New dad Jeff Probst a calming force on 'Survivor'
Although he's only had the role for a little over a year, the parenting instinct seems strong in Jeff Probst.
As proof, witness last week's much-discussed drama on Survivor: Caramoan - Fans vs. Favorites (Wednesday on Global and CBS) in which contestant Brandon Hantz exploded in an angry meltdown and was subdued by host Probst, avoiding a possible violent confrontation.
When a troubled Hantz announced his intention to quit the game during a challenge and lashed out angrily at tribesmate Phillip Sheppard, Probst spoke reassuringly to Hantz, massaged his shoulders and made him look Probst in the eye to establish a connection of trust. It seemed very much like what a father might do to calm a child on the verge of a violent tantrum. And it worked.
"When something like Brandon happens, it's very much an empathetic moment," says Probst. "I am clearly producing and hosting a TV show simultaneously, but my concern was safety. And I wanted to make sure that Brandon was safe and everyone else was safe."
Fatherhood has come late in life to Probst, 51. When he married Lisa Ann Russell in late 2011, she brought into his life an eight-year-old boy and six-year-old girl from her prior marriage with actor Mark-Paul Gosselaar. Looking for kid-friendly fiction to help explain blended families to his stepchildren, all Probst could find were self-help books. So he and Russell decided to create their own.
They came up with the concept for Stranded, a trilogy about four kids in a newly blended family who are shipwrecked on a South Pacific island with no adults to rely on.
"We said, 'Let's write Survivor for kids.' We sold the book in about 20 minutes in a pitch," Probst says. "It was the easiest deal I've ever been a part of."
Co-written with author Chris Tebbetts and aimed at kids aged eight to 12, the first book in the Scholastic-published series is out now, with the second, titled Trial by Fire, due this summer. Probst says he knows how the trilogy will end, but he invites and encourages feedback from fans and parents on Twitter.
It's unlikely the drama in Stranded will reach the intensity of last week's Survivor, though. As an emotional Hantz ranted and raged at his fellow contestants, "I was whispering in my mic, 'Make sure our safety and security guys are standing by to help Brandon. Make sure our psychologist is heading over on the boat right now so she can talk to Brandon,' " Probst says.
Probst says Hantz, who competed on Survivor: South Pacific and is the nephew of notorious Survivor villain Russell Hantz, went through the same psychological screening as every other contestant. Does this incident mean it's time to re-evaluate the screening process for the show?
"No," Probst says. "If you look at our history, we don't miss very often. This has never happened. We've had 400-some people play, and we care about all of them."
But just because this drama has been dealt with doesn't mean the survivors can relax just yet.
"We tease the fact there might be a switch coming up this week, and any time there's a switch it throws the game into a tizzy," Probst says. "That's all you need on Survivor. Tiny little shifts that throw off the certainty. If you can keep it uncertain, then things are going to happen."