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Jeff of the Jungle

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Forget roasted rodents, forming alliances or winning the immunity talisman. Survivor host Jeff Probst knows the real secret of how to “outwit, outplay, outlast” on remote Pulau Tiga island: Skittles. “One bag of Skittles could get you anything,” says Probst, who doled them out to sweets-starved crew members during his two-month stay. “If I needed a favor, I just walked out shaking a bag, going, ‘Want one? Then here’s what I need you to do.’ And people would shout, ‘I’ll do it!’ ”

Survivor’s success has made Probst, 38, TV’s most watched host who is not asking contestants about final answers. During the program’s 39-day competition, “he never complained once,” says Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett. “We filmed in the middle of a rainstorm, and he was soaked. Most people would have quit, but not Jeff.”

That doesn’t mean Survivor’s 16 castaways were big fans. Far from it. “We were kind of hard on him,” says castoff Joel Klug, who, like the others, had to rise to the challenges Probst announced and endure the tribal councils he moderated. “Every time he showed up, it meant either we were going to eat a bug or almost drown ourselves,” says Klug. Probst agrees it was an awkward relationship: “There were times when there was a lot of animosity. They thought we were living in a hotel eating filet mignon and flying in to give them grief.”

Not quite: Offered a chance to unwind at a mainland hotel, Probst opted to stick with his four-to-a-hut lodgings in the crew’s sparse compound on the island. “I said, ‘I want to earn this like everyone else,’ ” he says. “When it is day 27 and it has been 115° for five days in a row, I want to know what that feels like.” Adjusting to local delicacies served up by the crew’s Malaysian cook also posed a challenge, says Probst, who lost 15 lbs. “They’d hand you a tray with a fish head with all its eyes and teeth and say, ‘If you suck the juice out, it’s really good!’ ”

Spoken like a man who, as his brother Brent, 35, puts it, “has been a great host since childhood. He was into plays and was a singer in a rock band in high school. He’s always been the ambitious type.” Home was Wichita, Kans., and later Seattle, where their mother, Barbara, was a homemaker and father Jerry, now retired, worked for Boeing. After three sporadic years at Seattle Pacific University, Probst left for his own job at Boeing, where he produced and narrated sales and marketing videos. That led to his first television work, hosting local Seattle garden and car shows in 1991, when he met his future wife, car-show producer Shelley Wright, now 34. “I loved his belief in me,” says Shelley, now a psychotherapist and married to Probst since 1996. “A lot of the risks I took are because of that.”

In turn, Shelley cheered him on through stints at the FX cable network, Access Hollywood and his still-running gig hosting VH1 Rock & Roll Jeopardy! and propped him up after he failed to get the hosting jobs on the now-defunct prime-time game shows Winning Lines and Twenty One. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to take the next job that comes my way, because I need to pay the rent,’ ” he recalls. That job was Survivor.

Probst, who lives in L.A., has just returned from Vancouver, where he directed Finder’s Fee, an independent film he wrote about five men trapped inside a New York City apartment building. “I rewrote the ending based on my experience at tribal council,” he says. “I got to see the real thing on the island.” In October he’ll begin taping Survivor II, which will air next January, in Australia. As Survivor’s host he is willing to take the heat and swat bugs, but he has also learned his limits. “I had thought if I didn’t get to host, I should try out,” he says. “Watching what these contestants went through, I realized I wouldn’t have lasted five days.”

Jason Lynch

Paula Yoo and Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles