As Survivor enters its twenty-fifth season on CBS, it's time to take a look back at the ups, the downs, the heroes, the villains, the unforgettable moments and the unbelievable mistakes that have made up twenty-four seasons that have included some of the most notorious contestants in reality TV history.
When Survivor began on May 31, 2000, no one could have predicted the cultural impact it would have, with its likable, clean-cut host, its exotic locales and its diverse cast of characters. Hundreds of people have played this game, and this week, I'm taking a look back at twenty-five of the most memorable contestants in the history of Survivor. Some are amazing game players, some are more notorious for their mistakes, some are fan favorites and some are just personal picks. Be sure to sound off below with your own favorites.
From 25-11, I'm listing contestants in random order. It seems pointless to say one person should be 24th while another should be 18th. I will list my top ten in order.
***Jerri Manthey (Australian Outback; All-Stars; Heroes vs. Villains)
Unfairly labeled a villain on her third attempt, considering her age and maturity, Jerri Manthey was the first female villain to hit the reality competition in its second season in the Australian Outback. She drooled over Colby Donaldson, schemed with Amber Brkich and fought with various castaways. Unlike anyone before her or since, Jerri's presence left fans waiting desperately for her vote-off. Eventually it came, in all three of her seasons, despite playing a good game every time. But no vote-off was so sweet as her first in Australia.
***Tom Westman (Palau; Heroes vs. Villains)
Is Tom Westman one of the most likable winners in the history of the game? Absolutely. Surely not old by most standards, Tom played the game as one of the oldest contestants in his season, in his early 40s, and kept up with the best and most physically fit. He survived them all and fairly won Palau, but his bid for a second victory in Heroes vs. Villains wasn't so prosperous. Still, in a game where most winners stumble through the finishing line, Tom remains one of the better victors.
***Erik Reichenbach (Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites)
The first of my entries that made the list for one big game move: the one that got him voted off. Erik won individual immunity against the remaining female contestants in the final five, but instead of enjoying his spot in the game, Erik was bamboozled by the pretty ladies into giving up his immunity as some sort of peace offering to Natalie. It worked great for them, and not so well for him: they voted him off in what remains one of, if not the dumbest move of all time.
***Jonathan Penner (Cook Islands, Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites; Philippines)
One of the best players to never win the game, Jonathan Penner finished in the middle of Cook Islands, while he suffered from an injury in Micronesia that pulled him from Survivor. Penner (as he was known to Jeff, who doesn't mind letting people know his favorites, via nicknames) is one of the few players to have been a celebrity before playing, having been a co-star on Tea Leoni's The Naked Truth in the late 90s. This season, he gives the game one more shot in the Philippines.
***Rudy Boesch (Borneo; All-Stars)
The original fan favorite, Rudy played a strong game as the grizzled old veteran, not unlike a Clint Eastwood of Survivor. He took part in Richard Hatch's four-person alliance that survived everyone else in the first season, and gave runner-up Kelly a strong fight in the final immunity challenge that no one would expect a 60-70 year old to do on today's Survivor. He was one of a kind, despite his archaic life views that represents many viewers. He helped make that epic first season what it became, and despite an early exit in All-Stars, Rudy remains one of the all-time favorites on Survivor.
***Colton Cumbie (One World)
Any list of Survivor contestants would be seriously lacking if it didn't include one of the most honest-to-God hateful players to ever take part on the reality competition: Colton. He bullied tribemates, made angry, hate-filled remarks in confessionals and showed a lack of tolerance for others in racist comments that left Jeff Probst stunned. One would expect a gay male to be tolerant of others, but one would be wrong. Colton left the game due to medical emergency, and likely hasn't played his only game of Survivor, but he'll go back in with a villain status reserved only for guys like Russell Hantz.
***Brandon Hantz (South Pacific)
Speaking of Russell, the Hantz nephew, Brandon, deserves a spot on the list just for his bloodline. Russell Hantz is Survivor royalty, so it stands to reason that a relation to Russell would leave many questioning how evil Brandon would be. And that question remained for most of his run. It's not often that a contestant can leave viewers guessing like Brandon did, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I thought Brandon would eventually show a dark, evil side in the game. Alas, he was a Born Again, which is nothing to mock if it helps someone personally, but it made for a head-scratching finale showdown between 6th place finisher Brandon and his famous uncle.
***Amanda Kimmel (China; Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites; Heroes vs. Villains)
It's rare for two-time players to make the final tribal council twice, but Amanda did it in back-to-back seasons in China and Micronesia. Perpetually cute and a decent game player, Amanda lived up to the saying "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride". She played well, but not well enough to convince anyone to give her the win. Her run seemed to be going well for her third go in Heroes vs. Villains, but she ended up with a 9th place finish.
***Sue Hawke (Borneo; All-Stars)
It became an iconic speech that crossed over into pop culture, Sue's scathing confrontation with Richard and Kelly included gems like "If you were dying in the desert, I wouldn't give you a drink of water" and her infamous comparisons of the snake and the rat. For that alone she deserves a spot on this list, but she also became an identifiable character for viewers. She was an everywoman where most on TV at the time were polished and Hollywood attractive. Even on today's Survivor, Sue Hawke would be passed over for someone younger and more attractive. But thankfully that standard wasn't in play in Borneo.
***Cirie Fields (Panama; Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites; Heroes vs. Villains)
Cirie was smart, likable and an obvious fan favorite. Everyone liked Cirie. Like Sue Hawke, she represented the fans. She made the final four in both of her first seasons, but made an early exit in Heroes vs. Villains.
***John Cochran (South Pacific)
It's hard not to include Cochran. He even made Jeff call him by his last name because he knew from previous seasons that Jeff affectionately calls his favorites by their last name (Donaldson for Colby, Penner for Jonathan). He got under the skin of virtually everyone on his tribe. He made a big game move that hindered his own tribemates that had treated him like a plague. It didn't benefit him either, finishing 8th, but he was a peculiar guy with all the right qualities in a strong player. He just couldn't break up Coach's Crew.
***Andrew Savage (Pearl Islands)
Savage had the unforunate disadvantage of playing on a crazy season that featured larger-than-life Rupert Boneham and the most dastardly villain to ever grace Survivor, Jonny Fairplay, as well as a pre-cursor to Redemption Island in which early vote-offs had a chance to return to the game. Savage became lost in the shuffle, but his contributions cannot be ignored. He was a strong player that just got dealt a bad hand, finishing 10th. He's one of the best players not to get a second shot at the game.
***Colby Donaldson (Australian Outback; All-Stars; Heroes vs. Villains)
Another of the almost-originals, Colby was an all-around good guy. He wasn't arrogant, wasn't a dirty game player, wasn't a typical jerk. He played an honest game every time, and almost won it all in his first run in Australia. After returning in All-Stars (along with arch-enemy Jerri Manthey), Colby ended up with a dismal 12th. All seemed lost for Colby's legacy, until he returned in Season 20, Heroes vs. Villains. He wanted to see if he could still play in the big leagues, and he did: he finished 5th in a knock-down, drag-out season that included notorious villains Parvati and Russell, among others.
***Stephenie LaGrossa (Palau; Guatemala; Heroes vs. Villains)
One of the strongest, fiercest females to play the game, Stephenie was an instant fan favorite in Palau, but didn't enter the next level of popularity until she survived the decimation of her entire tribe in an odd twist that allowed the two tribes to remain even as the numbers on one tribe were reduced to just one player: Stephenie. She returned the next season with fellow tribemate, Bobby Jon, and ended up with 2nd place. Unforunately her luck ran out in Heroes vs. Villains, finishing in 19th place. Ouch.
***Sandra Diaz-Twine (Pearl Islands; Heroes vs. Villains)
Personally, Sandra was not a favorite. She didn't play an aggressive game. She didn't play a physical game. But she played low-key, and you can't deny it worked because she holds the distinction of winning Survivor twice. No one else can claim that.
10. Benjamin "Coach" Wade (Tocantins; Heroes vs. Villains; South Pacific)
Coach Wade remains one of my personal favorite contestants of all time. In his original run in Tocantins, Coach assumed a role: he was the dragon slayer, he spoke to the Gods, he performed various exercises on the beach in solitude, he divulged various life lessons and hardships he endured. He created a character that was fascinating and hilarious. He was a joy to watch. He made it interesting. In Heroes vs. Villains, he was upstaged by bigger personalities and played a more low-key game, resulting in 12th place after his 5th in Tocantins. Finally in South Pacific, he gained redemption by brushing off criticisms from fellow tribemates to form a healthy alliance that stood the entire game until the end. He played the Boston Rob role from one season prior, and stood toe-to-toe with fellow returnee Ozzy Lusth, who played a physical game to Coach's mental game. For that, Coach deserves a spot in the top ten. He truly gained redemption.
9. Elisabeth Hasselback (nee Filarski) (Australian Outback)
If your memory is foggy, you'll remember Elisabeth only as the highly-opinionated, right-leaning co-host on The View. But once upon a time, Elisabeth was America's Sweetheart on Survivor. She was the sweet, young contestant that everyone adored. In the end, she couldn't penetrate that final alliance and placed 4th. Like Andrew Savage, she is one of the best players not to get a second shot at the game, but for good reason: she made the monumental jump from reality TV to actual TV, joining Barbera Walters and Joy Behar on The View, serving since 2003 and now standing as the third-longest running co-host in the show's history. Not bad for a reality TV player.
8. Michael Skupin (Australian Outback; Philippines)
Michael Skupin only lasted six episodes in Australia, but his impact is strong enough to place him 8th on my list of players. If he hadn't fallen into the campfire, Michael would have made a strong play for the win. Through All-Stars, Fans vs. Favorites, Heroes vs. Villains and several Redemption Island seasons, Michael never returned. But now, after accepting three medically evacuated players for the new season, he returns to see if he still has what it takes to win, over a decade later. It'll be interesting to see if he can make it: Survivor is a drastically different game from what it was in 2001.
7. Jon "Jonny Fairplay" Dalton (Pearl Islands; Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites)
Jonny Fairplay created a whole new way to play the game of Survivor. He lied his way into the hearts of his fellow tribemates by faking his own grandmother's death to get ahead in the game. The Grandmother Lie didn't win him any sympathy votes afterwards, but it got him a little bit further in the game, landing in 3rd place. He created a whole persona and moniker to reflect the way he played the game. Unfortunately, Jonny Fairplay stayed home in Micronesia and Jon Dalton came, being the first person voted off. He willingly volunteered to go home after an injury suffered at the hands of Danny Bonaduce pre-game. Not a typo. For that, Jonny isn't higher on the list, but his impact on Survivor and reality TV in general is still felt.
6. Rupert Boneham (Pearl Islands; All-Stars; Heroes vs. Villains)
A real life pirate, Rupert participated on Survivor during a season when Jonny Fairplay redefined the word villain. In his own way, Rupert redefined the word hero. He worked hard, he played a good game but in the end, he came up short. He won over the hearts of most viewers and won multiple Favorite Player prizes. Alas, even during both of his all-star returns, Rupert came up short for the actual win.
5. Ozzy Lusth (Cook Islands; Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites; South Pacific)
One of the few castaways that probably belongs in the outdoors. Ozzy played each of his games with the same arrogance due to his ability to adapt to his surroundings. Unfortunately, monumental mistakes prevented him from avenging his runner-up status in Cook Islands in both of his return seasons. In Micronesia, he was blindsided while holding a hidden immunity idol, while in South Pacific, he trusted John Cochran and ended up slaying everyone at Redemption Island. Upon his return to the game, he was promptly voted off. Still, he almost made it twice, worked hard for it and became a fan favorite.
4. Russell Hantz (Samoa; Heroes vs. Villains; Redemption Island)
His place on this list might be higher or lower for some, but 4th seems fitting for Russell. He makes Jonny Fairplay look like a Disney character. He lied about virtually everything, bullied people to do his work and captured multiple hidden immunity idols WITHOUT clues. He played the dirtiest game imaginable twice and made it twice to the final tribal council, only to have everyone say "Screw you" to his in-your-face, "I played the best game" pleas during the final tribal. His placement on this list could be higher if not for an embarrassing end in Redemption Island, sending him off in the opening weeks (17th place) of a game destined for someone else higher on this list to win.
3. Parvati Shallow (Cook Islands; Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites; Heroes vs. Villains)
Parvati deserves a spot for just the sheer number of days she lasted in her seasons. In Cook Islands, she placed sixth, but came back twice, winning once in Micronesia and placing a close second in Heroes vs. Villains. She deserved that second victory over Sandra Diaz-Twine, but lost 6-3 thanks to Sandra's good social game and ability to win over scorned jury voters. But Parvati was a strong female player, and a strong villain, in a game unfortunately dominated by either strong male players or floating female players that drift to a victory. She wasn't as ruthless as Russell, wasn't the strong physical threat like Ozzy or the best game player, but she had enough in all three fields to make it far every time. Love her or hate her, she's the most noteworthy woman to play Survivor.
2. "Boston" Rob Mariano (Marquesas; All-Stars; Heroes vs. Villains; Redemption Island)
It pains me to put Boston Rob in 2nd place, but it unfortunately took him four shots to win this game, even though he deserved the All-Stars victory over future wife Amber Brkich. In Marquesas, we were introduced to the kid with the Boston accent. In All-Stars, he teamed up with one girl and they lasted till the end. Unfortunately in Heroes vs. Villains, Boston Rob had lost some of his edge. After making the jump to two editions of The Amazing Race, Rob was relatively dormant until Heroes vs. Villains, and the rust showed. He couldn't compete against the best. But his last shot in Redemption Island finally gave him his long-deserved victory. He and Amber are one of the very few Survivor contestants to jump over into a more mainstream success, with their own televised wedding and reality show. But it's Survivor Rob that we all know and love.
1. Richard Hatch (Borneo; All-Stars)
It just doesn't seem right to not have Richard Hatch top the list of most memorable players of all time. Without Richard Hatch's play in Borneo and subsequent win, reality TV in general may not be the same. He created the alliance, bringing in Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch and Sue Hawke, and they lasted until the final four. He threw the final immunity challenge, knowing they had to take him if they wanted to win, ensuring him second place and giving him a chance to persuade voters to give him the million. Sure, he had tax problems, and sure he just couldn't cut it again in All-Stars, but it's irrelevant. Without him as the original villain, we would have no one to compare Russell, Jonny Fairplay or Boston Rob to, among others. He made an otherwise fun and silly game in Borneo about strategy, backstabbing, deceit and a desire to be the last person standing. Over 50 million people tuned in to that finale, more than any other finale (or episode) of Survivor before or since. If not for Richard Hatch, Survivor may not be on the air today.
There you have it. A look back at the most memorable contestants in Survivor history. Of course so many stood out in my mind from the last number of seasons, but I made sure to stretch my memory to include those from earlier seasons. As always with any list, there will be controversy, so sound off below with your own picks for Survivor favorites.
I'll be back with a special edition this weekend to offer my predictions for this Sunday's Primetime Emmy Awards.
Until next time, stay tuned.