By Jim Jerome
December 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Any doubts John Carpenter might have had about being the most famous instant millionaire of all time promptly vanished on Nov. 20. That night, two days after becoming the first seven-figure winner on ABC’s prime-time juggernaut, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Carpenter was invited to open Saturday Night Live and, as is his nature, he seized the moment. After arriving at the NBC studios in New York City, 20 minutes before air time and accompanied by a network publicist, he was whisked to a dressing room with his very own name-bearing plaque on the door. Moments later, while Carpenter was being fitted for wardrobe, SNL producer Lorne Michaels dropped in with a fellow named Dan Aykroyd, who happened to be visiting the set that day. “John, you know Danny, don’t you?” Michaels asked a dumbstruck Carpenter before introducing the two men.

After nailing his “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” opening salvo, Carpenter was done for the night, but he remained backstage, where he schmoozed with the show’s musical guest Sting, chatted with cast members and, at the end of the show, found himself onstage with guest host Jennifer Aniston. “She’s got her arm around me,” recalls Carpenter, still surprised by the experience. “I come from total obscurity. This is not my life. It was surreal. I thought the highlight of my 15 minutes of fame would be an interview with the wacky drive time guys on WPLR in New Haven, Conn.”

By now, Carpenter, 31, doesn’t need shock jocks to tell him how surreal his life has become. An intense, wiry IRS investigator who, on Nov. 18, ripped through his 15 questions with cold-blooded cyborg efficiency to win the first million-dollar jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Carpenter is living la vida loca. The next night, nearly 21 million viewers, an immense Friday-night prime-time audience, witnessed history as the Hamden, Conn., resident became the biggest money winner in television history. (The show’s British counterpart has yet to produce a millionaire in more than 60 episodes.) Looking off, smirking contentedly, he made the questions seem tantalizingly simple. “I didn’t want to seem overly cocky,” says Carpenter, who started watching the quiz show “religiously” last summer at the urging of his close friends and Trivial Pursuit partners Melissa and Dave Parnoff. “From the first show, I knew just about all the answers. I sort of expected to win the million dollars.”

So did his wife of 15 months, Debbie, 32, manager of a Fleet Bank branch in New Haven. Taking a breather from the madness, the Carpenters are taking it all in stride. “It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Debbie says. “But ever since we met, we’ll be having a dinner conversation, and all of a sudden, John’ll go, ‘Well, actually, the reason is…’ And it’s like, ‘Where do you get this stuff?’ I knew if John got in the hot seat he’d go pretty far. He wasn’t sweating it.”

The man closest to Carpenter during his interrogation agrees. “He’s got ice water in his veins,” says Millionaire host Regis Philbin, whose New York-based contest will likely return in early 2000. “The guy was a little on the cocky side. And, yes, the network’s a little poorer now, but this could give the show a shot in the arm.”

The show, in turn, has given Carpenter a shot at the big time. SNL was only the beginning of the media onslaught. There was Good Morning America last Monday, followed by Live! with Regis & Kathie Lee and Philbin’s presentation of the $1 million check—but not before asking Debbie, “So, what’s it like, sleeping with a millionaire?” There was a press conference for the entertainment shows such as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, then a turn on the Late Show with David Letterman that Carpenter won’t soon forget. “Tony Bennett stopped by my dressing room and told me Friday night was the best thing he’d ever seen on TV. I was just floored. What a gentleman.”

“The irony,” says his friend and neighbor Melissa Parnoff, “is that John is so anti-pop culture. I had to drag him kicking and screaming into pop culture, and now he’s a pop-culture icon.”

Indeed, when Carpenter invited 50-plus friends over to watch Millionaire at the couple’s quaint 80-year-old, three-bedroom colonial in drowsy Hamden, 10 miles northeast of New Haven (the show had been taped Thursday the 18th), he told those who’d never been there, “You’ll know our house by the five satellite vans and searchlights out front.” Earlier that day neighbors hung bunches of play money from the trees on the Carpenters’ front lawn.

Those same neighbors and colleagues describe Carpenter as “down-to-earth,” “reserved” and “funny.” His win left Ron Mele, his friend in the Norwalk, Conn., IRS office, shaking his head: “Last week, John and I went to the dump together in my pickup truck. And now he’s on Saturday Night Live, standing there arm-in-arm with Jennifer Aniston.” But Mele knows which is the real John Carpenter: “We always watched Jeopardy! and he always knew all the answers. And at lunch every day he does The New York Times crossword puzzle and finishes it completely. John is fun and easygoing, but he can be a bit arrogant. We call him the King of Useless Trivia. It never pays off except in rare instances like this. I’m buying lottery tickets to catch up.”

Carpenter’s family—father Tom, 56, a computer program analyst for the Department of Veterans Affairs; mother Gail, 53, an administrative assistant for the Massachusetts Audubon Society; and brothers Tom, 33, a software tester, and Chris, 28, kitchen manager for a Northampton, Mass., restaurant—saw the King’s coronation coming long ago. The family spent hundreds of hours together playing Trivial Pursuit and 20 Questions, especially while traveling and watching Jeopardy! The parents enrolled their sons in extracurricular art, theater, music and painting classes wherever they lived. Chosen by John as a “telephone lifeline,” his parents waited in their living room for a call.

The instant John saw his final million-dollar question—Which former President appeared on Laugh-In?—he knew the answer (Nixon). Still, he used his lifeline and telephoned his father in Northampton. Philbin told him a million bucks was at stake. Unable to see his son’s sublimely assured smirk, Dad recalls, “I thought, ‘I hope I don’t blow it for him.’ ”

To everyone’s surprise, John said, “Hi, Dad. I don’t really need your help. I just want you to know I’m going to win the million dollars.” The roar from the studio audience drowned out their phone voices. Finally, says Gail, “all that trivia stuff paid off.”

The lifeline call delighted Philbin: “It was in keeping with John’s personality—he was confident, having fun. It was theatrical.”

Carpenter admits to the showmanship. When Philbin needled him for not using his lifelines at $250,000, he recalls, “I thought, ‘I should just humor them and use one.’ I was trying not to come off pompous. I wasn’t even thinking about the money. I wanted to beat the show. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. I have a flair for the grand gesture. I’m just glad people were watching something other than pro wrestling.”

Brother Chris knew John was in the zone. “He asked me if he looked [arrogant]. I said, ‘To me you did because I know the look on your face and your body language when you feel superior.’ ”

That swagger was hardly apparent in childhood. In 1969, working for the V.A., Tom Carpenter moved his young family around from Virginia to Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Franklin, Mass.; Lawrenceburg, Ky.; and Northampton. John was a shy, extremely bright kid who, by first grade, boasted an eighth-grade reading level. “He’d read anything with words,” recalls his mother.

Like his brothers Tom and Chris, Carpenter became a Cub and Eagle Scout and played Little League. “I was a great fielder but couldn’t hit to save my life,” says Carpenter. “I was no Nomar Garciaparra,” he adds, invoking the great shortstop on his beloved Boston Red Sox.

The Carpenters settled in Northampton when John was in eighth grade. In high school he ran track and cross-country (“because those teams didn’t cut you”) and joined clubs but never quite fit in. “I hung out with a bunch of people, but I wasn’t at all popular,” recalls Carpenter. “I am not a leader. But I was a good kid, never in trouble. When people see my name now, I’ll be recognized but not remembered.

Carpenter says his “life didn’t start until” Rutgers University, where he enrolled in 1986. An economics major, he discovered alternative rock and played trombone in the marching band, but he lacked drive and spent two semesters on academic probation. “It took me three tries to pass calculus,” he recalls. Aimless through his college years, he worked summers and school vacations in an amusement park and on an assembly line, packing Chap Stick tubes in a box. “It was miserable,” he recalls. “Three days on, three off, 12-hour days.” For two summers and for six months after graduating in 1990, he delivered Domino’s pizzas in Northampton.

Even then, Carpenter showed remarkable grace under pressure when it came to money. One night he was robbed at rifle point, while delivering a pie, by the man who had called in the order. “I walked from my car and heard a voice go, ‘Over here.’ ” The perp pointed the weapon at Carpenter and told him to put the pizza down and turn over his cash. “I was calm. I pulled out a wad from one pocket and set it on the pizza. He said, ‘You better run.’ ” As panic set in, Carpenter hustled to his car—one pants pocket still bulging with bucks. “I only gave him the Domino’s money. I kept my tips.”

His next job proved more taxing. At his father’s urging, Carpenter took a battery of government exams and tested strongly for IRS work. In January 1991 he joined the Service in Connecticut for a salary somewhere between $50,000 and $65,000.

His love life finally fell into place in November 1996, when a friend set him up on a date with Debbie Fong, a vivacious Chinese-American who was getting her master’s degree at Southern Connecticut State University. “It was set up without any pressure,” she says. “We hung out, got to know each other, and he called me.”

Carpenter, a TV sports nut, showed his romantic side when he proposed. “He got up and said, ‘Let’s go hiking,’ ” Debbie recalls. “I was like, ‘Isn’t there a football game on?’ He goes, ‘No, let’s go hiking.’ And I go, ‘John, are you okay?’ So we went, and he proposed to me at the top of Sleeping Giant Mountain in Hamden.” They married in September last year. “We interlock so well, I knew it was just a matter of time,” says Debbie. “A banker and an IRS agent. We’re fun at a cocktail party!” she says, with a smile that very well may be ironic.

As the Carpenters’ 15 minutes tick down, they’re beginning to get their bearings in their new life. Debbie says the excitement of her husband’s coup is just kicking in. “I’m feeling it now. We just deposited the check.” If Carpenter, who will pay roughly $400,000 in taxes, has any tax-shelter tricks, he isn’t saying. The short list of possible after-tax treats includes “that J. Crew leather jacket for Christmas,” Debbie says, and a trip to Paris (“I’ve been bugging him because I’ve been there three times and want him to experience it,” says Debbie). John laughingly suggests that he’ll donate his winnings “to the Red Sox to help them sign another power pitcher to complement Pedro Martinez.”

Actually, they will do some home improvements. Any blueprints for a nursery? “We’ve been talking about a family, having nothing to do with money,” says Debbie. “Of course money makes it easier and moves things along.”

They have already spoiled their first baby, a 7-month-old part-toy, part-teacup poodle. “Fenway doesn’t know he’s having steak from now on,” says Debbie, who agreed to the name “so that future children cannot now be named Fenway.”

John, who handles the bills at home, fancies himself “frugal, though my friends might call it cheap.” Still, after he won, he did spring for drinks for all his fellow contestants at a bar across the street from their Manhattan hotel. “I felt I owed them something because I was out there so long,” leaving time for only one “fastest finger” question. He says he has “no luxurious purchases in mind. I just want to be comfortable the rest of my life.”

As a dedicated revenue officer in Norwalk’s collection division, Carpenter investigates and seeks to collect from delinquent cases—to “try and secure returns that haven’t been filed,” he says. He calls his work “technically complex” and “very rewarding.”

Yet Carpenter, who almost never discusses his job at home or with buddies, does say he might file out of the IRS someday soon. “I’ve had a positive experience with great people,” says Carpenter. “But I have thought about expanding myself. Wondering if there’s something new. Now I have a cushion. I could start over fresh. I’m still a young guy.”

Would that involve, say, a graduate degree? “No,” he says. “I wouldn’t go back to school. I don’t intend to ever take another test in my life.”