HitFix Interview: Mark ‘Papa Bear’ Caruso talks ‘Survivor: South Pacific’

I’ll admit it. I had a moment’s pause on Thursday morning when the CBS publicist said to me, “OK. I’ve got Mark on the line for you.”
Mark Caruso, a retired NYPD detective, was the latest castaway eliminated on “Survivor: South Pacific,” but I don’t think I referred to him as “Mark” in any of my recaps, at least not after his first appearance.
From the first minutes at Savaii camp, Mark encouraged his younger tribemates to call him “Papa Bear” and they followed suit and I did as well.
The nickname helped endear Papa Bear to the tribe, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from being targeted in an early elimination vote that was either based on perceived weakness or just on age, with the 48-year-old falling outside of the Barbie clique at his tribe’s center. 
After losing a Redemption Island Duel to Christine, who found herself in a similar position with the Upolu tribe, Papa Bear was out of the game and on the phone with me as “Mark.”
Full interview after the break…
HitFix: Sorry. I really can’t figure out how to call you “Mark.”
Mark Caruso: Call me “Papa Bear.” I love it!
HitFix: OK, Papa Bear. So how was the decision to encourage your fellow castaways to use that nickname a part of your overall game strategy?
Papa Bear: Obviously, I knew I had to work fast, because let’s be real here, first impressions are lasting. I’m older than them. I had to try to connect to something with them. I had to at least have them think “fatherly figure.” I had to at least tap into that. So that’s what I went with with them. I knew it wasn’t going to work with Dawn, obviously, because she’s a little bit younger than me, but the other people were in their 20s. They were all in their 20s and me and Dawn were in our 40s.
HitFix: So much of this game, especially early on, is about appearing to be strong and landing with the right clique, do you think there is a smart strategy that can still allow older players to win “Survivor”?
PB: Absolutely. Absolutely. Everything is where you land. I would have done so much better on either an older tribe, like they’ve done in previous seasons, or on the other tribe. The other tribe had older people. I think I would have done much, much better. The people I landed with, they were like the Barbie dolls and Kens. I was like, “Oh God.” And then you had the regular guy, the Dunkin’ Donuts guy or the Home Depot person, just me. Regular Joe. And then you had all of these people who were so beautiful and everything. And it worked. They all clicked. 
HitFix: But you’ve been watching this season. You’ve seen the people the other tribe has been voting out and there are some similarities.
PB: Well that’s it. And that’s why I had to work fast. I didn’t find out until recently that it was not so much because of my age, but it was because they felt that I was getting too close to Ozzy.
HitFix. Huh. Well tell me more about that, since it obviously hasn’t been featured in episodes thus far.
PB: I take that as a surprise myself, sir. I was like, “Excuse me?” and they were like, “Oh, well you were becoming too close to Ozzy and it was gonna become a block vote” and I was like, “Uh, OK. I was friendly with Ozzy and I talked with Ozzy, but I don’t think I was in an alliance with Ozzy.” I was telling them, each individual, “You guys were with him.” So it was weird getting that vibe. But in “Survivor,” you go with the group in the beginning and you have to stay with the group, so I can understand why that happened or why they would get me out. But I would have went with them too. If we were going after John Cochran, I would have followed through. As long as the target’s not on your back, you’re good.
HitFix: When you look back to the beginning, is there anything you think you could have done that would have led to your being in a different alliance/different position than the one you found yourself in?
PB: I don’t think so. In the very beginning, I was with Jim and then I was supposed to get into an alliance with Keith and Ozzy, but everything was shifting in the very beginning, till they found the Five Core. And once that was it, it wasn’t supposed to be me. I was not supposed to go. The first one off was supposed to be Semhar, the second was Elyse and then all of a sudden it changed.
HitFix: So what went haywire there?
PB: Yeah, I think Jim… Well, I know… Jim basically felt it was a block vote and I was getting too close to Ozzy. That’s what he basically felt, so he threw me under the bus. And once somebody puts your name down, it follows right through, bam bam bam bam. If it’s not you, you don’t really care, you’ll vote for whoever that person throws under the bus.
HitFix: Why would it have been smarter for them to have kept you rather than Cochran or Dawn?
PB: I was stronger than both of them. At the time. I mean, now we know that Dawn had strength, as we saw in Episode Four. But Dawn was always crying and vomiting and she was weak and John is very weak. So my fight was, I kept telling every every single one of them, “I’m stronger than them! I’m strong! I can stay.” I did everything, pleading my case. I tried to scramble the whole day. It didn’t work.
HitFix: You seemed pretty angry after the elimination and again at the Duel. Was there anybody who you particularly felt had betrayed you or let you down?
PB: I was not angry. I don’t know if it came off that way. I wasn’t angry. I was direct. I feel like I wasn’t angry at all. Basically, if I had to make a choice, I would say that it was Jim who threw me under the bus. But I’m not really angry with them. I would have done the same thing to win the game, so basically it was him who started and put my name in the hat.
HitFix: Sorry, about that. I can buy “direct” over “angry.” I may have used the wrong word. 
PB: I was disappointed and shocked, but not angry. 
HitFix: After you were eliminated, you and Jeff discussed what a long-time fan of the game you’ve been. Could you just flash back and tell me about what the earliest draw of the game was for you as a viewer?
PB: When 9/11 occurred, I worked in the morgue, that was September and also with [American Airlines] Flight 587, which was in November, and we worked in the morgue practically 12 hour shifts and then we would actually stay outside in trucks. We set up homes in trucks, where we would have TV. And we would take our lunch hour, each person would have their own lunch hour, and I would make sure my lunch hour was at 8:00 on Thursday so I’d be able to watch “Survivor,” because I thought it was such a distraction from the horrific sights that we were actually seeing day in and day out. So once I started watching it, I got the other people to start watching it. And that was my earliest “Survivor” memory.
HitFix: As a long-time fan, give me a few things that you learned from playing that you never would have guessed just from watching…
PB: I think the actual social aspect of the game… I’m very good socially. I love people. It’s the frustration of not actually clicking when you think you’re able to do it, that’s different on “Survivor.” I thought I’d go in there and click with people immediately, because that’s my personality. And when it didn’t happen, that was a little shocking to me.
HitFix: Did you click better with Christine on Redemption Island?
PB: Absolutely. She’s a New York person. Her husband’s a cop. And she’s a wonderful woman. Believe it or not, she’s a very nice lady.
HitFix: What indications did you get from her that you would have maybe been on better footing on the other tribe?
PB: It’s not so much what I got from her. It’s what I viewed visually from the other tribe. It was to actually see the older players bonding. You had Rick there. You had Coach there. You had Stacy there. You had Christine there. Right there, that was four older people, four compared to just me and Dawn. So I was like, “Hmmm… I would have at least had a shot.
HitFix: Based on what you’ve seen on TV, how do you think you would have handled Brandon Hantz?
PB: I would have handled Brandon without a problem. I’m a Christian like he is. Also, I have a kid who’s 20 and I’m able to talk to her. I’d definitely have been able to talk to him. Definitely.
HitFix: So you figure he’s just in need of a good authority figure?
PB: I don’t think so much an authority figure. I think a friend, a friend who’s older. I think I would have been able to go places with him and with the others, too.
HitFix: Give me a couple of your favorite “Survivor” moments that maybe we didn’t get to see…
PB: When I found the clue. I found the clue at the water fountain. I took it and I put it in my underwear and then I ran. That was a really wonderful experience. Me and John talking, there’s a scene of me and John talking that’s on YouTube, behind the scenes, and it’s me and John and Jim just talking and laughing and that was a really nice experience, when everything was going good, it’s good.
HitFix: And how are you going to be watching this season going forward?
PB: I’m going to watch it because I love it and I’m a fan. I have my favorites. I hope Dawn does very well. I hope Keith does very well. And, you know, I wouldn’t mind them winning. They were good people. And people like that. Who else? Even though I didn’t know her at the time, I’m a big Mikayla fan from watching her on TV. I hope she does really well. And basically, I’m ready to just move forward in my life right now. I enjoyed the experience and I thank God that Mark Burnett and Jeff Probst gave me the opportunity and picked me out of the thousands of people to experience this game. I’m thankful to them and I’d play again in a heartbeat. I’d definitely play again. And I’m looking forward to going on with my life.
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