Phil Harris, the salty sea captain on Discovery Channel’s top-rated “Deadliest Catch,” had prepped his sons for tragedy. Fishing the frigid Bering Sea for crabs and living a hard-charging, chain-smoking lifestyle, Harris figured he might not make it to his golden years.
What he couldn’t have anticipated, though, was that his stroke, hospitalization and eventual death from a pulmonary embolism would be captured on film. Tuesday night’s “Deadliest Catch” episode chronicles the last days of his life and his death, and its impact on his sons and shipmates, Josh and Jake, and his colleagues on the reality series.
“Death is not uncommon in our industry,” 27-year-old Josh Harris said. “He always taught us to deal with that possibility.”
And as for the cameras, which have followed the crew of the Cornelia Marie, the Time Bandit and several other fishing boats for six seasons on the Emmy-winning show, Harris wanted them to keep rolling after his stroke, providing viewers with an end to his story.
“He couldn’t talk at the time, but he wrote us a note,” Josh Harris said. “There was no doubt at all about his wishes.”
Josh Harris, in Los Angeles this week for an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” hasn’t watched Tuesday’s episode yet but says he will because he wants to make sure he said a proper goodbye. He was in shock during those last few days, he said, and doesn’t remember details that he now considers vitally important.
“It was hard to live it, and it’ll be really hard to relive it,” he said, lighting a steady stream of cigarettes on the rooftop of a Hollywood hotel. (He’s promised to kick the habit soon, but he’s too shellshocked at the moment, both from the death and the media attention now swirling around him). “I want to see those final moments of my father.”
Johnathan Hillstrand, co-captain of the Time Bandit and a close family friend in town with Harris for “The Tonight Show,” was at Harris’ bedside up to the end and said he hasn’t decided if he’ll watch the episode.
“We’re not characters, we’re real people,” he said. “Phil was an easy guy to love — he was always the coolest guy in the building — honest, hardworking, old-school handshake kind of guy. I really loved him.”
The network and “Deadliest Catch” producers, Thom Beers’ Original Productions, didn’t know how they’d handle Harris’ death in February for the season that started airing in April. Camera crews were filming when Harris suffered a stroke on board and continued to chronicle his surgeries and hospital stay. After conferring with Harris’ family, they decided to air footage of the events leading to his death at 53. The second half of the current season has been devoted to Harris.
Discovery worked to “make sure that we are telling the story as [Josh and Jake] want it told, honoring Phil’s memory, and at the same time, showing the events unvarnished,” Clark Bunting, the network’s president and general manager, said in an e-mail. “For us, it just doesn’t get more real than this.”
The show has been on a ratings tear for Discovery Channel, with 3.08 million viewers in the 25-54-year-old demographic, and 2.55 million advertiser-coveted 18-49-year-olds for a recent episode. The series has been the top-rated cable show of the night in almost every demographic, according to Nielsen, and its numbers are up double digits from last season.
Rabid fans have taken to the show’s message boards in numbers that Discovery executives said “nearly melted our server.” They’re despondent over Harris’ death but intent on watching Tuesday’s episode in what one fan blogged would be “a Xanax/jug of wine night.”
Josh Harris, whose frequent clashes with his younger brother have made fans wonder whether he’d stay on the Cornelia Marie, said definitely that he’s ready to fish again.
“I’ll try to live up to my dad’s legacy,” he said. “It’s what he would’ve wanted, and it’s what I want.”