Nine years, 18 seasons and 15 iterations of wilderness later, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst is a man of simple needs: A shower to call his own and a movie theater within driving distance.
“Gabon, Africa . . . you don’t want to go there,” says the 46-year-old of the 17th season. As for Tocantins, Brazil, where this past season was filmed, “I couldn’t find it on a map now, and I was there for six weeks. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with portable toilets and portable showers. In those two places we were living in tents at first. It was kind of romantic for a while,” he says, not entirely convincingly, of the crew’s accommodations, “but then we were about to lose our minds. E-mail was sketchy. We had phones, but you couldn’t get reception. We called [creator and executive producer Mark Burnett] and said, ‘Dude, next time, hotel or mutiny.’ ”
The crew of 325 can put down their weapons. As they prepare to ship off to Samoa for the summer, where they will spend 3 1/2 months filming two seasons back to back thanks to budget cuts, things are looking downright luxurious. “I just ran into our production designer, who said, ‘There’s a movie theater 45 minutes away,’ ” says Probst, showing off his extravagant dimples. “We’ve never had that. We’ve never had a hotel. I keep waiting for someone to say, ‘Dude, it’s April 1. We’re kidding.’ ”
The Emmy-winning host could be forgiven for getting tired of the game, even if the show has yet to lose its prime Thursday time slot since its premiere. Last season had the kind of casting that producers dream about, with a villain in the self-knighted Coach and a hero in the rancher and ultimate winner J.T., but how many torches can one person snuff out and still remain engaged?
“I stay interested because there’s always a hero and there’s always an underdog,” Probst says. “I pull for the underdog until they become the hero, and then I want them to fall. This season I pulled for Sierra the whole time because she was the underdog the whole time. Is she whiny and bitchy? Yeah. But she’s a good story.”
And dreams of cellphone access aside, keeping the tale moving along for the 39 days of filming is, he asserts, his priority. Probst dated a former “Survivor” contestant, Julie Berry, for several years, but while the show is in production, “there’s no fraternizing with the contestants,” he says. “The first couple seasons I would hang out with them, but all that would happen is they wanted to talk to me because they’re bored, and we can’t use that on the show. Every episode is about one thing, and that’s about who is being voted out and going home.” (That said, even those voted off don’t get to go home until the end of the show.)
Probst will have fulfilled his contract by the end of the summer. Should he choose not to re-up, something he says he has yet to decide, Burnett believes that won’t be the end of the adventure. “Jeff’s the face of the show,” he admits, “but it’s not a silly game. It has strong sociological values, which is why it’s unbeaten in its time slot. ‘America’s Most Wanted’ has gone on for 20 years, so I think we could only be halfway through.”
As for the face of the show, a decade of watching strategies play out hasn’t been wasted when it comes to plotting his future. He’s shot a pilot for CBS called “Live for the Moment,” in which a terminally ill person is taken on a series of adventures, and he’ll be filming new episodes when he returns home to L.A. this fall. “I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve ever done,” he says.