'Survivor David vs Goliath': The Unlikely Story Behind the Biggest Blindside Yet

Executive producer and host Jeff Probst joins The Hollywood Reporter for a midseason check-in following John Hennigan's elimination.
Robert Voets/CBS

How did John Hennigan lose Survivor? Thereby hangs a tale, one that will be told within Survivor circles for years and years to come. At its core, the short version is this: Davie Rickenbacker, not unlike Charlie Bucket, found a golden ticket.

Here's the longer version of the story: the David tribe's Davie, a fan-favorite during the Survivor casting process, was not originally meant to appear on this season. He was a last-minute replacement for another contestant, who dropped out of Survivor: David vs. Goliath in the eleventh hour for personal reasons, while on location. The Atlanta-based Davie, a self-described "blerd" and an outspoken Walking Dead superfan (his recent staff-twirling move was primarily a nod to his fraternity, but also at least a partial wink to AMC's zombie drama), was contacted shortly after the player's withdrawal; he immediately agreed to take his place, completely rearranging his life and hopping on an airplane to Fiji all within hours of the phone call — and all with precious little time before the season officially began.

In the preseason, with not quite two full days before the first day of production, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with all 20 of the aspiring Sole Survivors, logging their first impressions of each other, formed based on nonverbal cues. Given that he landed on Fijian soil less than 48 hours before showtime, Davie didn't elicit too many wild reactions from his future opponents. In fact, for some players, the photo of Davie presented by THR provided them with their very first look at the man — as was the case with a certain professional wrestler, for instance.

"He's the alternate," said John, the artist occasionally known as the Mayor of Slamtown, squinting at the photo of a wide-smiling Davie, clad in a salmon-colored shirt, a watch on his wrist. "Someone was replaced for reasons that have not been disclosed. But he looks happy. He's wearing a watch, so he probably knows what time it is!"

Indeed, Davie knew exactly what time it was during the most recent edition of Survivor, in which he took the mayor straight to Slamtown. Using a closely guarded hidden immunity idol to protect a friend and nullify all seven of the former Goliath tribe's votes — John's included — Davie teamed together with robot scientist Christian Hubicki and public defender Nick Wilson to place their votes against John, blasting the professional athlete out of the game. 

It was easily the most stunning move of the season through eight episodes, one that delivered on the promise of the season's theme: a veritable David versus Goliath showdown, as the three underdogs pooled their resources together for an unlikely shot against the marquee Goliath — a move that was only possible because of the incredibly unlikely circumstances that brought Davie to Survivor with very little preparation time.

"I'm hoping something happens to me and I have an out-of-body experience while I'm here," Davie told THR in the final hours before the adventure's official beginning. "I want to be memorable. I want to leave my mark on this game." 

Consider the mark made, with the promise of more memorable moments still to come — and consider it yet another reason why David vs. Goliath is positively on fire, stormy weather notwithstanding.

Even with plenty of game still standing between John Hennigan's stunning blindside and the final Tribal Council of the season, David vs. Goliath already stands out as one of the most exciting iterations of the CBS reality franchise, certainly in recent memory. There are even some who are describing it as the best season ever. Full disclosure: it's me — and it's a joke! But the joke is starting to resemble a realistic prospect, in light of eight truly mesmerizing episodes in a row, starting with the harrowing season premiere and bursting through the utterly bizarre "Jacketgate" and well beyond. Admittedly, it's way too early for a seriously stated hyperbolic declaration like "best season ever," to be sure. But the streak of eight exhilarating Survivor episodes cannot be denied, and deserves closer scrutiny.

In the spirit of digging deeper into the most recent blindside and the season at large, THR turned to executive producer and host Jeff Probst for an in-depth check-in as David vs. Goliath moves past its midpoint. How did Johnny "Impact" Hennigan's blindside play out from Probst's point of view? What does he remember about John's audition for the show, as well as the auditions of the three castaways who brought about his demise? What does Probst make of the audience reaction to David vs. Goliath thus far, and what's he thinking about how to structure the live reunion show at the end of the season? The answer to those questions and many more reside in the interview ahead.

Congratulations on David vs. Goliath achieving its slingshot moment. Where does this Tribal Council and blindside rank in the pantheon for you? Recency bias being what it is, it's still hard to imagine this not going down as an all-time moment. 

Well, for starters, I think it might be the first time that two idols were played for other players, so that's pretty cool. And judging from the reaction of the crowd I was watching with, that Tribal was definitely an "all-time moment!" From my personal vantage point, I often don't fully appreciate the dramatic impact of a moment like that when it's actually happening. I am so focused on making sure I am doing my job — in this case, who is playing an idol for whom and how it will impact the votes — that I am somewhat oblivious to the best parts of a blindside. It's only upon reflection that I can appreciate the epic nature of the moment. But I did enjoy the outburst when John was voted out. It was a total shocker and a brilliant move.

Before we dig into John Hennigan's end, let's begin at the beginning. What do you remember about how he became part of the cast? What are your memories from his audition, and any back-and-forth about his final involvement with the show? 

Executive producer Matt Van Wagenen knew of John from the wrestling show he's on called Lucha Underground. Matt thought he might be a good fit for Survivor, which is highly unusual as we rarely take people who have been on other shows; we prefer to discover our own people. But Matt has great instincts, so we met John, and beyond his size, I was really taken by his outlook on life and on himself. He's a very humble and deep-thinking person. Later in the casting process, we met another player, Pat Cusack, and the idea of David vs. Goliath started to present itself. John would represent the physical embodiment of Goliath, and Pat would represent the emotional embodiment of David. Then, we got word that John's shooting schedule for the wrestling show had changed and he was not available. (Reason #19 we don't often use people from other shows.) But we were already committed to our theme and had to accept the loss. But then, like a great episode of Survivor, a twist of fate made him available, and we snapped him up immediately and locked him into our shoot dates. I'm so happy it worked out, as we all really enjoyed having him on the show.

Same question, but flipping it onto the Davids who took down the Goliath tribe's poster boy. What do you recall from your first encounters with Christian, Nick and Davie? 

Christian was an instant "he's on the show." It didn't take more than three minutes. And the number one reason was because of his storytelling abilities. He is able to hook you very fast, even when talking about something as mundane as what he ate for breakfast. And he always has a fascinating entry point into stories, as he rarely comes at them head on. He usually tilts his head when telling a story, and that's an indication that what follows will also be slightly… tilted. And at this point, we knew we were doing David vs. Goliath, so that made it an easy decision. 

Nick was equally compelling, but for a different reason. Nick came in with a very different energy. His charm was understated and there was an underbelly that spoke to duplicity, combined with his ability and willingness to do whatever he had to do to win. But as we dug deeper, we discovered he was also a truly empathetic and compassionate young man who had returned home from law school to take care of a group of people that he felt were underserved. That's a pretty complex and deeply fascinating person. The David tribe was starting to take shape in a very interesting way. 

Davie was yet another completely unique story. We all liked Davie in casting. What's not to like? He's very fun to be around. But I was on the fence with Davie in terms of should he be on this season. I thought another year might make him even better. But some of our producers loved him instantly, and pushed hard for him. When it came time to put the final tribes together, we debated between Davie and another player. We ultimately went with the other person. Davie took it hard, but was very respectful and positive about the chance to play in another season. Then, less than 48 hours before shooting day one of David vs. Goliath, we lost the person we had chosen over Davie. The first person we thought of as a replacement was, of course, Davie! We called him from Fiji, and he was packing a suitcase before we hung up. He got on a plane that night and was playing the game less than two days later. And I can now say, I fully get it. Davie is fantastic! He's one of the most likable players we've ever had on the show. He's willing to be open and vulnerable and holy smokes is he playing a great game. That "martial arts" dancing on the rock moment was one of the best things I've ever seen! 

If someone had bet me pre-show that Christian, Davie and Nick would come together to pull off a move like that, I would have probably taken the bet and given you huge odds — which is yet another reason why you should never ever listen to me about anything under any circumstances. Especially directions!

This season's theme invites a biblical quality, as it directly references such an iconic story. You expect, or at least hope, for moments in which a favorite falls against an unlikely underdog. Here we are, with a Tribal Council that truly fulfills the promise of the slingshot: three Davids — one of whom is literally named Davie — combining their forces to bring down a towering Goliath with one clever blow. Could you have ever imagined a scenario that so perfectly encapsulates the David and Goliath story? 

Never, ever, ever. We believed the theme was strong mainly because we had two really authentic tribes of players to represent the idea. And we knew there was always a chance that at some point, a David might have a Hail Mary moment and knock out a Goliath. But our biggest fear was actually that the Davids would simply never get a foothold, and the Goliaths would dominate the game. If you remember, those original tribes were very lopsided. Ten true Goliaths and ten true Davids. So, to have a moment like that, where three underdogs take out the biggest Goliath, was one of those nights when you just open your arms to the skies and say, "Thank you."  

The idea that I mentioned at the start of the game — "it's not who has the advantage, but what is the advantage" — is what we were banking on to continue to flip the game. I couldn't be more impressed with both the gameplay and the respect everyone is showing to each other, day after day, in what has been a very difficult season for everybody. And I have to say it again, most of what makes a season great are the players. They create their own destiny by how they approach the game. This group came to play, and you're seeing it in episode after episode.

Walk me through your perspective on how Tribal played out…

As I mentioned before, just keep in mind that I am not watching the way you watch when you're sitting on the couch at home. My main objective is to ensure I ask the right questions to the right people to make sure the climax of the story can be told. Gotta make sure I don't mess that part up! Secondary to that, I was aware that Davie would be assessing whether he felt the need to play his idol for Christian. And if he did, it seemed likely that Dan would do the same. But with Angelina being a bit of a wild card, the question loomed if Dan would play it for Angelina or someone else. Either way, Tribal had the possibility of turning into a showdown with potentially massive repercussions for the rest of the game. 

Once the tribal discussion is over, the next phase is the reading of the votes. For that Tribal Council, we had votes for Christian, Angelina and John. Depending on what happens with idols, any of the three could be voted out. That's a pretty rare situation. So, in that moment, I am only focused on math. That's it. Zero emotion. I only care about making sure that I get it right. Who has an idol, who are they playing it for, how and does it change the votes? I'm not trying to make this sound overly important, I'm just trying to put you inside my head. 

Some are wondering just how much Christian was in on the plan, versus how much it was Davie and Nick swooping in and saving his hide. What do you think? Was Christian genuinely feeling he was on his last legs, or do you think he knew more than he let on? Certainly, we should know better than to underestimate Slamtown Comptroller Hubicki by now… 

I think Christian was about to be blindsided. The Goliaths had a great plan, and I don't think he had the slightest idea it was coming. But this is why the game becomes more and more difficult every season. Alec [who told Nick about the pending vote against Christian] is a smart player. He's looking ahead, weighing out possible final seven, final five and final three options. He has information that he can use: they're blindsiding Christian. The question is, how best to use it? So, he makes a selfish decision (which on Survivor is really the only kind of decision you can make) to share it with the "other side," hoping that it will buy him good will from Nick further down the line. It's not the first time Alec has made a move like this; it's clearly in his nature. 

Now, the next decision comes down to Nick's relationship with Alec. Does Nick trust that Alec is telling him the truth? Does Christian trust Nick is telling him the truth? Does Christian trust that Alec was telling Nick the truth? The audience has the luxury of having all the information. But the players have only the past actions of other players combined with their instincts to decide what they believe is real and what is a lie. Imagine a different scenario where Alec tells Nick the exact same story: "They're coming for Christian." And Davie plays his idol to protect Christian, but it's Davie who gets blindsided. In that scenario, the Goliaths still control the numbers and they get rid of an idol in the process. It's always easy when you watch at home. It's so much more difficult when you are playing a do-or-die game and have absolutely no way to know the truth.

Nick walks away from this episode with huge pelts on his belt: a hidden advantage in the vote steal, the knowledge of Carl's idol nullifier and a key role in knocking out John Hennigan — a move only made possible thanks to Alec trusting Nick enough to reveal Christian's endangered status. With Nick, we're talking about a man who was very nearly the first one out of his tribe if not for Pat's evacuation, only to go on and make deep bonds with so many players. How impressed were you with Nick's game and his ability to dig himself out of that day one hole, through this stage of the season? 

As I said earlier, I was fascinated with Nick's savvy from the first time we met him. Here's a quote I'm sure I'll regret, and I say this with total admiration and in the best way, if that's possible: he reminded me a bit of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Because when it comes to Survivor, Nick's a killer. He is relentless, and he is a shapeshifter. Just look at his relationship with [Goliath's Mike White]. He's strumming his air guitar and laughing like he's three beers in, and having the greatest time. With Christian and the "Mason Dixon" alliance, he takes on a very different role. They tend to sit down or meet in the woods as peers and plot their next move. He molds himself to the person he is talking to, and that's a really great quality in this game.

There's an alternate universe where Davie Rickenbacker is not a castaway on this season, being that he was an alternate castmember. How lucky are we to live in this universe, in which a man named Davie, on David vs. Goliath, slays the most "Goliathy" Goliath? Does this speak to the kismet qualities of creating Survivor?

There is a phrase that is often heard from players throughout any season of Survivor, and it goes like this: "…and then the Survivor gods intervened."  

We first came to know the Survivor gods during the final days of season one, when everybody on the crew was certain that Rudy Boesch, the 72-year-old Navy Seal, was going to win our first season. How great would that be? An American hero, representing our show! He'll do interviews and people will love him and as a result, they'll love our show! All he had to do was keep his hand on a silly wooden idol longer than this unlikable guy Richard Hatch and this young river rafting guide, Kelly Wiglesworth. No sweat. This was Rudy Boesch! He'd served 45 years in the Navy. He'd been through everything. This was nothing. Just a simple afternoon in the hot Borneo sun. And then, the most unexpected thing happened: Rudy absentmindedly took his hand off the idol, and in that moment, lost the challenge and the game. Richard Hatch, the most hated person on television, went on to win. While we knew we still had an interesting show, we also believed that Richard would be a tough winner to accept and it might mean the end of our show. But the Survivor gods knew what we didn't. Rudy would be the expected winner, but Richard was the winner that would get people really talking about Survivor

The gods were right. Richard Hatch became one of the most famous people in the world, and helped propel Survivor into a global hit. The gods became such a "thing" that we even wondered if Mark Burnett might have had some kind of Survivor voodoo doll perched on an altar in his tent. But as the seasons passed, we began to stop worrying and start embracing the "Survivor gods." They have done us right for 19 years and 37 seasons, going on 38. I never doubt them. I always look at these kinds of moments as a gift. So, as I mentioned earlier, Davie is right where he belongs. I thank the Survivor gods for seeing what I couldn't see at first glance.

Angelina wasn't able to snatch Natalie's jacket earlier this season, but she got something better when she earned Dan's immunity idol — even though she didn't ultimately need it. As a gut check while we have you here, what was your take on Dan and Angelina, both in this moment and in the context of the season at large? 

Okay, this is obviously just my opinion and I could be completely wrong — because remember, you should never listen to me about anything — [but] my take is that Dan is in the midst of a major life transition and that makes him a complicated fella. If you look at his recent past, he was overweight, lacking confidence and on some level aware that he was not living up to his full potential. Something triggered inside him and he started making big changes to his life. He shed his skin and emerged as a new version of himself. This version is handsome and athletic with a chiseled physique. It's given him a well deserved boost of confidence. But it's important to be able to balance confidence with a nice dose of humility, and I think that's the part that Dan is still sorting out. 

This isn't a criticism; he's undergone a massive life shift, and he's been very open and vulnerable in talking about it. He's also been very open in sharing how fun it is to have women tell him he's good looking. It's easy to criticize a comment like that, but I'm sure a lot of people can relate and understand how it can get inside your head. From a Survivor point of view, he's clearly playing a very strong and aggressive game right now. His move to save Angelina had to score him loyalty points with the others in his tribe, and it's a good indicator that he is willing to go for broke to win this game. If he can keep his Goliath alliance together, he's in a very good position. 

Angelina is playing a very different style of game. Angelina is Survivor's version of "the teacher's pet." She's very bright, well spoken, can form quick arguments defending either side of a debate, and is never shy to raise her hand and say, "I know the answer!" That's a very lethal combination of skills. I absolutely love going to Angelina at Tribal Council, because I know she will have an interesting answer. Whether it's true or a lie, whether it's to move the game to the left or the right, it doesn't matter to me, she stirs the pot. Angelina is smart enough to get to the end, and I think her chances of winning would be heavily weighted one way or another based on who she was sitting next to at the final three. If I could whisper in her ear, I'd probably say, "Hey, maybe you could back off just a little bit… let the game come to you a little more." But she wouldn't listen anyway! Because, you should never listen to me. 

John's reaction to the blindside was beautiful: a huge laugh and an incredible attitude. What did you take away from John's response? Do you have any interesting takeaways from speaking with John after the vote went down, if you had the chance to check his pulse on the move? And the follow-up question on everyone's minds: should we expect to see John on Survivor again? 

John's exit after the vote is the most telling thing about John. He's just an extremely classy guy. He took it with absolute grace, even having a conversation with Christian on his way out. I was so impressed. John is the guy who catches the winning touchdown pass in the final moments of the Super Bowl, and then, instead of some crazy celebration, he casually tosses the ball to the ref, kisses his wife and hugs his kids. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying everybody needs to be like John. Survivor works because we bring a collection of people from different walks of life, and I love it when people are pissed off at the vote or threaten to burn down the shelter — because that's their personality. John's personality is more measured. He's a good dude. Would we have him back again? Absolutely. Does that mean he'll be back anytime soon? Can't say. We haven't thought that far ahead.

For me, if David vs. Goliath maintains its current pace, it will go down in the books as one of the truly elite seasons of the show. It's resonating deeply with fans, for a variety of reasons: strong casting, a clear theme, a return to form with absolutely brutal survival conditions, innovative challenge design, whiplashing power dynamics, bold storytelling choices designed to maximize character beats… there's a sense of heightened danger and stakes, combined with huge amounts of heart and humor that truly represent Survivor at its best. The season is still in progress, but as the reactions are coming in live, what's your post-mortem on the perceived successes of David vs. Goliath as you look ahead toward the future of the franchise? Are there any stray bolts of lightning you've found yourself bottling up here along the way for future use? 

Whoa. Let me take in everything you just said. On one hand, it's extremely flattering and will make our entire creative team feel "seen." On the other hand, it's incredibly daunting to know that just around the corner is a new season with new players and a new theme. It's one of the most exciting and simultaneously gray hair-inducing parts of producing Survivor: "What are you going to do next time?" 

I do agree with you that the fan response has been really fantastic. It's very gratifying to be in our 37th season and still have this kind of excitement and connection with our audience. You've been to location, you know how much we treasure that relationship, and how hard we work to live up to the praise. Our takeaway from this season is that we can continue to explore new ideas because our audience is right there with us, step by step. You're right, we are playing with ideas in the editing bays and we have been diving deeper into personal stories. The David vs. Goliath theme seems to be the right choice for where we are right now. We can never count on weather and we never know what the players will do. But I do think there is a symbiotic relationship with the players and the game. What I mean is, I think on some crazy level, the players know that Survivor is meant to be played, not observed. There are virtually no rules on Survivor, so it's up to the players to create the world and the pace with which they want to play. This group of players understands that, and they are playing very hard, and yet with an admirable amount of respect for each other. It's like a collective unconsciousness on some level.

Two jurors down. Plenty of Survivor still to come. What's coming down the pike — both in terms of what we're getting into with the season proper, and also any insight you can share into what you're thinking for how to wrap this all up with the live finale? Any format tweaks you're mulling over? 

In terms of what is to come this season, it's similar to when we're tracking the path of a storm that is projected to hit us. Often times those storms end up veering off their path and die in the ocean. But some storms never deviate from their path. That's what happened with the cyclone that forced the evacuation earlier in the season. It was projected to hit us, and it did. That's how I feel about this season: the path it's on right now is the path it stays on. I think it finishes strong, and I hope fans feel the same way.

As for the live show, I am always torn about how best to produce that show. I'm open to ideas! Personally, I view our three-hour finale night as just that: three hours of Survivor. The question becomes how best to spend the time. Not simply what will garner the best rating, but also what best serves the show. It starts with our final episode, which is scheduled for two hours. But because we have that third hour reserved for the reunion show, we don't worry if we go a bit long. We have the time. The second layer is the "live" feel you want to create on a finale night. You want it to be an event night so that the fans get excited, and if someone new comes across the finale, they might be enticed to check us out and we might gain a new fan. Then the final piece is the reunion show, where we reflect with the players about the season. 

That's how I prioritize it: spend as much time as you need to make sure the finale is great, make it feel like a big night, and then spend the remaining time talking with the players. But the network sells the show to advertisers in a certain way, and we obviously have to respect that, because without advertisers, we don't have a show. So, it's a bit of a puzzle each season, and you try to determine the best way to serve the show, the audience, and of course the network, while getting the highest rating. We're very lucky to have a great relationship with CBS. We literally just get on the phone and talk about it and figure it out. I don't think it could be any easier or more mutually respectful. I've heard from friends that it's not always this way on other shows.  

Okay, now that I've been about as long winded as anyone ever should be and I've spouted off all my opinions, I'll leave you with this reminder: never listen to me. About anything. Especially directions.

Follow THR.com/Survivor for more David vs. Goliath coverage.