Friday, Nov 12, 1999 5:00 PM UTC

I want to be a millionaire!

In which our hero aces the telephone test, hears an actual voice recording of Regis, qualifies as a contestant and prepares to make his fortune.

Who wants to be a millionaire. They don’t even have the decency to put a question mark at the end of the sentence. But then, it’s not really a question, is it? So … sign me up!

I tried to get on the show in August, when it first aired. To become a contestant you had to call a 900 number and demonstrate your ordering prowess by correctly putting a few writers in order of birth, a few musicals in order of when they opened and a few rulers in order of when they ruled. The questions become more difficult as you progress, and my own difficulty factor was increased by the whimsical configuration of my push-button phone — which is cunningly designed to resemble a rotary model. If, as you are attempting to qualify, you press a number other than 1 through 4 you are disqualified from the semifinals.

Back in August, it cost $1.50 per call to try out — with a two-call-per-day maximum. Due to technical difficulties (see phone configuration), the best I could do was answer the three questions correctly, but not at the breakneck speed required to progress to the semifinal round. At the end of two weeks I was out about $21 for my efforts. The only ones getting rich were the 900-number people.

So now, smack in the middle of November sweeps, the highest rated show in recent television history is back. They have discontinued the $1.50 per call fee and enacted a fail-safe method to prevent overloading the system. This time I was determined. Who wants to be a millionaire? Me! Ooh! Me!

On my first day of calling I accidentally pressed 5 instead of 4. How cute is my phone now? On the second day of calling I made it through. The taped voice of Regis Philbin congratulated me on my correct answers, but warned that next time, I would have to order like the wind to advance to the semifinals. I also had to be near a phone from noon to 3 p.m. the following day to receive information about the next round. If they called and I was not home — so long, Regis! There’d be no champagne wishes and caviar dreams for me.

At 12:03 the phone rang. A woman at the other end of the phone said she represented the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” show. In exchange for my date of birth and the last four digits of my Social Security number, she would give me some important information: I had advanced to the final round. I was given a special phone number and a pin number and was told to call between 5 and 6 the next day to put more things in order.

The whole next day I spent in strategy. I borrowed a friend’s speaker phone and hunkered down. At 5:07, I called in and answered the five questions. The voice of Regis came back to tell me that someone would call me between 6 and 10 that evening, if I had A) answered the questions correctly, and B) been among the 10 speediest respondents. The Regis voice reminded me that if I missed the call, I was SOL. These people were ruthless.

Suddenly, I was confronted by the first dilemma of pre-millionairedom. I am a professor at NYU and I had a class at 6:30 downtown. The phone number I’d given the show was a home phone (no cell or beeper numbers were allowed).

What should I do? Tell NYU I was sick? Tell them I want to be a millionaire? Or forget it — maybe I hadn’t answered the questions right, maybe I hadn’t answered them fast enough? Maybe, deep down, I didn’t really wantto be a millionaire?

Then a water main broke and stopped all subway service downtown. God works in mysterious ways in New York City — that or He watches the show, too.

Now there was nothing left to do but wait. Would the Regis voice call again?

At 6:48 the phone rang.

It was a friend asking to borrow my drill.

At 6:53 the phone rang again.

“Hi, this is Lisa from ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.’ Is Steven Smith there?”

“Is this good news?”

After motoring through the verbal fine print, she finally murmured, “Congratulations! You’ve won a spot in the Friday, November 12th taping, to air on Saturday, November 13th.”

Yahoo!

She asked if she could arrange my flight plans, I told her that I lived 30 city blocks from the studio. So they would send a limo for me, she said. Then she asked who my companion would be. I picked my mother, who lives on Long Island. A limo would be sent for her, too. We both would be put up at the Empire Hotel on 67th Street — just blocks from my apartment.

I was then to make a list of five friends to call in case I chose to exercise my “Phone-a-friend lifeline” privileges. For the untutored, three “lifelines” are allowed on your way up the ladder. AT&T has set up a system that allows you to call friends for help in tricky categories. For sports, I chose my friend who took me to the second to last Mets game this season, and for cooking I chose my Italian aunt, who is the only one in the family who can cook. For variety I picked my Uncle Hank, who was once nominated for a Nobel Science Prize in Marine Pharmacology; a colleague at NYU who has read all the classics; and a Broadway director who writes crossword puzzles for Harper’s magazine.

My brain trust is in place. My Social Security card and 14 other documents containing the same information are packed and ready to go — lack of I.D. was not going to stop me now! After learning that shorts and jeans are not allowed on the show, I’ve decided on Armani. When I meet Reege, I want to look like a million bucks.

I am writing this on Thursday night. At this moment, I am waiting for the limo to pick me up and deliver me several city blocks to the hotel. Upon arrival, I will return home to walk my dog, after which I will rejoin my mother at the hotel. We will be sequestered there from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. the next day.

The clock is ticking. My ordering skills will be pitted against those of
10 of the finest ordering minds in America. We all have our eyes on the prize: the chance to go face to face with Regis Philbin for a million bucks.

It feels like “The 25,000 Pyramid” on steroids.