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

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?     

  • My Previous Appearance On 'Jeopardy' Ended In Disappointment

    My Previous Appearance On 'Jeopardy' Ended In Disappointment
    Photo: ABC

    In 1988, after I moved to Los Angeles and with no job and very little money, I decided an appearance on Jeopardy might save me from homelessness. I actually passed the test and contestant interview pretty easily, and got on the show within a matter of weeks of arriving in LA. Unfortunately, the experience proved rather negative.

    The show was bad enough; I lost by two bucks despite getting over 11,000 "dollars." In those days you merely got parting gifts, not cash, if you finished second or third. My haul was a bedroom set that forever became known as the Jeopardy bed. Also, the show's staff was pretty condescending, and they made you wait for an entire day without any guarantee you would even appear.

    I was the last contestant selected for my day's taping. Two other guys sat there all day and didn't even get on the show. For a while, whenever a co-worker would say something like, "Wow, you ought to go on Jeopardy," I would relate (and relive) my negative experience. Finally, I stopped bringing it up. I assumed my game show near-miss would be something I would have to live with for the rest of my life.

  • It Took Six Months To Get On 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?'

    It Took Six Months To Get On 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?'
    Photo: ABC

    12 years after the Jeopardy! debacle, I began trying to get on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The show's producers devised an ingenious method to select contestants: you called an 800 number and were prompted to answer three digitally recorded questions via your telephone keypad.

    The first question would be easy, something like "Put these American Presidents in order from oldest to most recent." You would then hear "Reagan, Washington, Jefferson, Truman." The correct answer was 2, 3, 4, 1. From there, the questions would get harder, with the third question something like, "Put these NFL running backs in order from the year they won the league's MVP award."

    If you got all three questions correct, you were placed in a pool of 40 individuals and given the opportunity to call in during a 15 minute window and answer five more questions in the same format. 10 of those 40 individuals would be picked for a live taping, based on the number of correct answers they gave.

    To guarantee potential contestants could only call once a day, you needed to provide your birthday and last four digits of your social security number during your call, a method of establishing a unique identifier for any contestant. This also gave the producers a method to determine what you knew and didn't know based on what answers you supplied during the qualification process. 

    It took months of answering these questions before I heard anything. Then, after I answered the three questions correctly several days in a row, I got a call from a live operator who told me that I qualified for phase two. I was given a time, a different 800 number, and told to call and answer five questions. The time was non-negotiable, and I had to answer the questions while on a business trip and was interrupted by co-workers while on the phone. The questions were more difficult; one was, "Put these television show addresses in order from newest to oldest programs."

    When I hung up the phone, I immediately presumed I had blown it, and became preoccupied with the details of my business trip. So I was surprised when I received a call from the show's staff just a few hours later inviting me to fly to New York for a taping of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

  • The Fastest Finger Process Was Much More Difficult In Studio

    The Fastest Finger Process Was Much More Difficult In Studio
    Photo: ABC

    Uncharacteristically, producers for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? picked up the cost of flying me and a guest - my dad - to New York and putting us up in a hotel room. Other game shows, most famously Jeopardy!, don't pay any of the expenses for contestants to get to a taping, so this was a pretty classy move. At the time, I recently started a new job and technically didn't have any vacation time, but my boss was kind enough to let me take a few days. It helped that our home office was in New York City. She agreed to let me work out of our Manhattan location for the first few days of the week. If I didn't get into the Hot Seat, I would only miss one day of work.

    On the morning of July 24, 2000, I showed up bright and early at the studio, excited to begin. I had no idea we would spend hours signing forms and listening to instructions from a procession of staff, including the show's in-house attorney, the show's producer Michael Davies, and the contestant coordinator, who ran us through a dress rehearsal of the "Fastest Finger Contest."

    Like the sequence of questions on the telephone, the "Fastest Finger Contest" challenged you to put four items in order right there in the studio. The contestant who placed the answers in the correct order the fastest moved into the Hot Seat, for a shot at winning $1,000,000. But, in the studio, you had to use a keypad device that was more cumbersome than a telephone, and required both dexterity and fast thinking.

    It was much easier standing in my living room and simply saying the correct order out loud. It did not help my confidence when I didn't get a single one of the questions correct during the rehearsal, much less in the quickest time. One woman got all four rehearsal questions in the fastest time. I immediately started to think this going to be tougher than I realized. We took a break for lunch, where my dad tried to pump me up, and then we split up again and headed back for the taping to begin. I tried to keep a positive outlook, but I was already feeling demoralized.  

  • At First, It Looked Like I Wouldn't Make The Hot Seat

    At First, It Looked Like I Wouldn't Make The Hot Seat
    Photo: ABC

    Before the taping, nine contestants filed into a locker room area, where we changed into our dress clothes for the taping. Because the show always ended with someone in the Hot Seat, we also met David, who was coming back after winning $4,000. Immediately, I realized it would be a while before we even got a shot at the Fastest Finger, as David seemed relatively bright and would probably be able to answer a few questions correctly. We all gathered in an organized line backstage (everything we did was choreographed by a couple of clipboard-wielding production assistants) and were personally greeted by Regis Philbin, who walked down the line and shook each contestant's hand, wishing them good luck.

    Before the taping began, we were introduced by name and home town and given a round of applause by the studio audience. Regis and David walked on last while the theme to the show played and the tape rolled. Exactly as I suspected, David not only got several questions correct, he was also very deliberate and the taping crept along at an excruciating pace. David made it to $32,000, leaving the rest of us to wait a long time before finally having our first Fastest Finger attempt.

    After a studio break, the taping continued and two cameras swept the contestant ring in front of the audience for the brief televised introduction of all of the contestants. I totally bungled the first group question about best sellers, not even close to getting it right. Fortunately for me, the first contestant crashed and burned at $4,000, but I screwed up the next Fastest Finger and had to sit through another contestant who bombed out at $8,000.

    We were already almost two hours into the taping, and I figured I had one more shot at the Fastest Finger since it was pretty rare to see four contestants moving to the Hot Seat in one show. This was it. I had to put four American civil rights figures in order, but was both careful and deliberate.

    In front of all of us was a giant screen with the contestant names. If you got it correct, your name flashed green with your time, the board blinking rapidly. Mine the first name with a time of 6.1 seconds. There were a lot of contestants who got all the answers correct, but I was faster by a couple of seconds and for an instant I thought I had pulled it off. Then the final contestant name flashed with a time of 5.42 seconds! I sat back stunned. Someone had beaten me. When the next Hot Seat contestant was introduced as a grad student from Johns Hopkins and he began easily answering questions, I knew I wasn't going to make it.

    At the next studio break, one of the contestant coordinators came over to tell the remaining contestants the final segment was about to be taped, a kind way of saying we were not going to make it to the Hot Seat. Our grad student would have to answer one or perhaps two more easy questions, and we would be out of there. I was shocked and depressed.

  • A Miracle Occurred, And Then Was Almost Rescinded

    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

    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.