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John Carpenter is an American game show contestant and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent. He is best known for becoming the first top-prize winner on the American version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the first ever top prize winner in the entire Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? franchise.

On the November 19, 1999, episode of Millionaire, Carpenter proceeded to advance to the million-dollar question without using any lifelines. He then used his Phone-a-Friend to call his father, not for help, but rather to tell him he was going to win the game. Carpenter answered the question correctly and became the show's first millionaire. His win gave him national recognition and led to multiple talk show appearances, as well as subsequent appearances on Millionaire.

Carpenter later returned for the Champions Edition of Millionaire on May 24-25, 2000 and won $250,000. ($125,000 went to him, and the other $125,000 went to a charity of his choice). He held the record for the largest single win in United States game show history, until it was broken by Rahim Oberholtzer who won $1.12 million on another U.S. quiz show, Twenty One. Carpenter ranks as the twelfth highest-earning American game show contestant of all time.

Career and family

Carpenter was born in Northampton, Massachusetts. His father, Tom, worked as a computer program analyst for the Department of Veterans Affairs, while his mother, Gail, served as an administrative assistant for the Massachusetts Audubon Society. In 1986, he enrolled at Rutgers University and graduated in 1990 with a degree in economics. In January 1991, he joined the Internal Revenue Service after completing government exams and tests. In November 1996, Carpenter met his future wife, Deborah, who was studying for a master's degree at Southern Connecticut State University and worked as a manager of a Fleet Bank branch in New Haven. They married in August 1998.

Original WWTBAM Run

Carpenter hadn't even heard of Millionaire when he had some of his wife Debbie's friends over for dinner. In an interview, Carpenter said "They were saying, 'You've got to watch this show,' so we turned it on and I couldn't believe how easy the questions were. And it wasn't just the first few, either. I decided I had to try to get on." Carpenter answered all of the hotline questions correctly and was on the show within two days.

At the time of his appearance on Millionaire, he was 31 years old and worked as a collections agent as a revenue officer for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). When he revealed his profession as an IRS officer, Carpenter was playfully booed by the audience. Carpenter was supported in the audience by Debbie on both his original run and on Champions Edition.

Fastest Finger Question

Fastest Finger Question
Put the following races in order according to their length, from the shortest to the longest.
• A: Iditarod Dog Sled Race • B: Tour De France
• C: London Marathon • D: Indianapolis 500
Out of 8 contestants, 3 got it right, but John (with a time of 5.42 seconds) was the fastest to correctly answer C-D-A-B, making it into the Hot Seat. (The races are, respectively, 938, ~2200, 26 and 500 miles long.)

John's Run to the Million

$100 (1 of 15) - Not Timed
In the "Road Runner and Coyote" cartoons, what famous sound does the Road Runner make?
• A: Ping! Ping! • B: Beep! Beep!
• C: Aooga! Aooga! • D: Vroom! Vroom!
$200 (2 of 15) - Not Timed
Where should choking victims place their hands to indicate to others that they need help?
• A: Over the eyes • B: On the knees
• C: Around the throat • D: On the hips
The klaxon called time and John would return on $200 with all lifelines still available.
$300 (3 of 15) - Not Timed
Which of these dance names is used to describe a fashionable dot?
• A: Hora • B: Swing
• C: Lambada • D: Polka
$500 (4 of 15) - Not Timed
In what "language" would you say "ello-hay" to greet your friends?
• A: Bull Latin • B: Dog Latin
• C: Duck Latin • D: Pig Latin
$1,000 (5 of 15) - Not Timed
What part of a chicken is commonly called the "drumstick"?
• A: Breast • B: Wing
• C: Leg • D: Gizzard
$2,000 (6 of 15) - Not Timed
What is the only position on a football team that can be "sacked"?
• A: Center • B: Wide receiver
• C: Tight end • D: Quarterback
$4,000 (7 of 15) - Not Timed
What god of love is often depicted as a chubby winged infant with a bow and arrow?
• A: Zeus • B: Mercury
• C: Cupid • D: Poseidon
$8,000 (8 of 15) - Not Timed
What Steven Spielberg film climaxes at a place called Devil's Tower?
• A: E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial • B: Jurassic Park
• C: Raiders of the Lost Ark • D: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
John answered this question by recalling the scene where Richard Dreyfuss makes a model of Devil's Tower with his mashed potatoes, and answered D: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This promoted a humorous response from Reigis, who said "Not only do you know, you also gave us the mashed potatoes in there too!".
$16,000 (9 of 15) - Not Timed
In what U.S. town did the famous 1881 shoot-out at the O.K. Corral take place?
• A: Laramie • B: Tombstone
• C: El Paso • D: Dodge City
Initially unsure, John eventually remembered that the 1993 film Tombstone included the gunfight, and he replied correctly with the answer B: Tombstone.
$32,000 (10 of 15) - Not Timed
Which of the following months has no U.S. federal holiday?
• A: August • B: February
• C: September • D: November
As an IRS agent, John immediately finds it amusing that this question is featured during his run. Reigis jokingly says "Of all the guys to get this question!". John told Reigis "This must be my night. Do you want me to read off when the federal holidays are?", and Reigis jokingly replied "Just give us the month! Hold the mashed potatoes!". John correctly answered A: August.
$64,000 (11 of 15) - Not Timed
What mythological beast is reborn from its own ashes?
• A: Phoenix • B: Minotaur
• C: Dragon • D: Golem
$125,000 (12 of 15) - Not Timed
Who developed the first effective vaccine against polio?
• A: Albert Sabin • B: Niels Bohr
• C: Louis Pasteur • D: Jonas Salk
$250,000 (13 of 15) - Not Timed
Which of the following is not a monotheistic religion?
• A: Islam • B: Judaism
• C: Hinduism • D: Christianity
$500,000 (14 of 15) - Not Timed
What architect designed the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre?
• A: Philip Johnson • B: Le Corbusier
• C: Frank Gehry • D: I.M. Pei
$1,000,000 (15 of 15) - Not Timed
Which of these U.S. Presidents appeared on the television series "Laugh-In"?
"Phone-a-Friend" lifeline used
• A: Lyndon Johnson • B: Richard Nixon
• C: Jimmy Carter • D: Gerald Ford
John used his Phone-a-Friend lifeline to call his father Tom. However, instead of asking for help, John revealed that he had only phoned Tom to let him know he was about win the million dollars. After a cheer from the crowd, John said the correct answer was B: Richard Nixon, and made it his final answer. An excited Regis would then exclaim, "Well, my gosh. What can I say except: Debbie, you're going to Paris, and this is the final answer heard all around the world... he's won a million dollars!".

John Carpenter: Millionaire

John Carpenter wins the million dollars, becoming the first millionaire.

Host Regis Philbin described Carpenter as having "cruised right through those first fourteen questions," as he had proceeded to reach the final question without using any of his lifelines. The $1 million question was, "Which of these U.S. Presidents appeared on the television series 'Laugh-In'?", with the choices being A) Lyndon Johnson, B) Richard Nixon, C) Jimmy Carter, and D) Gerald Ford. Carpenter used his Phone-A-Friend lifeline to call his father not for help, but rather to inform him that he was going to win the million dollars.

In an interview, Carpenter later said of this moment, "I thought I'd look so cocky if I didn't use any lifelines, so I faked it. I regret that it came across as arrogant,” says Carpenter. “Where that came about was that Regis was dissing me that I hadn’t used any of my lifelines and, really, that didn’t matter to me. When I decided to call the Phone-A-Friend, I just thought it would be funny.” That being said, after Carpenter saw himself on TV, he could understand why people thought he was arrogant. "To be honest, when I was sitting there, I couldn't believe how easy my questions were. A lot of people thought so and they were right. It just happened that I was very lucky that I wasn't asked any questions on anything that I'm not strong in." Carpenter would eventually spoof his reputation with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which Donald Trump, played by Darrell Hammond, though he was too smug. Carpenter didn't mind, though. "It's SNL. I'd have dropped my pants to have been on that show."

John Carpenter hugging his wife Debbie after winning the top prize

With his win, Carpenter became the first contestant in the worldwide Millionaire franchise to win the show's top prize. He said that the only question that had flustered him was one which asked for the location of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Carpenter eventually remembered that the film Tombstone included the gunfight, and he replied correctly with the answer 'Tombstone, Arizona'. While taking a vacation after his win, Carpenter considered quitting his job with the IRS, but eventually decided against it. He explained to Kiplinger's Personal Finance that "after the taxes, it's not change-your-life kind of money if you want to eat every day." Carpenter also described the fame as having a bigger impact on his life than the money, later stating: "The money doesn't change your life. What happens afterwards might."

WWTBAM - Champions Edition

John in the hot seat for Champions Edition.

On May 24-25, 2000, Carpenter appeared in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Champions Edition, in which previous contestants who won $250,000-$1,000,000 played again, with half their winnings going to their favorite charities. He previously appeared in the May 21, 2000 episode, but didn't make it into the hot seat. Carpenter played for the SARA Foundation.

Fastest Finger Question

Fastest Finger Question
Put these actors named Tom in order of their births, starting with the most recent.
• A: Tom Hanks • B: Tom Skerritt
• C: Tom Cruise • D: Tom Selleck
Among an astounding 9 contestants who got it right, John Carpenter makes it into the Hot Seat by answering C-A-D-B in a time of 4.49 seconds.

John's Second Run to the Million

$100 (1 of 15) - Not timed
Etiquette dictates that a female subject greeting the queen should do what?
• A: Curtsy • B: Boo
• C: Wink • D: High-five
$200 (2 of 15) - Not timed
According to the Biblical verse, "Many are called," but who "are chosen"?
• A: Women • B: Few
• C: Sheep • D: Tall people
$300 (3 of 15) - Not timed
What is the term for a decorative image drawn on the skin with a needle?
• A: Freckle • B: Fresco
• C: Tattoo • D: Regrettable
$500 (4 of 15) - Not timed
Where is the stinger on a scorpion's body?
• A: Mouth • B: Tail
• C: Claw • D: Leg
$1,000 (5 of 15) - Not timed
Lima beans are named for a city in what country?
• A: Peru • B: Cuba
• C: Italy • D: Argentina
$2,000 (6 of 15) - Not timed
Which of the following daily comics is usually printed as a single panel within a circle?
• A: The Far Side • B: Mother Goose & Grimm
• C: The Lockhorns • D: The Family Circus
$4,000 (7 of 15) - Not timed
The Tamagotchi virtual pet is made in the shape of what?
• A: Cat • B: Egg
• C: Heart • D: Bunny
$8,000 (8 of 15) - Not timed
In the 1998 movie "Bulworth," Warren Beatty's character delivers his political message in what musical style?
• A: Rap • B: Reggae
• C: Rock • D: Country
$16,000 (9 of 15) - Not timed
In the 1790s, what British seaman led the mutiny aboard the "Bounty"?
• A: Joseph Banks • B: Fletcher Christian
• C: James Cook • D: Joseph Cinque
$32,000 (10 of 15) - Not timed
In architecture, what is the name of the center stone at the top of an arch?
• A: Cornerstone • B: Impost
• C: Lodestone • D: Keystone
$64,000 (11 of 15) - Not timed
Which of the following operas features the Toreador Song"?
"Ask the Audience" lifeline used
• A: Don Giovanni • B: La Boheme
• C: Carmen • D: Lucia di Lammermoor
Ask the Audience Results: A: 15% • B: 18% • C: 60% • D: 7%
John repeated until the 10th question what he did in his previous appearance where he won the top prize: go through all the questions without any lifeline aid (not counting when he phoned his father telling him he would win a million as it was not used for what the lifeline's purpose was). But, after answering 25 questions in a row without using a lifeline, he used the "Ask the Audience" lifeline on the $64,000 question, as he was "not an opera buff". John went with the audience and correctly answered C: Carmen.
$125,000 (12 of 15) - Not timed
Where was Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky murdered in 1940?
• A: Turkmenistan • B: Paris
• C: Buenos Aires • D: Mexico City
After this question, the klaxon called time, and John returned the next day.
$250,000 (13 of 15) - Not timed
A two-sided painting by what artist is featured in the award-winning play "Six Degrees of Separation"?
"50:50" lifeline used
• A: Paul Klee • B: Wassily Kandinsky
• C: Roy Lichtenstein • D: Jackson Pollock
Unsure, John used the "50:50" lifeline. After seeing the two remaining choices, John chose B and was correct, earning him $250,000
$500,000 (14 of 15) - Not Timed
Who was the first baseball player to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp?
"Phone-a-Friend" lifeline used
• A: Roberto Clemente • B: Lou Gehrig
• C: Jackie Robinson • D: Babe Ruth
Unsure, John used the "Phone-A-Friend" lifeline to phone his brother (to his completely unexpected surprise) to help him with the question. But, not confident with his brother's guess (which was Jackie Robinson), he decided to walk away, winning $250,000. The correct answer was, indeed, C: Jackie Robinson.

$125,000 went to him and the other half to his charity, making his total Millionaire winnings $1,125,000.

Total Prize Money: $250,000

Post WWTBAM

Post WWTBAM - Original Run

John Carpenter receiving his cheque for a million dollars.

While taking a vacation after his win, Carpenter considered quitting his job with the IRS, but eventually decided against it. He explained to Kiplinger's Personal Finance that "after the taxes, it's not change-your-life kind of money if you want to eat every day".

Shortly after winning on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Carpenter played himself in a Saturday Night Live skit. Donald Trump, played by Darrell Hammond, announced that Carpenter would be his running-mate in the presidential election. Afterward, Carpenter pretended to call his father, then shouted, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" Carpenter also appeared on Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and Late Show with David Letterman.

He also appeared on the HBO prison drama Oz, playing a contestant on a TV show called Up Your Ante, which the prisoners watched. By that time, he had representation to navigate the large number of media and appearance requests that were coming in. But at first he had no idea things would escalate. "I thought I'd be on Regis's show and that'd be it."

Post WWTBAM - Champions Edition

Carpenter appeared as himself in a 2001 episode of Oz (season 4, episode 9, "Medium Rare"). He plays a contestant in a fictional TV game show called "Up Your Ante" that the prisoners in Em City are watching. The show within the show is hosted by Gordon Elliott, with Eartha Kitt appearing as a celebrity participant.

With Rod L. Evans, Carpenter co-authored a trivia book titled Matching Wits With the Million-Dollar Mind: The World's Hardest Trivia Quizzes From America's First Quiz Show Millionaire. The book was published by Berkley Books in 2002.

In 2004, he participated in Super Millionaire, as one of the "Three Wise Men". He was with Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. Abby Salny on the episode that Robert "Bob-O" Essig won $1,000,000.

He appeared as part of the Mob (seat #16) on the Game Show 1 vs. 100 on October 27, 2006. He was singled out by the first contestant for help with $51,800 at stake on the question "Which of the following is not a real person to have a salad named after him: Bob Cobb, Caesar Cardini, or François Niçoise ?" Carpenter answered "Bob Cobb", which Carpenter correctly recognized as The Maestro of Seinfeld fame; the contestant agreed but the Cobb salad was indeed named after a Robert Cobb. (The correct answer was François Niçoise.)

Carpenter was a contestant on the GSN game show Grand Slam. He faced Tic Tac Dough champion Thom McKee in the first round match and won his match but lost in the quarterfinals to Weakest Link champion Michelle Kitt.

Carpenter appeared on the August 16, 2009 episode of Millionaire in prime time for its tenth anniversary, in the audience with him was his dad, his wife, and their son. Additionally, he was also the first expert in the "Ask the Expert" lifeline for the eighth season of the syndicated series.

In a 2007 interview, Carpenter stated he had semi-retired from participating in game shows, saying "I've met other Millionaires who are really into game shows and quiz shows, but that's just not me. I'm not part of the trivia lifestyle. I don't really have a burning desire to be on another one." The one time he did go to Los Angeles for a quiz show, he came to regret it. "I have two regrets about 1 vs 100. One is that I was publicly humiliated on national TV for getting an answer wrong, and the other is that I brought the poor woman playing down with me." The question asked about people who had salads named for them; it also eliminated fellow Millionaire Kevin Olmstead.

Carpenter appears to be somewhat grateful to be out of the spotlight. "I still get recognized, but I'm like a curiosity now, not a celebrity. I'm sort of like the TV weatherman." As for the money he won, most of it was invested and is being set aside for the future, in particular for the future of his young son. And, yes, the IRS agent did indeed pay the 40% he owed in state and federal taxes. But the show did change his career at the agency. Before being on the show, he had been in collections. "I was the guy knocking on doors, looking for a few thousand dollars, but given who I was, that clearly wasn't going to work anymore. But the IRS was very good to me. They moved me inside to an advisor job."

Gallery

Trivia

  • According to an interview with him on Australia's version of the Is That Your Final Answer? documentary, due to his $1m win, John Carpenter's wife Debbie was able to work part-time rather than full-time, and he also bought a new BMW 528, a new mobile phone and a new digital camera, so his wife was able to take pictures of their new dog.
  • In the original UK version's final episode, "Chris's Final Answer", after John Carpenter winning the million, the UK version's host, Chris Tarrant, said "What a cool customer he was. Funny if he knew it wrong."

References

Preceded by
Al Metz
U.S. Contestant (Season 1)
John Carpenter
Succeeded by
Stephen Fox
Preceded by
Michael Shutterly
Champions Edition Contestants
John Carpenter
Succeeded by
Toby Moore
Preceded by
N/A
U.S. Top Prize Winners
John Carpenter
Succeeded by
Dan Blonsky
Preceded by
Nancy Christy
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Anthony DeCurtis
Super Millionaire Three Wise Men
Dr. Abby Salny
Dr. Drew Pinsky
John Carpenter
Succeeded by
David Goodman
Tracy Caldwell Dyson
Michael Starr
Preceded by
Unknown
U.S. Experts
John Carpenter
Succeeded by
Alexandra "Ali" Wentworth


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