By Dalton Ross
May 15, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Tonight, the winner of Survivor: Edge of Extinction will be crowned live on CBS. The beauty of live television is that anything can happen. Like when Boston Rob proposed to Amber Brkich at the Survivor: All-Stars reunion. Or when Big Tom got pissed at Boston Rob at the Survivor: All-Stars reunion. Or when Jerri Manthey got literally booed off the stage at the Survivor: All-Stars reunion. Suffice it to say, a lot went down at the Survivor: All-Stars reunion.

But all of that is nothing compared to what almost happened behind the scenes at the live finale of Survivor: Gabon on Dec. 14, 2008 when Bob Crowley beat Susie Smith and Sugar Kiper by a vote of 4-3-0 for the million-dollar prize. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for viewers, or even for those in the live studio audience at CBS Television City where the reading of the final votes took place. But backstage, some major drama was unfolding during the airing of the finale. The problem? The final Tribal Council votes — which had been cast five months prior in Africa and brought back to the United States — were not there. With an imminent live reading of the votes to millions of people on national television, they had no votes!

Host and executive producer Jeff Probst recently revealed this to EW in one of the best behind-the-scenes Survivor stories you are ever going to hear, and rather than me muck it up with a bunch of nonsense I’m just going to let you hear it straight from the host’s mouth. Sit back, relax, and enjoy. Ladies and gentlemen, Jeff Probst…

Eric McCandless/Getty/CBS

“There was one season where we just missed a major disaster. It was Gabon and a former producer who’s not on the show anymore had the responsibility to bring the votes to me. So we get to the live show, we do our entrance, we do our hello, the show’s going fine, everything’s going fine. But I haven’t seen him. And I’m starting to now wonder, I know he’s here. It’s just it’s weird that we haven’t connected yet. But I figured he was busy.

“And then I see him walking down the hallway and I say, ‘Hey, we should go over the votes.’ And he says, ‘Votes?’ And I go, ‘You’re supposed to have the votes.’ And he says, “Oh s—, I forgot.’ And I think he’s kidding because he was the type of guy who would pull that kind of practical joke. And I go, ‘That’s funny. Where are the votes?’ And he goes, ‘No, I’m not kidding.’ And I go, ‘Come on, for real. This is going to stress me out. Where are they?’ He goes, ‘I really forgot.’ And at that point, panic ensued.

“When I realized he was 100% serious, that he did not have the votes, we went into a plan of action. One of our other crew members, Chris Campbell, had a motorcycle. So he gets on his motorcycle and he starts racing to our production offices. He gets to the office. He’s one of the three people who has the combo, but he doesn’t have a key to the office where the safe is! So this is the truth: He breaks the glass. There’s a side glass panel in the office. He breaks the glass, crawls in, opens the safe, gets the votes. At this point, it was between 30 and 40 minutes before the reveal of the votes. And he’s down near the airport.

“So wisely, he faxes them to us. He faxes every single vote and we’re now in a really small room at CBS with [producer/production designer] Dan Munday and a CBS executive. And Dan is retracing every single vote by hand. And the live show is playing, and the time is ticking down! Now we’re 15 minutes away! Now we’re ten minutes away! And Dan Munday is one of the most confident and calm guys. It’s like the clock was irrelevant to him. He was moving at his own pace. And the CBS exec and myself are breathing over his neck, going, ‘Okay do you think we’re going to finish? Do you think we’re going to finish?’ And he gives us that look as just to say, ‘Not if you keep interrupting me, we won’t.’

“He traces all of them. Beautiful job. They look identical. And we stack them in the urn and we just decide: This is it. This is what we’re going to do. And there’s no issue of fairness. The votes are exactly for whom they were originally intended. They had just been redrawn because we don’t have the originals. But, fortunately, we have this facsimile that we can copy so there were no issues of fairness.

“So I’m standing on the side of the stage as the final act is playing, and we’re now under two minutes before I walk out there when Chris races up. He’d been riding back on his motorcycle and he races up with the votes and I still can remember taking that cue from Dan to remain calm. I pull out all the votes in the urn, and one by one match them up against the original and start replacing them. And then we get all the votes in, I walk out on stage, we read the votes, everything was fine.”

So there you have it, folks. It turns out we were less than two minutes away from instead of seeing the real votes read at the Survivor: Gabon finale, being treated to fake votes retraced from faxes of the actual votes obtained by a crew member who broke into the production office across town as the finale was already airing. And none of us ever would have known the difference.

God, I love Survivor.

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Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.
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