September 11, 2000 12:00 PM

It seems like only yesterday that Richard Hatch was the most hated man on television. A corporate Strainer from Middletown, R.I.—and winner of CBS’s summer smash game show Survivor—he had been drubbed early on as conniving and Machiavellian. One Web site crowned him “Hatch Machiabelly,” a reference to his cunning and his 250-lb. girth. To David Letterman he was just “that naked fat guy.” Fellow castaways weren’t much kinder. Crusty ex-Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch routinely called the openly gay Hatch a “queer.” Susan Hawk, the snarly concrete-truck driver from Wisconsin, likened him to a snake (an image that now emblazons her rig).

Funny how a million dollars—Hatch’s prize as the winning Survivor—can change things. There, on the L.A. set of Hollywood Squares the other day, was Susan, nibbling affectionately at Rich’s ear as they posed for photos. Other folks were being nice to Hatch too. “He’s a friend,” says Boesch. “I don’t agree with his lifestyle but that’s beside the point. If he ever needs me for anything, I’m there.” Even better, Hatch’s dad, retired lab technician Richard Sr., 61, who lives nearby and has barely spoken to his son in years, phoned an East Providence radio station, where Hatch, 39, was starting a weeklong stint as talk show host “to tell him I was proud of him.”

Welcome to Richard Hatch’s fishbowl, where life since the Aug. 23 Survivor finale has been a tapestry of microphones, cell phones, green rooms, photo ops and autograph scrums. On Aug. 28, the same day his dad called, authorities dropped a second-degree child abuse charge against Hatch—three months after a judge ruled that Hatch’s adopted son Christopher, then 9, had concocted the accusation after being made to go on a predawn workout with his dad. Hatch still seethes over what he calls the “stupid and made-up and sensationalized” media coverage and has sued local police and state child welfare officials for $1 million. “Now it’s their turn to face the truth of what went on,” he says. The town declines comment.

Naked truth is also what’s being promised in a proposed book that Hatch’s literary agent has reportedly sold to St. Martin’s Press for a half-million-dollar advance. The 76-page offering outlines a life marked by abrupt turns. Hatch’s parents divorced when he was 11 (he’s still close to mom Margaret, 59, a registered nurse). The oldest of four siblings, he and his stepmother, he says, “didn’t see eye to eye on anything.” At 17, he moved into a motel and dropped out of Middletown High School. A concerned science teacher, Paul Mello, let Hatch live with him until he graduated in 1979 and helped him apply to Florida Institute of Technology. “He was wonderful,” says Hatch. “He changed my life.”

Hatch’s love life was more complicated. “I’ve always known I was gay,” he says. “I just did the dating thing because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.” Nevertheless, as a college freshman, he says he got engaged to his high school sweetheart, a woman he won’t name. “Sometime after that I remember asking myself, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I was working in a deli, and I didn’t know what my future was going to be, so I got up one morning and joined the Army.”

He enlisted in December 1980 and a year later won admission to West Point. Then he dropped out in 1985, because, he says, “I knew I didn’t want a career in the military.”

Hatch moved to Manhattan, where he says he chauffeured nightclub owners Steve Rubell (who died in 1989) and Ian Schrager (who says he doesn’t remember Hatch). Later in 1985, Hatch, now openly gay, says he married an Australian woman he declines to identify. “We were married more than 10 years, but we didn’t live together very long,” he says. “It was a marriage of convenience—or her.”

In 1997 Hatch—by now a corporate trainer—assumed his next big role: single parent. “I always wanted to have kids,” he told NBC’s Dateline. He got his chance when he agreed to take in Chris, then 7, who had been in numerous foster homes. In 1998 Hatch adopted the boy.

Then Survivor beckoned. “He looked me dead in the eye,” says Jon Smyth, the personal trainer who helped him prepare for the 39-day ordeal, “and said, ‘I’m going to win this competition.’ ” On Hatch’s audition video, Chris can be heard joking as his father exercises: “C’mon, Dad. Keep doing [those] push-ups. We need the money.” But it was Sean Kenniff, the island’s resident goof, who provided Hatch with an unlikely inspiration after he witnessed Kenniff’s surprise reunion with his father, James. “I love my father,” says Hatch, “and have always wanted a relationship with him.”

Shortly after his Aug. 23 Survivor victory aired, “he called me from L.A.,” says the older Hatch. “I was shocked.” After a week of answering-machine tag followed by the radio dialogue, the two arranged to have lunch. Kenniff, their unofficial matchmaker, was invited along.

Afterward, father and son strolled out to the parking lot and began talking privately. The conversation grew animated. As Richard Sr. recalls, “I said, ‘It’s hard for me to hear that you said you grew up in a loveless home.’ And he said to me, ‘But Dad, it was.’ ” They shook hands and agreed to meet again. “But he’s busy now,” Hatch Sr. says.

Very busy. “I’ve gotten countless offers,” says his son. “Literally. I can’t count them. For a number of different arenas for television, radio, movies.” As he pulls up the driveway of his modest three-story wood-shingled house, a bevy of young neighborhood girls clamor for his autograph. “This is silly, when people I’ve known all my life are asking me to sign something,” he says.

But he signs. Beats eating rat.

Michael A. Lipton

Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Jennifer Longley in Middletown and Lyndon Stambler and Edmund Newton in Los Angeles

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