Hollywood Flashback: Richard Hatch Became the First 'Survivor' Winner 20 Years Ago

Richard Hatch and fellow 'Survivor: Borneo' competitor Susan Hawk on the reality series.
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Richard Hatch and fellow 'Survivor: Borneo' competitor Susan Hawk on the reality series.

He single-handedly invented the tactics that have become signature moves on the series, from strategic alliances to hairpin betrayals that even shocked host Jeff Probst and creator Mark Burnett.

Two decades, 40 seasons and a dozen controversies into its run, Survivor hasn’t been able to duplicate the success of its first outing. Survivor: Borneo debuted on CBS on May 31, 2000, with 16 competitors duking it out off the coast ofMalaysia. The finale, which aired Aug. 23, saw Richard Hatch, then 39, win the $1 million prize; it was the highest-rated episode in Survivor history, drawing 51.7 million viewers (surpassing that year’s World Series, NBA finals,NCAA men’s basketball finals and Grammy Awards).

Even before the show began airing, Hatch had a feeling it would "knock people’s socks off," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. But winning the whole thing resulted in his life doing "a 360 multiple times." (He was even asked to host a season opener of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, but CBS squashed the idea.)

An openly gay corporate trainer with a propensity for competing in the buff, Hatch became a household name as one of reality TV’s first — and most brilliantly devious — villains. "But," says Hatch, "I knew I wasn’t a villain, I knew I played within the rules."

Squeaking outa victory with a 4-3 tribal council vote, Hatch single-handedly invented the strategic tactics that have become Survivor’s signature. His forged alliances and hairpin betrayals shocked even the show’s host Jeff Probst and creator Mark Burnett. "For two decades now, people have been learning to play the way I played initially," boasts Hatch.

Following the win, he was sentenced to 51 months in prison for not paying taxes on his Survivor prize money —and received another nine-month stint for failing to amend his 2000 tax return. Through it all, he remained close with fellow finalist Rudy Boesch, an ex-Navy SEAL who died in 2019 at 91. "I think we changed the way our society looks at who gay people are in relation to straight people in the country," Hatch says. Notes Probst: "Survivor owes a debt of gratitude to that first group of players. It really laid the groundwork for the show that is still on the air 40seasons later."

This story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.