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February 17, 2005|By Anthony Cotton

Of the many reality shows that seem to have etched a place in the American consciousness, Survivor has perhaps proved to be the most popular of the bunch. One reason is Rupert Boneham, a former cemetery caretaker who has appeared on two installments of the series. (The latest adventure -- the 10th -- starts tonight at 8 on CBS.)

Recently, Boneham, 41, a resident of Indianapolis, talked about playing the role of his life.

You've been doing a lot of traveling lately. What sort of things have you been doing?

Signings at car shows -- places like the World of Wheels, hot rods, championship series cars, different stuff. I'm the entertainment that supposedly brings all the people back.

So how do these appearances work?

I'm usually there for four or five hours; I sit at a table from, say, 1 to 3 o'clock and 7 to 9. We set up and sign autographs and take pictures and shake hands, give waves, give hugs and play around. It's my new career. I run around the country and I be me!

So that's the glamour of show business?

It's the ultimate in job security. There's only one of me!

So, do you remember where you were the first time you heard there would be a show called Survivor?

That was back in '99. I was a caretaker in a cemetery, and my wife was pregnant. I heard about it, and the first time I saw it, I just knew how well I fit into that game.

How real are reality shows, really?

I am shocked nobody has died doing the show. You're out there in danger -- there are poisonous snakes around, there are currents that could take you out and fillet you on the coral reef. It's amazing more people don't get hurt playing the game. There was one time I was out there fishing, and you're fishing out near the rocks because that's where all the fish are. And one time a big wave just came along and threw me up against the rocks; it filleted me open on my chest, but it could have just as easily been my neck.

How do you audition for the show?

A lot of people say how hard it was, but from the first day I got my hands on the application I knew I was in. There are approximately 100,000 people who apply, and they narrow that down to about 800 who get a face-to-face meeting. And when I sent my application and videotape in, I told my family, "I know I'm going." When I went in for my face-to-face, I sat there and watched them going through these people every 10 or 15 minutes. When I went in, I was in there for about 38 minutes. I said: "You haven't had anyone in here for more than 15 minutes, and I'm in here for 35? When are we leaving?"

How long did it take you to pick up on the strategies, things like forming alliances?

When I went through the first Survivor, in the Pearl Islands, it was pretty much "The Rupert Show." It was, "This is my island, my adventure, my spear, my game, and you guys are messing it up." On all-stars, the second one, I realized that wasn't really the way to play. Then, it was, "It's your game, your spear, your adventure, your island. What can I do to help you?" And that worked out a lot better. It didn't make for "The Rupert Show" so much, but it sure got me a lot further.

Ultimately, where does this take you?

I was recently out in Los Angeles, pitching a Saturday morning kids show and a movie idea, sort of a mountain man thing that would make me the next Grizzly Adams. And there's a little talk of another reality series in which I'd be the host.

Were you prepared for the explosion surrounding your appearances on the game and your popularity?

When it just started to get big, on Pearl Islands, I went off to do all-stars. So I didn't really feel it growing until the finale of Pearl Islands. That's when I realized what kind of explosion there was; that was the real awakening, when I came back from all-stars and I flew into New York, and it was already crazy.

How crazy?

People recognizing me, taking pictures, asking for autographs in the airport -- and it was 2 o'clock in the morning. They flew me in and tried to get me to the airport without people seeing me -- I had no idea that everything had changed -- but they couldn't do it.

Now a celebrity -- you were a bartender, the caretaker at a cemetery -- did you imagine this?

It's great. A vocational mentor in the criminal court system found celebrity? I have to say I enjoy mentoring the kids -- that's why we started "Rupert's Kids." We continue that on RupertsKids.com. But this is the best job in the world, to be running around whooping and hollering, signing my name, shaking hands and being me.

So you're out there thrashing around in the jungle, playing Grizzly Adams, and everybody tells me that you're incredibly technology-challenged.

As a matter of fact, my 4-year-old daughter helped me download the application for Survivor off the Internet. I don't like technology. The first 1,000 letters I received after I was on the show, I hand-wrote the responses. I couldn't even type them up. I just feel more comfortable with paper and pen.

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