as I hesitated, Regis skeptically shrugged as if to say "Good luck with that approach." As I sat there, I became aware of the stage manager, off camera to my right, speaking quite animatedly into his headset: "Are we going to throw a break? Break here?" I quickly understood what he wanted to know. Assuming I couldn't possibly get the next question correct, he wanted to know if, after they ushered me off the stage, they should stop the taping for a break or continue on to the new contestants without an interruption.

    Suddenly, as clear as a bell, I heard a voice in his headset distinctly say, "No, he's going to get it right." It was so audible to me, I thought everyone in the studio heard it. Regis looked at me poker-faced. Clearly, he didn't hear anything. But what did it mean? What had I said? The only thing I recalled was my comment on Paula Cole, but I waited for what seemed like minutes before reiterating that and making it my final answer. Regis obviously thought I was a goner based on his body language.

    I began to think I might have imagined the whole exchange, when I looked down at my console and saw "Paula Cole" flash up as the right answer. Even Regis was surprised as I let out a yell of excitement. I was still alive, now with 32 grand in my back pocket.

    Incidentally, Paula Cole was probably as accomplished as any of the other three performers, having won a Grammy for her debut album. Strangely, in the broadcast version of the show, the $16,000 question was switched to the $32,000 question for reasons I don't understand, but the incredible sound and picture editing rendered the change impossible to detect.