The first year he auditioned for CBS' reality hit Survivor, captain Dave Winkler won a local radio station contest tied to the tryout and got a callback from producers who seemed to love the idea of a fiftysomething St. Pete Beach boat captain joining the competition.
But since those fateful days in 2004, earning a spot on the popular endurance competition has become Winkler's white whale — a goal he sometimes gets near but never quite attains, auditioning every year for the chance to join the cast.
This year, Winkler may have his best chance yet, highlighted among the top 10 audition videos posted at CBS.com as part of the second Survivor Casting Call online contest. Whoever appears in the video with the most votes by Jan. 25 earns an audition before producers in Los Angeles; the winner of the contest's first edition, James "Jimmy T." Tarantino, landed in the cast of last year's Survivor: Nicaragua.
Winkler, 56, said he has been called back for consideration by the show's producers several times, including just before casting ended for the Nicaragua edition. A fan of the show since its debut nearly 11 years ago, the boat captain watched every season with his 78-year-old father Bill. When his dad passed away in 2003, Winkler knew it was time to start auditioning.
"I always thought the game was cool; my dad just liked watching the girls in the bathing suits," said Winkler, laughing. "I can't imagine not being on the show. … It has become a quest for me. I feel like Survivor was a game that was built for the captain."
Lynn Spillman, casting director for Survivor, confirmed that Winkler has gotten several phone interviews for past cast slots, but couldn't say why he hasn't yet made the cut. "It's not anything he's doing or not doing," said Spillman, who expected to sort through 5,000 videos for the next cast; a far cry from the show's early days when 70,000 people applied. "If anything, his videos are amazing. But there's a lot of competition and at the end, he never quite gets on that (cast) plane."
Winkler's latest audition video, largely shot and edited by his 11-year-old stepdaughter, features the boat captain parasailing, showing off his shirtless chest on the beach and making his case for joining the cast. Among his accomplishments: playing in a soccer league "loaded with twentysomethings," owning his own water sports business for 32 years (Capt. Dave's Watersports at the Sirata Beach Resort) and designing and building his own waterside home.
"Put me on any island you want," he tells the camera, pointing a thumb at his house, "I'll build the most kickin' shelter Survivor has ever seen."
These days, Winkler is trying to drum up votes for his video, sending out so many e-mails — he estimates about 2,000 — that his server shut down briefly. He still laughs while recalling one of his close audition calls, when a Survivor producer at local CBS station WTSP-Ch. 10 asked him what he would do if he was starving during the competition.
"I didn't hesitate a second; I said I'd eat one of the contestants," he cracked, noting that the woman, who was taken aback, gave him two more tries to change his answer. "I said 'Look, if I eat one of the other contestants, I won't be hungry anymore and there'll be one less contestant.' I thought it was a great answer."
As you might imagine, even if this latest effort doesn't work out, he's not going to stop auditioning. "Pride won't let me stop," Winkler said. "Besides, if I gave up now, I wouldn't be Survivor material."