Last Man Standing
Sydney Morning Herald Link
March 29, 2005
The Survivor host owes a lot to the show - fame, fortune and the love of his life, writes Greg Hassall.
is in good spirits. And why wouldn't he be? Survivor is in its 10th season, he works in the world's most exotic locations and he's dating 24-year-old Survivor: Vanuatu contestant Julie Berry.
Speaking on the phone after finishing Survivor: Palau, Probst, 42, happily reflects on his past 10 seasons as host. Whereas producer Mark Burnett is a cagey interviewee who likes to leave an aura of mystery around the show, Probst is refreshingly blunt.
For him, there's no beating the first two seasons.
"I like season one because it changed my life and we developed the show while we were out there." Series two, however, is his favourite. Set in Australia, it remains the highest-rating installment and featured "this incredible cast", including runner-up Colby Donaldson, who became a close friend.
Since, it's been a mixed bag. "Personally, I didn't like Africa very much," he says. "I wouldn't go back to the Marquesas. I liked the season OK; hated the location. The All Stars was a hit with the audience; the most miserable experience for me."
How so? "It was too personal. I don't think we should do All Stars. I don't think they work. They knew too much ... They knew, for instance, that I'm good friends with Colby. So that's going to get a knife in Colby's back. And they knew that Richard [Hatch] already had a $1 million, so he's gone. And suddenly you don't have a game any more, you just have agendas."
Probst relishes his role as poker-faced host but one contestant clearly got under his skin: Pearl Islands' Jon Dalton, aka Johnny Fairplay. Eighteen months later, his contempt for Dalton is obvious. "Johnny Fairplay is a jackass and I don't think he's a good representative for the show. I'm not sure he's a decent representative for human beings in general ... If we did [another] All Stars, I'd fight tooth and nail that he should not be on it."
That said, he accepts Dalton was good talent. "That's what I want, people who are out of control, people who show up drunk. The people who are problematic are the exact opposite. They're people like Julie Berry, the love of my life, who gave me nothing at Tribal Council. She'd say, 'Hmm, yeah, good question. I don't know.' And I'd sit there fuming going, 'Give me something, I can't use that.'"
If Dalton is Survivor's signature villain, its hero is the bear-like Rupert Bonham. Eighty-seven per cent of American viewers who voted to award one of the All-Stars $US1 million voted for Bonham; the next closest contestant got just 1 per cent. Bonham struck me as a spoiled child, so I was keen to hear how Probst accounted for his popularity.
"He represented good in a very corrupt world and I think that's what a lot of Americans gravitated towards," he says. "He played that fat kid who'd been picked on all his life, he played that card really well."
Probst believes Survivor is, above all else, a social game. "It's not about who's the best at running a balance beam, it's who's the best at fitting in with strangers." That was cruelly driven home in the first episode of the current series, when the 20 contestants divided themselves one by one into two teams. When two remained unselected they were sent home, an echo of every child's schoolyard nightmare.
"We'd been pitching to Mark [Burnett] to do the schoolyard pick 'em for a couple of years," Probst explains, "and he kept saying no because his feeling was no one will care - they don't know the people, they don't have anything invested. We countered, saying they will care because we've all been there."
One of those cast out was Wanda Shirk, a middle-aged schoolteacher who spent that first day singing bizarre, self-penned songs. Probst recalls her reaction to the eviction with amused disbelief. "You ask her, 'Is it because of the songs? Do you think you were annoying?' and she goes, 'Oh, gosh, no, I know I was a threat.' And you look at her and think, 'You're lovely, Wanda, but you're no threat.'"
Shirk caused a minor stir after her eviction, complaining in the press that Survivor was cast on looks. "Wanda should know we cast based on personality," Probst retorts. "That's why she's on the show."
Then, for a moment, he sounds irritated. "I'm so tired of the notion that we cast based on looks. Rupert is one of the ugliest guys who's ever been on the damn show. So was Johnny Fairplay. In terms of Wanda saying that, we believe what we have to believe to get through the day."
Probst has signed on for two more seasons after Palau and is unwilling to look beyond that. "While I would never want to walk away from the greatest job I've ever had, you also have a life to live. Being in love makes it harder ... So I'm taking them one season at a time."