Jeff Probst tells how he's survived all 16 seasons of 'Survivor'
NEW YORK — After all this time, you don't associate Jeff Probst with traffic gridlock, yowling sirens, or office towers crowding the sky.
It's not that Probst seems out of place in a metropolis like New York. It's just that, after 16 seasons hosting CBS' "Survivor," he's more readily identified with various brands of wilderness half-a-world away.
Yet here he is in Manhattan, big as life (including those dimples) and eager to talk about "Survivor: Micronesia," whose finale will originate 8 p.m. EDT Sunday from Broadway's Ed Sullivan Theater.
"This has been a season of blind-sides and dumb moves," Probst zestily sums up. "We've had a really strong women's alliance for the first time. We've had people out with injuries. A woman lost her mind." (Or, at least, her will to continue: On Day 19 of the 39-day ordeal, Kathleen begged tearfully to be sent home to Glen Ellyn, Ill., and was.)
By Sunday, what began with 20 castaways - divided into rival teams of "Survivor" fans and veterans from seasons past - will be down to just four finalists. One of them will win the $1 million prize as Sole Survivor.
Then the process starts over again, with Probst presiding at the next, yet-to-be-announced exotic site as "Survivor" No. 17 goes into production in July.
Who could have dreamed during its inaugural run in summer 2000 that "Survivor" would display such staying power?
Not Probst, who, with undisguised amazement, notes that he has signed to host another four seasons.
"It was a show I was certain would be over after three," he declares, recalling his prediction that Season One "would be good, Two would be better, Three would fail but we'd still get paid."
But season after season, the Nielsen tribe has spoken and pronounced "Survivor" an enduring hit.
How to explain it? Probst theorizes that success has stemmed from starting with a good idea, then sticking with it.
"We go back to the start, every season," he says. There have been variations (like the current "Fans vs. Favorites" format). "But we don't deviate too far from the original premise."
He thinks back to the first season, as the series took the plunge with its distinctive style and pseudo-mythology.
"We wanted to make an impression, and we wanted our own vernacular: 'castaways,' 'survivors,' 'the tribe has spoken.'
"I knew it was corny," he adds with a laugh. But, to his everlasting credit, he never let on. From the premiere - when Sonja (remember her?) made history as the first castaway to be "voted off" and told "it's time for you to go" - Probst nailed his compound role as master of ceremonies, counsellor, ringmaster and provocateur.
Just a few weeks later, he was taking on more roles: directing an indie film from his own script. "Finder's Fee," an edgy drama that begins with someone finding a wallet that contains a winning lottery ticket, was released in 2001.
"It was a small, little movie - we just had a million dollars - but I got to make the movie I wanted to make," Probst says. "The script was good enough to get James Earl Jones to sign on for $500 a week. He said, 'I'll take it - and a treadmill in my dressing room."' Thanks to Jones, landing other actors at a bargain got easier.
"I'm not sure how well it holds up now," Probst says. "I'd be a much better director today. I've learned a TON about storytelling from 'Survivor.' I'd love to make another movie."
Whatever he does, the 46-year-old Probst wants to do something as innovative as "Survivor." Easier said than done.
"I go out on these meetings and I talk to people, and it's like, 'You're kidding me. THAT'S what you're going to do?' It sounds so derivative!"
But Probst does have a TV project at an early stage. He's mum on details, saying only, "It's the most excited I've been about anything since 'Survivor."'
On the other hand, he feels no pressure to expand his portfolio.
"I don't have aspirations to conquer the world," he says. "Maaaaaybe, a little side job would be OK. But I like hanging out with my friends. I like being at home (in Los Angeles). I don't want to work and work and work. I've got a great job!"
So how does he keep himself fresh on that job, season after season?
"It's easy: Each season brings new people. And we've got great casting," he says, paying tribute to casting director Lynne Spillman, who assembles what Probst calls "a mosaic of players."
"You want people who will 'screw the game up,' because they don't quite get it. And people who you know are gonna be quiet and go deep. And then people where you think, 'If he gets lucky, he could win it - and be a great character."'
Probst mentions a candidate for Season 17 whose potential excites him: "A young, quirky (video) gamer!" Not an obvious great-outdoors type. "I never would have looked twice at him." But Spillman did, and Probst thinks he's got a good shot to be picked.
"This kid is jussssst interesting enough," says Probst, already savouring the possibilities. "I hope he makes it!"http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5jN7wj9BtlEAhfkxSKjqOXvtGdXJw