I met Colby Donaldson for lunch recently at a Houston’s restaurant in North Dallas, where, after I’d ordered a glass of ice water, the waiter confessed that the cold water was filtered but the ice was not. He offered to bring my unfiltered ice in a separate glass.
I bring this up because, for the three months or so that I watched 27-year-old Colby’s drive to near victory on Survivor, the primary emotion he evoked in me was nostalgia—for a somewhat earlier Texas, when water was water and guys like him were ubiquitous. The literal or spiritual descendants of real cowboys, they were usually former jocks who wound up as contractors, car salesmen, real estate developers, or criminal lawyers. They were good-looking, well mannered, street-smart but not book-smart. They had small problems with impulse control. (Thesmokinggun.com leaked news of a public intoxication police report in San Angelo that described Colby as “passed out, in a large puddle of his own vomit.”) They knew right from wrong, could fix anything, and said “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” with sincerity. But when I suggested to Colby that he might be carrying on a grand tradition, he looked away, then looked down at the table, grinned, and shook his head. “I just don’t know about that,” he said. I rest my case.
Of course, the fact that I had to watch a reality TV show to meet someone like Colby is a sign that guys like him are in ever shorter supply. There are several reasons for this phenomenon: Few of his type now stick around the small towns they were born in, and when they do, their personalities are shaped by the same cable access, Internet access, and Everybody Loves Raymond reruns that city folk routinely enjoy. Playing high school football, which Colby did in his hometown of Christoval, isn’t the ticket to success it once was. (After graduating from Texas Tech University, he went on to a career customizing cars for other, richer guys.) And the more contemporary Texas role models, including pro athletes, movie stars, and U.S. presidents, have fallen down on the job. (Consider, respectively, the Dallas Cowboys, Matthew McConaughey, and Bushes I and II.)
So maybe the great, pent-up demand for the real thing was understandable. Colby caused a boom in purchases of Texas flags after he packed one for the show in Australia; his rugged good looks helped spike sales of magazines when his face appeared on the cover. Even before the last episode had aired, the offers started pouring in—to sign autographs at a sporting goods store, to star in a beer commercial, to endorse a chain of steakhouses, to take a free Serengeti safari in exchange for a Nice Guysplug on CBS’s Early Show. Maybe this is why he now talks, intensely and without irony, about making “the transition from Colby on Survivor to Colby Donaldson the Actor. “It used to be that archetypes were happy to be themselves. Now they want to be icons, and in the age of reality television, that’s not absolutely impossible. By the time you read this, in fact, Colby will have abandoned Dallas for Los Angeles, where he has already lined up an acting coach and an acting class. He already has “people” too—not just the former Texas Tech roommate who acts as his manager but a publicist, who was recommended by his agents at William Morris, who were recommended by Steven Spielberg, who invited Colby to the set of his new movie, Minority Report, where they discussed his—that’s Colby’s—future. “When you’re sitting in a director’s chair between Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise, a bit of surrealism sets in,” he admitted. Colby’s star quality didn’t seem to need any test-marketing: That would be for sissies. “Basically, the people did a test run with me for fourteen weeks,” Colby explained, adding, “I have not been taking baby steps in this business.”
Halfway through this career disquisition, I started wondering whether I had misjudged Colby. As Texas males go, he does represent something of a paradigm shift. He had a grilled-chicken salad instead of a burger at lunch, he wears cargo pants, his teeth are extremely white, and during dark times on the show, he displayed a contemporary strain of sulky narcissism. In the early episodes of Survivor, when his tribe seemed doomed by its dysfunctionality, Colby shared this insight with viewers: “If we don’t turn up the heat and turn this runaway train around, then it may be a meltdown for the Colbster.” Colby was also tolerant, a relatively new development among Texas good old boys: He did not, for instance, threaten the life of Richard Hatch, the openly gay winner of Survivor I, after he described Colby, in TV Guide, as “dripping with heat … a stunning, stunning man.”
Modernity aside, Colby was a guy who knew how to work the Texas myth. Buff, tanned, hazel-eyed, and blond enough, he looked natural riding a horse in an Australian downpour while wearing a beat-up cowboy hat. He was strong: Colby routinely aced every physical test on Survivor—breaking plates with his slingshot, being the first to put out a fire with a leaky bucket—even if they were kind of silly. He was a Good Guy: When Colby won a brief respite at the Great Barrier Reef, he brought back bits of pilfered coral for his teammates, showcasing his thoughtfulness while proving once again that Texas boys make lousy environmentalists. Finally, Colby was proud of his heritage: Each contestant was allowed to bring one “luxury item” to Australia but had to submit a list of five possible choices to the show’s producers for approval. Colby called to ask about bringing a Texas flag (“When I wake up in the morning … I’m thankful I’m a Texan”). A producer called him back in five minutes. “Don’t even submit a list,” she said.
Then there were Colby’s issues with women, which were, for lack of a better term, evocative. He abandoned saloon-girlish Jerri Manthey—identified on the show as a Hollywood actress—after she told the world she wanted to cover Colby in chocolate and then lick it off his body. “I may be a lot of things,” an affronted Colbster told the camera, “but I ain’t no Hershey Bar.” Instead, he devoted himself—some would say blindly—to the schoolmarmish Tina Wesson from Tennessee. As everyone now knows, when the final survivors came down to Colby, Tina, and a hapless Michigan chef named Keith Famie, Colby could have easily ensured his own victory by ejecting Tina, his longtime ally, and forcing a jury of previously eliminated players to choose, as the winner, a man who could not cook rice or a man who could pass for the reincarnation of Pecos Bill. Colby, however, elected to keep Tina in the game. The result: She beat him by one vote and walked off with $1 million.
Colby’s fateful decision can be interpreted two ways. The crafty Tina had extracted from him a promise that he would not vote her out of the tribe, and being an old-fashioned man of his word, he kept it. (Colby’s commitment was the Survivor equivalent of the handshake deal, only more so because he had made it with a woman and, worse, a middle-aged woman who resembled his beloved mama, whom viewers met in a Survivor guest appearance.) Or, in new old-fashioned terms, Colby was man enough to handle being bested by a girl. “I’d won six immunity challenges in a row,” he said of the show’s weekly tests of strength and shrewdness. “What more did I have to prove?”
Either way, he won, which has always been and will always be the goal of the classic Texas male. “Think of how many people think I’m a fool for the move I made,” he told me, grinning so wide I could see all his teeth glinting. “Who’s laughing now?”