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Lionel Goldbart is an unlikely hero. Working the Lotto hardware at Art Barker's News on a Saturday afternoon, he's somewhat forgettable in his worn T-shirt and shorts buoyed by suspenders, stubbly of chin and thinned out on top, bespectacled, round and a little bit droopy. To anybody who asks, he describes himself as "failed poet and aspiring actor." One might be tempted to label him "disheveled," except that would imply a previous state of being sheveled. But after a decade and a half spent bottom-feeding in the South Beach aquarium, with upper-middle age cloaking his tentative soul like a loose pair of Sansabelt slacks, Goldbart can say he's a man who has scaled his share of life's peaks. Partied with Kerouac. Toked his way to Tangier and back. (Twice.) Rectified the inadequacies of the Gregorian calendar. And as improbable as it sounds, amassed a small fortune playing Jeopardy!
Though his poems are published semiregularly in the weekly Wire and he lands a role every now and then on the local stage, it is the Jeopardy! triumph that spread his fame farthest and widest, and it is Jeopardy! that is responsible for returning Goldbart to the surface of the local culture pond again next week, when he appears on the game show's Tenth Anniversary Championship special, competing for a grand prize of $25,000 plus whatever the victor is able to amass in a two-day, two-match final. The tournament, which was videotaped in mid-October, airs November 29 through December 3 at 7:30 p.m. on WPLG-TV (Channel 10).
Almost all the contestants were randomly chosen from a roster of participants in the annual Tournament of Champions (one name was drawn from each year the revamped Jeopardy! has ruled the airwaves, and the winner of this year's tourney was also invited), yet Goldbart's selection seems fitting -- or fated. Because if people wore their karma like tattoos, Lionel Goldbart would be a sideshow.
We all confront our personal demons in different ways (assuming we have the courage to confront them at all), but Goldbart has made the figurative literal. Jeopardy! seems to be the preferred method by which he tests his own mettle; this is the fourth time he's jetted to the West Coast to play. And he's never done it for the money. In 1985, when he first came to the attention of show officials at a Miami tryout, Goldbart wasn't even a fan of the show. He just wanted, he says, "to make my parents proud of me. At that time I was suffering from low self-esteem." His ego was so scrambled, the Brooklyn-born Beach transplant confesses, that he had trouble answering when host Alex Trebek asked the contestants to tell the audience what they did for a living. "I said I was a retired schoolteacher; I didn't want them to know I had been into drugs," says Goldbart, who had developed an enduring attachment to pharmacopoeia while immersing himself in the New York Beat society of the Fifties and had later embarked on two extended forays to Tangier in pursuit of enhanced consciousness and various controlled substances. The schoolteacher statement wasn't a complete falsehood; Goldbart substitute-taught in New Jersey for a time but lost his certification under unpleasant circumstances. When he moved to Miami Beach in 1979 with the aim of shedding junkiedom (which he accomplished), he got a part-time job as a clerk at Art Barker's on Alton Road. "I didn't even have good clothes to wear," he recalls of his first pilgrimage to game-show mecca. "I had to borrow what I wore to the taping. Roy Rubin A he used to coach the Philadelphia 76ers A loaned me his sport coat. I still have it. I keep everything."
Despite the little lie -- or, perhaps, because of it -- the gods smiled. Goldbart won his initial match, and then three more, racking up $35,000 in cash as a four-day Jeopardy! champ, a victory he says smoothed the way to a reunion with his estranged daughter, Rachel. The gods positively grinned: he was invited to participate in the 1985-86 season's $100,000 Tournament of Champions, where he earned a spot in the semifinals, and an impromptu starring role in a production of a different sort.
"That's the time I forgot to put the answer in the form of a question," Goldbart says in the world-weary tone of a man who has had everything to gain and then lost it.
Nearing the end of the semifinal round, he was trailing his two opponents when he uncovered the last remaining Daily Double in the game. "I wagered everything I had -- $3700," he recalls. "I would have been in first place with only two more answers left on the board."
The clue: "UNTIL REACHING THIS MILESTONE, STALLIONS, GELDINGS, AND MARES ALIKE ARE KNOWN AS 'MAIDENS'."
Goldbart's response: "Until winning a race."
Alex Trebek's devastating news: "Oh, Lionel. You didn't phrase it in the form of a question. I have to rule against you."
And the gods had the whole thing captured on film: Students from the School of Cinema-Television at USC were making Wise Guys, a documentary destined to win top honors for director David Hartwell at a prestigious student film festival. (A brief aside: The festival, sponsored by Nissan, bestowed brand-new automobiles as prizes. From his home in Marina del Rey, Hartwell reports that he immediately sold the Sentra he won and plowed the $10,000 windfall into a new movie, which ultimately led to his first feature, set for release in January. Hartwell describes the movie, entitled Love Is a Gun, as "a supernatural erotic thriller" starring Eric Roberts and Lee Ermy. "Oh, Lionel!" Hartwell exclaims. "That's always been my favorite scene in the film, where he loses everything. Lionel was special. He had told me he came on the show to redeem himself. Incredible.") In Wise Guys, Goldbart is asked after the match about his reaction to the numbing experience. "I don't feel bad," the defeated contestant said. "It's a technicality." The interviewer persisted. "But to lose like that," he prodded. "That must be...." Replied Goldbart: "It's just motherfuckin' money, man."