One of the people Ken Jennings passed on his record-setting Jeopardy run was Ed Toutant, who had been #2 in all-time winnings after Kevin Olmstead. Like Olmstead, Toutant won his money on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, in this case $1.86 million, but his path to the prize was decidedly unconventional.
His first time on air, he failed to make it out of the "ring of fire." In 2001, he tried again, passing an audition in St. Louis and making it into the "hot seat," almost literally at the last minute. Carried over the next day, Super Bowl Sunday, Toutant climbed all the way to $16,000 when he was asked, "Scientists in England recently genetically altered what vegetable so it glows when it needs water? A) Potato B) Tomato C) Cabbage D) Carrots"
After asking the audience, he went with their choice, "tomato," reasoning that it would be futile to light up underground veggies like potatoes and carrots. But the answer turned out to be potato. Or so it seemed.
"Out of curiosity, when I got home I started doing research and discovered that the question was bad," says Toutant. As it happens, the glowing potato came from Scotland, not England.
But the story took another twist. "I found an Oxford professor named Dr. Marc Knight, who sent me his journal article on glowing tomato plants. So I wrote the show a concise, friendly letter and about six weeks later I got a phone call from the show, inviting me on again."
The story has yet another wrinkle. When Toutant was on, $10,000 more was being added to the kitty every time a show ended without anyone winning the million. In the interim between his second and third appearances, though, Kevin Olmstead won the ever larger grand prize, by then worth over $2.1 million. So, to be fair, the show not only brought Toutant back, but gave him a chance to win the prize he could have won: $1.86 million.
And that's exactly what he did. After stumbling and using two lifelines on new $16,000 question, in which he had to identify Emmentaler as a type of cheese, Toutant began to rise until he got to the $1.86 million question: "During WWII, US soldiers used the first commercial aerosol cans to hold what?"
With his 50:50 still in hand, he reduced the possible answers to "antiseptic" and "insecticide." As Toutant recalls, "I was already thinking it was insecticide, but I also knew I was going to go for it anyway."
After all, for Toutant the motivation wasn't just the big money, but also the thrill of the game. "I'd have played for a thousand bucks, and it still would have been fun to play."
The actual money has been sweet, but not entirely life-changing. He remained at his job working for IBM in Austin, Texas. "One of the ironic things about the show is that the people who have the best chance of going all the way are often the ones in least need of it. I had a good job and a good safety net under me, and I don't have dependents, so I had no reason not to take some risks. For some people, it's not 'who wants to be a millionaire,' but 'who wants to pay some bills,' so they end up using lifelines, even on questions they think they know, because they can't afford to fall from $8000 to $1000."
He also notices that some Millionaire players lose, not because of conservative play, but because of a lack of strategy. "Some people, before they go on, they bury their heads in an almanac instead of watching the show for its nuances. A good example of a mistake is saying out loud where you're leaning before you ask the audience. Or not having your phone-a-friends ready."
In Toutant's case, his five phone-a-friends were often phone-a-groups: friends in Austin, relatives in Louisville and a clutch of fellow trivia players in Colorado, who he met competing in the University of Colorado Trivia Bowl, an annual charity fundraiser.
In fact, he continues to play trivia, participating in a local trivia league run out of an Irish pub. His team does well, but they're not necessarily the best people in the league. And folks are definitely not intimidated by him. "A lot of people don't know my back story, but when we talk about game shows, they might remember seeing me."
Nor was Millionaire his first foray into game shows. He also won $11,401 in his solitary Jeopardy victory in 1989, finishing second the next day. "It was disappointing to lose. But every game is different. For Ken Jennings, Jeopardy was his perfect game. For me, it was probably Millionaire. It's multiple choice and you have all the time you want to think about things."
This being said, Toutant also had enough speed to win the first Smarty Pants competition, held as part of Game Show Congress 2003 in Los Angeles. The three top money-winning quiz show players of all time (at the time) were all there, along with a number of other legends, not just from Millionaire but also from Jeopardy, Twenty-One and Win Ben Stein's Money.
"It was a high point for me, not because of the recognition, because there wasn"t much, but because I was up against so many legendary names in game shows," says Toutant. "I was playing mostly for fun and hoping not to embarrass myself." But in the end, he and Jeopardy icon Leszek Pawlowicz fought it out. "I won because the game happened to stop when I was in the lead."
He also brought along some of his Regis Philbin work-out tapes, which he gave away. The tapes are part of his burgeoning collection of Millionaire paraphernalia. "When I was on the show, for good luck, a friend gave me a pair of Who Wants to be a Millionaire socks. They were the gaudiest things imaginable. The piece de resistance was a plastic hologram tag at the leg. If you look at it one way, you see Regis. If you look at it the other way, you see the Millionaire logo."
In fact, the camera crew hoped to show the socks on air, but a certain question about glowing potatoes got in the way. Eventually, Toutant found his way to eBay, where he had originally planned to bid on bits of the old Jeopardy set. "It turned out it wasn't the set I had played on, but I found all kinds of Millionaire stuff."
By this time, the Millionaire craze was fading, so while the branded products were disappearing, they could also be had at bargain basement prices. He began picking up some truly odd things: a life size cardboard cut-out of Regis, for example, or a CD with all 76 of the shows musical cues on it, or a keychain in which Regis asks, "Is that your final answer?"
If he ever does face Jennings, perhaps he can find good-luck Jennings-brand charms!