Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Burton Roberts relives being an Outcast on the show
With season 41 of Survivor delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EW is reaching back into the reality show's past. We sent a Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire to a batch of former players to fill out with their thoughts about their time on the show as well as updates on what they've been up to since. Each weekday, EW will post the answers from a different player.
Burton Roberts made one promise to the folks that, like he, had been voted out of Survivor: Pearl Islands before the merge. He told his fellow members of the Outcast tribe that if he was voted by them back into the game, he would never lie to them. Ever. And that was his downfall.
When Lillian Morris — who had been voted back in with Burton — asked him if he would take her all the way to the final two, Burton honored his pledge by not lying to her face to say he would. And, as a result of that, Lill voted him out (and ended up making the final two herself with eventual winner Sandra Diaz-Twine).
We'll never know what would have happened had Burton gone back on his word and told Lill what she wanted to hear, but the fifth-place finisher shares plenty of intel and insight 18 years later after his Pearl Islands experience. Burton also explains how his time on reality TV completely changed the trajectory of his life, as he moved from in front of to behind the camera.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, give the update as to what you've been up to since appearing on Survivor.
BURTON ROBERTS: Thank you for having me be a part of this interview series as it is always fun to relive the time spent in the Pearl Islands! Wow, it has been over 17 years since I was on the show in 2003 and a lot has happened in that time. Professionally, I was so inspired by being a part of the production of Survivor and seeing everything behind the scenes that it inspired me to change careers from the internet/technology industry to entertainment. I decided to pursue a career based around my passion for adventure and traveling, so a couple years after the show, I started a production company and have been in the industry ever since.
My first show, Camp Reality, aired on Fox Reality, and then I paired up with a good friend and fellow CBS reality star, Alex Boylan (winner of season 2 of The Amazing Race) and we started a production company called Around the World Productions. Over the years, we filmed in more than 50 countries around the world and had shows including Around the World for Free, Missions in Action, Rach to the Rescue, The CBS Buzz Tour, and we did a lot of work for CBS Interactive, the Boy Scouts of America, Outside TV, Travel Channel, and Lonely Planet to name some fun partners.
The 10 years running around the world productions was incredible for Alex and myself as we would literally pitch shows that we want to see, and host, and then figured out how we could travel wherever we wanted to. As huge adventurers/travelers, we truly found our dream careers. After that, Alex and I started a company called DreamJobbing with Lisa Hennessy who I knew from racing in the Eco-Challenge Fiji in 2002.
Lisa helped Mark Burnett launch Eco-Challenge, Survivor, Rockstar, The Contender, and other huge shows and had always been a friend and inspiration in the production world. DreamJobbing was created to inspire young people to pursue their dream careers by creating inspirational and educational content. With "dream" careers ourselves, it was our way to give back. Recently, Alex, Lisa and I just launched another show called The College Tour where we profile a different college in each episode, so that prospective college students can get a good idea of what it is really like to attend that school as they hear directly from other students in each episode. That show has taken off faster than we could have imagined and has us on track to air more than 50 episodes by the end of the year on Amazon Prime.
In my personal life, after Survivor, I moved to L.A. and lived there for about 10 years in Hollywood and Santa Monica. I enjoyed being out there a lot, but when I got married and it was time to settle down, my wife and I moved to Austin, where my family is from and where we have our ranch. Since moving back, we had twin girls (6 years old now) and we love living in Texas. I continue to travel as much as possible and have made it to over 60 countries, which is pretty exciting.
What is your proudest moment ever from playing Survivor?
I went into the show only having watched episodes from a couple of the seasons that I was able to get on VHS tape, so I had pretty limited expectations other than to try my hardest and dominate the challenges. I also wanted to play in a way that I was proud of for my family to watch. With time to reflect on the show, I can say that I am proud of the way I played the game strategically, and I did very well when I had a huge target on my back for so much of the season. I'm also pretty sure I won more challenges than anyone in my season, which was exciting and what I live for.
What is your biggest regret from your Survivor experience?
At one point, with about five people left in the game, after I had come back from the Outcast twist with Lill, she asked me who I would take to the final two if I had a choice. I made a promise to the Outcasts that if I got voted back in the game, I would not lie to whoever else went back in with me and that other person turned out to be Lill. When Lill asked me, I told her the truth — which was that I am not thinking about that until we get to that point as we still had to get rid of two more people.
Lill and I bonded a bit over Boy Scouts, as I am an Eagle Scout and she was a Scout leader, and I stuck to my word. I had helped Lill get to where she was in the game and told her what to do/say each day on the island, so I thought nothing of my answer to her. Turns out, this wasn't what she wanted, and she turned on me and my alliance and that is how I got voted out. Looking back, it would have been easy to tell her what she wanted to hear, and had I done that, I would have had a great chance to win the season.
What's something that will blow fans' minds that happened out there in your season but never made it to TV?
In one of the final immunity challenges (and the last one I was in), part of the challenge involved crossing a balance beam, filling a canteen with water, and then taking it back and pouring it into a tube with a floating key until it fills with enough water that the key floats up to the top. Once you were able to get the key out of the tube after it floated to the top, you then used it to unlock a bridge and continue on. Since a single canteen full of water did not fill it all the way, this challenge was meant for the contestants to go back and forth with water until it was full enough.
This kind of a challenge was the type that I loved, with balance and speed, and I took off out of the gate confident to win it. I filled up my tube partway and went back to get more water so the key would float to the top, and when I looked over, after just one trip to the water, Darrah had her entire arm reaching down into the tube to pull the key out. Clearly this was not something the challenge team expected, nor planned on, and it should have been stated that reaching down into the tube is not in the spirit of the challenge and clearly an unfair advantage for anyone with very skinny arms. Instead, they let the challenge continue and my loss in it led to me getting voted out.
Challenges had been stopped and readjusted in our season, so they should have done that here. In fact, in an earlier challenge in the game with the word puzzles, I won it and we made it back to the island on the boat before they called and said I misspelled a word and therefore took my win away. Jeff [Probst] should have stepped in here as well and corrected this unfair advantage, and while this did not play out too much on air, it was clearly an error on their part that led to me getting voted out.
How do you feel about the edit you got on the show?
Overall, my edit was pretty accurate. I am extremely competitive, a hard worker, very strategic thinking and a straight shooter. At one point, they tried to play up a rivalry between Rupert and myself, and they edited that section pretty hard — much more than I thought it was out there — but it never really played out and then I voted him out. Other than that, it was accurate.
What was it like coming back to regular society after being out there? Was there culture shock or an adjustment coming back?
When flying home, we flew through Miami, and since I was working for a company based out of Florida, rather than go to Texas right away, I went straight there. I had made up a story that I was on a consulting gig for the last month, so they had no idea I had been on Survivor. When I showed up skinny, long hair, and all torn up from bug bites and scratches, they had no idea what had happened to me. But one interesting thing about the integration back into work immediately was how sharp my mind was and how quickly I was thinking. After 36 days in a game where I was thinking nonstop about strategies and different scenarios, my mind had been very well "exercised" and it showed even with things like working with spreadsheets, numbers, and financial projections.
In addition to that, I was always thinking about the adventure of being on the show and traveling, so it was also where the seed was planted that ultimately led to me changing careers from tech/internet to production and inspiring me to follow my passions creating adventure travel programming.
Was there ever a point either during the game or after you got back where you regretted going on the show?
Definitely not with the way it turned out after I got voted back into the game. Now, if there was not the Outcast twist, that would be a different story and I imagine the experience would have been pretty horrible overall. There are some bad shows out there and I am sure people go on them and regret it after, but Survivor is such an iconic high-quality show and having made it to the final five, it was an incredible experience that I was honored to be a part of and proud of how I played and how I did in the game. And, even 17 years later, it is brought up in conversation all the time by friends and family, so it has been a huge part of my life's experiences.
Whom do you still talk, text, or email with the most from your season?
A lot of time has passed, but over the years I would talk to Jon (Fairplay), Ryan, Shawn, Christa, Trish, Tijuana, and Andrew, and since a lot of people overlapped in L.A., it was fun to hang out and run into each other at the bars on Sunset Blvd. Recently, Andrew, Trish, and I joined Fairplay on a podcast deal watching one of our episodes and had a great time doing it. Overall, I think we had a very solid cast and I enjoyed such a rare experience with them all.
In addition, especially during my time in L.A., I was able to meet people from all the different reality shows at charity events. As mentioned, Alex Boylan is my business partner, and other friends include Brennan Swain (Amazing Race season 1 winner), Hunter Ellis, Jed Hildebrand, Colby Donaldson, Ethan Zohn, and others.
Do you still watch Survivor, and if so, what's your favorite season you were not on and why?
I do and really enjoy it. The most recent season, Winners at War, was pretty epic. It included some amazing challenges, twists and cool aspects to the show and then to have some of the best and most popular players to ever play the game was awesome. That was one of the best seasons for sure. Prior to that, I really enjoyed the season Kim Spradlin won (Survivor: One World) as she did such a great job out there dominating all aspects of the game.
Who's one player from another Survivor season you wish you could have played with or against and why?
I have to give you two answers here — Colby Donaldson and Ethan Zohn. They are both close friends and fierce competitors who I have competed in races and events with over the years, and I think it would be awesome to compete with, and against, them both. And they are both great people, so it would make the downtimes more fun with good people and conversations.
If you could make one change to any aspect of Survivor, what would it be and why?
I feel like the show has gotten away from the "survival" aspect that it had much more in the beginning. On my season, I was spear fishing every day, making fires, boiling water, and truly living off the land (putting my Eagle Scout skills to the test) and other than reward challenges, that was all we had to live off of. That also made up a large part of the show and the editing which I loved.
These days, it seems like the focus is just on the strategy and alliances and backstabbing, and the survival aspect has taken a backseat to it. It would be great to bring back the survival elements and reward those players who had the skills. I also feel like many contestants don't have to have any survival skills at all because they can ride the coattails of those who do. Even though that was the case for our season to some degree, it is even more so now.
Finally, would you play again if asked?
I have always said, since getting back from my season, I am ready any time and any place with whatever clothes I have on! I would love to go back to play the game again and see how much time and age has impacted my ability to play — both mentally and physically. Personally, I think I am better prepared for it now as I have stayed in shape and have gained wisdom that I think would help strategically. Plus, I would probably not have as big of a target on my back being a bit older.
Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"