A lot has happened in the last 20 years since we were first introduced to the likes of Richard Hatch, Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch, Susan Hawk and 12 other contestants in the premiere season of Survivor, which began in May 2000. Just think about it. iPhones didn’t exist. There was no Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. What we had was this new reality show about an eclectic group of individuals trying to outwit, outplay and outlast one another to win a million dollars.
Fans of the series will never forget that first season finale when a scorned Hawk delivered to the jury a revengeful rant on why the snake — the bombastic-natured Hatch — deserved to win over the rat, an athletic but backstabbing Wiglesworth. From that point on, fans were forever hooked.
Fast-forward 20 years and 39 seasons later, and we are watching (Wednesdays on CBS) the best of the best (past winners only) battle it out in an unprecedented season for $2 million. Who will take home the largest cash prize in reality TV history? As the 40th season, Survivor: Winners at War, nears a close, we caught up with a fan favorite.
Catching Up With Ethan Zohn
“I would like to see an old-school player win this season,” Ethan Zohn tells us. “Me included.” About a week before our nationwide shutdown, we talked to the 2001 Survivor: Africa winner, who’s been an all-star in the game and in life as a two-time cancer survivor. His journey this season in Survivor: Winners at War spoke to an element of the game that sometimes gets lost in the throes of competition — true empathy and compassion.
Zohn was voted out in Episode 3 (Day 9) and joined Danni Boatwright, Amber Mariano and Natalie Anderson on the Edge of Extinction. Here he shares his thoughts on the emotional moment when his competitors helped him in that log-fetching challenge and much more.
The Day He Cried
“When I was there, I cried,” Zohn tells. “It was an unbelievable moment when I was out there and the fact that here we are competing against each other to win $2 million. We’re stuck in this horrible purgatory, we’re all competing for these fire tokens, and you don’t expect that kind of compassion and empathy in the middle of this horrible, cutthroat game. I mean, Survivor at its core is about people. We’re just human beings. Yeah, we’re playing this game, but we have feelings, we have emotion, compassion. I just thought it was beautiful … I mean, no one wants to go up that freaking mountain one time a day, nevertheless 20. Then, they did it an extra time just to follow me up there. I mean, that is beyond awesome. That took us six hours and they got it down to share this cool story of overcoming obstacles, and camaraderie and teamwork.”
On What We Don’t See
I would say 18 out of the 24 hours a day are filled talking about what we’re going to eat when we get home. We had lists and everyone goes around in a circle and says, ‘OK, when you get home, tell me what you are going to have for lunch. Now breakfast, now dinner.’ It’s pretty funny.”
On Participating With His Health Struggles
“In 2010 when I was sick, I was literally in the hospital with my stem cell transplant watching Heroes vs. Villains, dreaming that I could play this game again. I’ve always wanted to get myself healthy enough to be able to play. It’s literally taken me this long, just the side effects of cancer, the mental drama, and the uncertainty and invisible scars after you survived something like that. Once I got the yes [from doctors], I was all in.”
On A Meaningful Fan Encounter
“The coolest one was most recent. I was giving a speech in Sarasota at a Jewish community, and a woman who I had never seen before, she’s in her 80s, came up to me and started showing me probably 20 to 25 photos of my dad when he was a teenager. My dad passed away when I was 14, and I only kind of know my dad from when my mom met him. This woman, her name was Shelly, was my dad’s girlfriend [before Zohn’s mom]. She came in and showed me these pictures of her and my dad and my dad’s brother, my uncle. This is 10 minutes before I was supposed to go onstage to give a speech and I was just bawling. … I just felt really connected to my dad at that moment and it was totally out of the blue. She’s been following my career since 2001.”
On His CBD Business & New TV Project
“I’m actually involved with another fun project. I’m deeply involved with cannabis and CBD. I’m an investor in a 116-acre hemp field in Plainfield, Vt. We filmed the whole thing for a reality show, [which is being produced by] Thom Beers [Deadliest Catch, Storage Wars.] It’s about two guys, I’m not one of those guys, [one of the guys is legendary TV pitchman Anthony ‘Sully’ Sullivan, who’s the OxiClean guy]. He bought the farm and he’s a good buddy of mine. His daughter went through some major health issues, and he got her on CBD. Her seizures have reduced by over 70%. Cannabis and CBD was a huge part of my survivorship and getting through. When I found out my buddy bought the farm, I’m like, I want to know where my stuff is coming from, so I moved up there and I lived on the farm. I got back from Survivor, moved up there, lived on the farm, planted, harvested, processed, and now we’re creating a line of products that will be coming out probably after the television program and this summer or fall [note: this was prior to the pandemic]. All the sales from the product is going to go to fund an organization called Safe Roots Foundation, which is a teenage drug misuse prevention organization.”
Zohn has always used his fame as a platform to serve as a mentor, and to support various charities and philanthropy in general, including his own GrassrootSoccer.org, as well as Stand Up To Cancer and other initiatives.
Wednesdays (Season Finale May 13)
Stream on cbs.com