PASADENA, Calif.—CBS fired up the Tiki torch and passed the Doritos for their 20th edition Survivor Party. The Saturday night shindig was held in a cavernous sound stage right at CBS’s Television City studios.
The network crammed the place with every Survivor contestant who could still legally cross state lines. There were 213 names on the networks Survivor guest list (out of a possible 301 players). Most of the big names were in the house, including creator and executive producer Mark Burnett, host Jeff Probst, first winner/tax evader Richard Hatch and Survivor I legend Rudy Boesch.
Those guys were instantly recognizable as were past standouts Rupert Boneham (still sporting hippie tie-dye and full beard), Jerri Manthey and recent standout Russel Hantz (below). Most of the others crammed into the massive studio were just happy to meet themselves as they grabbed an extra four or five seconds off the 15 minutes of fame clock. It helped that some of them wore name tags like "Kenny" or "Sarge" with their edition destination on them. It all felt a bit like a lavish, island-themed high school reunion with 10 times the usual number of tattoo and implant upgrades.
Hatch was remarkably unrepentant, vowing that one day his name will be cleared and he will exonerated of his tax dodgearama, which cost him a few years in the slammer. He maintains that he would have won the 20th “Heroes vs. Villains” edition of the game, which was taped last year and will premiere in February on CBS and Global. Hatch was invited by the producers to be the only original Survivor contestant to take part in No. 20 but was not allowed to travel outside the country in order to take part in the jungle hijinx. He says Hantz, the cocky schemer who drove the most recent edition to strong ratings (especially in Canada, where the show jumped 50% year-to-year), was a worthy player but, as a runner up, still not in Hatch’s class. “He lost focus,” says Hatch.
Clinging to all the rat pack charm he could pack into his fedora, Hantz didn't seem to lose any intensity. He barely left the jungle after becoming the runner-up in the 19th edition, heading straight back to the Pacific island area to compete again in No. 20. A CBS publicist hovered nearby in case any scribe tried to pry any details out of him about his latest game.
Ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, now 82, thinks he could still take these new punks in a Survivor showdown. Burnett, however, said he felt Boesch was just too old to compete in a game known to take a severe toll on competitors. Boesch (above with equally-grizzled and battle-tested critic Mike Hughes) admitted he lost 30 lbs in that first Survivor stint. Still, he dismissed the more recent affairs as “a bikini contest,” suggesting the players get “a big meal now every week.”
Crusty Rudy even flinched when asked to pose for a photo op with his old nemesis Hatch. “As long as he keeps his hand on my shoulder,” he spat.
Manthey looked around the crowded room and said, "I'm amazed this many people still care." Ten years later, everybody talks about their 15 minutes of fame," says the 38-year-old, one of a handful of Survivor Playboy posers. "I feel I've turned it into three or four hours at this point."
The 20th was her third go-round on the series, and she was surprised to be asked back after walking off her second stint in the jungle. She insisted she was still hot for Colby, her hunky hook-up from the second and still highest-rated Survivor, which took place in the Australian outback. "He's still got it," she purred.
As the party wore on, many former participants made their way to a back room where an "Ethan Cam" location was set up for a little live blogging. CBS chairman Les Moonves and wife Julie Chen were among the execs hanging out back with the Survivor throng.
Burnett, who looked fighting trim, said he never expected the show to last beyond two editions, let alone 20. Several former players came up and shook his hand, thanking him for a life-changing experience. Burnett’s life was changed more than anyone’s, casting him as an unknown to one of the most powerful players in network television.
Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains premieres Thursday, Feb. 11 on CBS and Global.