The Quiz Biz

What are those dots on dominoes called? Which TV show came first, “Gilligan’s Island” or “Fantasy Island”? (Answers: Pips and “Gilligan’s Island.”)

These may seem like trivial questions, but if you’re a contestant on ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” they can be pretty profound.

For truck driver Mitchell Brown, little facts meant big bucks. Brown appeared on the game show March 4 and walked away with $125,000.

“I was on high school quiz teams,” says Brown, who is also a Mennonite minister in his hometown of Wilmette, Ill. “I’ve always had a mind for meaningless information.”

Brown hopes his success on the show changed the image of truckers in the minds of the millions of people watching. “I think there’s probably a bad stereotype out there, unfortunately,” he says. “I find truck drivers are really good people. They get to lead independent lives, and I think it’s a great alternative to a nine-to-five job.”

For one day, of course, being on a game show was a great alternative to truck driving for Brown. He remembers the moment he got the call from ABC. “I was having a bad day,” he says. “The trucking business has been terrible for the last two months.

There’s been a tremendous slowdown in air freight coming into Chicago – it’s the worst it’s been in 10 years. Just after I dropped my truck off, I got the call in the car while driving home.” That was a Friday, and he flew to New York the next Wednesday for the taping.

Before that, he had called the show “periodically.” If you get through, they give you a three-question test. If you get those right, which Brown says he did “fairly regularly,” you’ve got a shot at a random call back.

Brown got about three calls in the past year. Then they give you a five-question test. “If you get through that, you’ve got a good chance of being on the show,” he says.

But even if ABC flies you to the taping in New York, you’re not guaranteed a slot on the show. Before you make it into the coveted chair across from host Regis Philbin, you have to compete against nine other contestants in a fast-trigger quiz. Only two of 10 made it the day of Brown’s show.

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Brown, 50, questioned his chances. “I was older than most people, so I thought I’d be slower with my fingers than the others,” he says. “But I got the question by 1/100th of a second.” The question was to put four TV shows in order, oldest first. The answer was “Hawaii 5-0,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Fantasy Island,” and “Temptation Island.”

Then came the customary shake of Regis’s hand. “He really liked that combination of truck driver and minister,” Brown says. “He said he’d never had anyone with that combination before.”

As any fan of the show knows, the questions start easy and get harder. But even with the heat on, under the spotlight, Brown stayed cool. “I was very calm,” he says. “I don’t know why. It all went very smoothly.”

Brown also got by with a little help from strangers, not friends. Contestants are allowed three “lifelines.” One is to poll the audience, another is to “phone a friend” for help, and a third one is to have two of the four answer choices eliminated.

Brown polled the audience on the question of how much postage you need on a post card. “I knew it was either 15 cents or 20, but I had to ask the audience,” he says. The audience answered correctly-20 cents.

Brown took his “50/50” on the question of what dominoes spots are called, answering correctly with “pips.”

Meanwhile his brother was waiting at a computer in Minneapolis, ready to type in an answer for the “phone a friend.” When Brown was stumped, he called. The question was: “Which of these actors released a CD called, ‘Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Songs Just for You?'” The choices were four Italian-American actors. The problem was that Brown’s brother tried typing the question into the computer, but it was too long for the 30 seconds allotted.

Fortunately, Brown remembered that Vincent LaGuardia was a character’s name in the movie “My Cousin Vinnie.” The actor, and Brown’s final answer, was Joe Pesci. His brother, now off the hook, wrote a column about his national-spotlight failure for his employer, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Finally, Brown met his match. The question was: “What level of the atmosphere are clouds formed at?”
“I knew it was either ‘troposhere’ or ‘thermosphere,’ but I didn’t know which one,” he says. “I’d wasted all my lifelines earlier.” He had $125,000 already. A correct answer would have given him $250,000. A miss would have dropped him to $32,000.

“I didn’t want to risk that kind of money,” he says. The answer is “troposphere.” “I said on the show I would have answered ‘thermosphere,’ but I’m not so sure. The first thing that came to mind was ‘troposphere.'”

That’s a question that will stay with Brown for a long time, since $250,000 is a lot more money than $125,000, he says. “But, then again, $32,000 is a lot different from $125,000,” he adds.

It’s hard not to look back on the final question with 20-20 hindsight. “In retrospect, I wish I’d prepared a little more,” Brown says. “I looked at a few almanacs. But that’s something I could have known if I’d looked at a science book.”

But, overall, Brown is thrilled by his good fortune. “I was shocked that I actually got to play,” he says. “It was nice to get a trip to New York, and getting on the show was just icing on the cake.”

Even if he’d hit the jackpot, this trucker wouldn’t have lost his passion for the road. “I’ve been in trucking my whole life,” he says.

Brown’s family ran an LTL carrier out of Chicago. The business went under in 1991, so he bought his own rig and now hauls auto parts and other freight. He leases to The Freight Escape of Bensonville, Ill.
While studying religion at the University of Chicago, Brown was drawn to Mennonitism. He earned a doctorate in ministry and became the minister of a small Mennonite church.

Even if the church was large enough to pay his bills, Brown wouldn’t give up driving. “It’s nice to be out on the road, traveling around the country and seeing different things,” he says. “The jobs fit very well together.”