Countless crossword puzzles, trivia and TV game shows, TV biographies, books and conversations in bars with random “smart people” prepared Tom Magill for the ultimate trivia junkie’s dream: a spot as a contestant on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire."
“I watched [the show] for a long time and I sat there and answered all the questions,” said Magill, 64. “My wife and my mother-in-law said, ‘why don’t you go on the show and put your money where your mouth is?’ ”
So Magill did just that in May 2010. After reading about tryouts in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he hopped on a train to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to try out.
Trying out for the shows, he said, is simple, but not as people imagine it.
There were about 12 people in line when he showed up, he said. When he was directed to a separate room, he found 400 other wannabe millionaires.
After being herded into this room, it was time to test the smarts of potential contestants—via standardized testing.
“You were given a test of 30 questions and you handed them in, and then they put [the tests] through a little machine,” he said. “If they called your number [that you were assigned], then you were to go to an interview.”
Thirteen or so of those 400, he said, made it to the interview. Magill was one of them.
After the first interview, Magill was directed to another interview.
The second interview resulted in a promise of a call and card in the mail—notifying him whether he made the list of contestants.
“I finally got a little card in the mail saying I was on the contestant list,” he said. “I wasn’t guaranteed I’d be on TV, but I was on the list and they [might] call.”
About four months later, Magill got the call.
“I’m walking through a suburban station downtown and I had just talked to my wife on my cell phone and it rang again,” Magill said. “Very few people have that cell phone number and I’m thinking, 'What does she want now?’ ”
Magill said he almost didn’t answer the phone, but fortunately, he went against his gut and picked up.
“The gentleman announced he was from the show,” he said. “I had to duck into a dark corner to talk to [him].”
The gentleman told Magill he’d receive an e-mail in about a month, giving him the lowdown on anything and everything show-related.
When he received the e-mail, the most unexpected instruction for Magill was for him to send photos of his potential outfits for the show.
“They wanted kind of plain clothes [because a lot of outfits] don’t look good on television,” he said. “They finally approved three outfits—you have to bring two in case you were held over.”
On Oct. 26, 2010, Magill had to be ready for the taping in New York City at 7:30 a.m.—four hours before the audience was slated to show up.
“The whole day took about 13 or 14 hours,” Magill said.
All 15 or so contestants for the day were stuffed into a room with no books, TV or material of any kind and waited for taping to begin. The way taping works, Magill said, is that there were three or four contestants per show, and four or five shows taped in any given day.
“People think you go up, go on the show and that’s it,” he said. “No. It’s basically and honestly a long, boring day.”
Magill said he was apprehensive he’d be asked questions relating to youth-culture that he didn’t know much about, but others were much more nervous than him.
“The producer told us: ‘if you don’t do well on the show, don’t let it get you down because 300,000 people try out for this show and 300 are selected,’ ” Magill said. “[The producer] said, more or less, that we should feel among the privileged.”
Magill said the advice comforted him.
About seven hours later, he was called to wait in another room, by himself, went through makeup and other preparations, and was soon onstage. But Magill wasn’t nervous.
“You don’t see any cameras—the big screen [with the questions] is right in front of you and the audience is all around you,” he said. “You’re so caught up in paying attention, it just goes by so fast.”
Magill’s taping was held over to the next day, where he made out with $1,000.
“I would have stopped at $50,000, I would have made half that, but I wanted to make it to the last level,” he said. “I was greedy and I’m somewhat of a gambler.”
His episode aired on April 26, and Magill said he wasn’t home and didn’t get to watch it.
Nowadays, he gets recognized by people he doesn’t even know that watched the show. And even though he didn’t win big, he has no regrets.
“The experience was marvelous,” he said. “Am I disappointed? Yes.”
Magill said he’d do another game show—but next time he’d play smarter.