Firefighter endures game show hot seat, dignity intact

If there is anyone most qualified to endure the famed "hot seat" from television's hit show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," it's local firefighter Kevin Meehan. For the past four years, Meehan, 42, has worked with Engine #7, the oldest fire company in the United States. He is used to pressure. Whether working the pump or driving the fire engine, Meehan is well acquainted with the perspiration that accompanies tight situations.

Still, on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," Meehan faced a different breed of pressure, one where the stakes have dollar signs and where every second is viewed by a captivated, sometimes critical, national audience.

"The thing I was most afraid of was blowing a real early question and having every one in the world see me do it. I wanted to leave there with my dignity completely intact," Meehan said this week, roughly two months after the show's taping.

Meehan decided to try out for "Millionaire" much the same way many men throughout history have chosen to pursue great endeavors: his wife told him to.

"I've always been kind of a trivia buff and my wife has always been on me to try to get on the show," he explained.

Meehan went online and signed up for the open auditions in April. After those, he received an e-mail informing him of the second round of auditions set to take place in New York City during the first week of May. There, Meehan took a timed test of 20 questions, with topics ranging from the Kennedy administration to MTV, which lasted ten minutes. Needless to say, he passed.

For the next few weeks, life was business as usual. Then, one day, while on his way home from work, Meehan stopped to buy his wife, Jacqui, a card for their 14th anniversary on June 26. The next thing he knew, the people from "Millionaire" were calling to tell him he'd been selected to be on the show. Inside the card, Meehan wrote, "The only thing that would make me happier was if they called me to be on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'… Oh, by the way, they did." His wife was speechless.

Though the potential candidates never found out their scores from the written exam, they were told that nearly 30,000 people apply every year for an opportunity to appear on the show, and of those, only 300 actually make it. From this, it's very clear that Meehan did exceedingly well on the test and demonstrated some kind of unique potential during the interviewing process that caught the eye. As the expression goes, where there's smoke there's fire. In the coming weeks, Meehan hoped to prove this on national television.

"I watched the show a lot and tried to figure out what sort of categories they ask and where my weak spots were," Meehan said. He began memorizing common Latin phrases and other bits of information he thought might come up.

In August, Meehan made the trip to New York City to tape the show while his wife and two daughters stayed in Florida on their family vacation.

"I was pretty nervous. They prepare you and give you an idea of what it will be like," said Meehan, explaining that he had an opportunity to sit in the hot seat before the taping began, just to get a feel for the surroundings &endash; a courtesy Meehan greatly appreciated. "You don't believe you're there and start to question the words that come out of your mouth. I can understand how people can blow the first question," added Meehan. "It's almost like an out of body experience."

The beginning of the taping, which aired yesterday, went well until Meehan encountered the $2,000 question, "A secret society known as the "Righteous and Harmonious Fists" was the force behind what historic uprising? A) Decembrist Revolt, B) French Revolution, C) Warsaw Uprising, D) Boxer Rebellion." Meehan was stumped.

"My first thought was, 'This can't be a 2000 question.' It came out of the blue," Meehan recalled.

He opted to use his "Phone A Friend" lifeline and call a former coworker.

His friend told him that he thought the answer was "Boxer," to which Meehan asked, "Are you sure?" And then, click! Just like that, time ran out and his friend was gone.

Still unsure, Meehan decided to use a second lifeline: "Ask the Audience."

In retrospect, Meehan believe he shouldn't have done this right after "Phone a Friend," "You kind of poison their minds," Meehan said, believing that he had already put an answer in their heads with his last lifeline. But, in the end, the audience was correct, with 70 percent voting "D) Boxer Rebellion."

"Who Wants to be a Millionaire," hosted by Meredith Vieira, celebrates its sixth season and 1,000th episode this fall. It airs on Boston's WCVB (ABC), weekdays at 12:30 pm. The second half of Meehan's stint in the hot seat airs this afternoon.

Meehan plans on having some family, friends, and fellow firefighters over to watch the show. His twin daughters, Joyce and Emily, 11, are very excited to see their father on television and have been asking to be taken out of school early for the occasion.

"I think it will happen," Meehan said with a laugh.

With only one lifeline left and nine questions between him and the coveted 1 million dollars, that hot seat looks just a little bit warmer than usual. But Meehan doesn't seem to mind. He has his priorities.

"I didn't care so much about the money, though the money is alright. I just didn't want to be like Cliff Clavin [from Cheers] on Jeopardy."