Originally created 04/10/00

Surgeon seeks spot on show



AIKEN -- Dr. Steven Clark is an armchair millionaire. But Thursday, he'll try to become ABC's fourth big-money man -- for real.

The Aiken surgeon would like to add at least one more zero to his yearly earnings. He might succeed if he has the fastest finger during a taping of TV's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. On Thursday, he will concentrate on that final elimination process to determine who gets to sit in the hot seat, face to face with Regis Philbin.

Fast fingers have to be connected to a fast mind, however. The first contestant to push the button that says he's got an answer to a test question gets a shot at the big bucks -- if his answer is correct, that is.

The show to be taped Thursday is scheduled to be broadcast April 20.

Even if Dr. Clark doesn't win the grand prize, $32,000 will do. That's one of the levels contestants on the top-rated TV quiz show can reach if they answer just a few questions correctly.

"I've been watching the show, and I figure I have a decent fund of knowledge, so what the heck," he said.

It also is an inexpensive way to test his high-priced undergraduate education at Harvard University, where he was among the elite on the dean's list. His education continued at Cincinnati University's College of Medicine.

Dr. Clark first tuned in to the one-hour episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire a few months ago and realized quickly that he was a terrific living-room contestant. Qualifying seemed easy enough.

Each caller to an 800-number hot line answers three "order" questions, determining for example, the chronological order of historical events. After passing that test, winners names are placed in a random drawing. They then go to round two, where they are asked five more order questions.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has become ABC's most-watched new series in six years, drawing an average of 24.2 million viewers.

One of them is Donna Boone, Dr. Clark's physician coordinator. She also is the person who answered what she thought was a prank call to Aiken Surgical Associates. The call was from the Millionaire show.

They said they were looking for Steve Clark.

"He never told us he'd been trying to get on the show," Ms. Boone said. "Since then, it's all we talk about. He tries to act calm, but it's a cover."

Being a little nervous could give Dr. Clark an edge.

"The worst race I ever ran in high school track was when I felt totally relaxed," he said.

Being on the quiz show is all his patients talk about, too. That and the cool million he could bring home.

If he's lucky, it will be an easy-question night. The show's insurer, London-based underwriter Goshawk Syndicate, has filed a lawsuit against its producers, trying to make them ask harder questions and select less intelligent contestants. They're worried about the big money people such as Dr. Clark hope to make. Three contestants have answered correctly more than a dozen questions and won the $1 million jackpot. No player on the original British version of the game show has ever done that.

The multiple-choice questions frequently are easy in the early rounds. One million-dollar winner was asked which condiment also is known as a Latin dance, correctly choosing salsa over the other options: mustard, mayonnaise and relish.

Questions get harder as the stakes get higher. The first million-dollar winner won by correctly identifying the U.S. president to appear on the TV show Laugh-In (Richard Nixon). The second had to know the distance between Earth and the sun (93 million miles).

Dr. Clark is taking no chances. He reads trivia books from start to finish to bone up on his book sense. On breaks and between patients, he slips off to the doctors' lounge to read. He also has used the Internet to increase his knowledge of the fine arts -- something he's not all that schooled in.

For answers to questions he doesn't know, Dr. Clark will phone several of his friends, all of whom are doctors.

"You've got to know what you know, and know what you don't know," he said. "I've got the wisdom to know the difference."

None of his "lifeline" friends are doctors he works with.

"Can you imagine if they gave me a wrong answer and I lost a lot of money?" Dr. Clark asked. "I have to work with that person."

And he uses a scalpel, too.

If Dr. Clarke makes it onto the show, he might help calm one criticism of it. The top-rated program is trying to add some diversity to its nearly uniform lineup of white male contestants. Producers are looking for more minorities -- which is not easy, because people qualify over the telephone, sight unseen.

Last month, Mr. Philbin took matters into his own hands.

"Here's the challenge," he said. "Everyone out there who has thought about being on the show -- who isn't a white male -- dial that 800 number, and let's get into the game.

"What's the worst thing that could happen to you? You might become a millionaire. You have a problem with that? I don't think so."

Dr. Clark says the recent hoopla is trivial.

That's because Millionaire embraces a "blind" test for contestants, he said. No one is admitted on the basis of race, sex or age. And no one is screened for "telegenic" appeal -- a common practice on other game shows.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.