Online competitions are often nothing more than a popularity contest — where a show can mobilize its fans to get out the vote before the polls close. But sometimes, as is the case with our two-week race to crown the Greatest Reality TV Personality of All Time — the popular pick is also the right one.
Deadliest Catch’s late Capt. Phil Harris — a rock star of the Bering Sea crab-fishing fleet who finally got the chance to know his sons, Josh and Jake, when they became deckhands on the Cornelia Marie — dominated each round: He won the Hero title (with 73 percent of the vote), breezed through the semifinals (with 46 percent), and ultimately defeated Hell’s Kitchen’s Gordon Ramsay in the final (with 86 percent).
After suffering a stroke in January 2010, Phil wasn’t expected to awaken from the medically induced coma he had been placed in following surgery, but he did — and he wrote a note telling the cameraman to keep shooting, because they needed a great finish to his story. Before he passed away a week later, they got it: Phil had the chance to apologize to Josh for not being a better father when he was growing up, and Josh told Phil he’d been the best father he could be and taught him everything he needed to know to be a man.
Jeff Conroy, executive producer for Original Productions, spoke to Yahoo TV about why Capt. Phil remains so beloved and how producers approached filming and editing his final days for the Emmy-winning Discovery series.
Why do you think Capt. Phil was such a great reality TV personality?
Because this guy would say everything, just tell you what was on his mind. And he was funny. He was funny about himself. I think that was a really special thing about him, that he was just an honest, authentic guy and willing to say anything. I went to sea with him in his first season, Season 2. He would tell you stories, and you’re like, “I hardly know you.” [Laughs.] “That’s a lot of information I’ve got to digest here, pal.” One story that always sticks in my mind, as being one of the moments when you kinda knew that you had this amazing character, was when he was telling a story about him and Jake. It was in the wheelhouse. It’s in Season 2. He’s telling this story about how tough guys would prove to each other that they’re tougher than the other in Dutch Harbor. They put their arms together, and they would drop a cigarette between the two of them and see who flinched first. “Yeah, this kid’s tough. I did it with him when he was like 11-years-old, and I flinched first.” It’s like, that’s an insane story of child abuse, first off, that you literally told me. [Laughs.] But it was great because he’s such a sweet guy, I thought the dad in him was probably pulling his arm away first. The other side was, only a fisherman would have a story like this that would be an example of how tough his kid was. Everyone else would be like, “He rallied through the seventh inning of his baseball game.” It was just such a unique way of knowing this guy is basically willing to tell me everything. I think that’s what audiences appreciate. They love a guy like that.
It’ll be five years next month since the episode aired with Phil’s passing. The show was universally praised for how it handled his final season. What was your experience watching that footage of him in the hospital for the first time?
It was an amazing gift from Phil, truthfully. That was impossible material to cover and to edit. We spent a lot of time watching and then we’d literally be like, “We need to take a break. Let’s step out,” and we’d step out. Phil was a dear friend. When you’re watching it at that point, you know the conclusion. He writes this note, and he says these things. It was definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to figure out as a storyteller. Sitting there, we really basically said, “OK, well, we want to tell the honest story. We need a truthful story, and we need to be respectful.” The truth of the matter is that Phil had had a really invasive surgery that took off part of his skull to enable him to survive even those days after. … We made the decision, if allowed, to keep the cameras in the hospital. When Phil let it go, then the hospital took his blessing and went with that. We had resistance. The network was asking us at the time, “What are you doing? This doesn’t seem right. Why are you doing this?” Because it was a judgment. We’ve always taken the standpoint of, capture as much of the story as possible and as honest as possible, and then make the right decisions when you’re editing. And thankfully we did, because we kind of fought that a little bit. There was a moment where they were like, “Oh, no, no, you guys should not be in there.” But Phil said it was OK.
We see these guys out on the Bering Sea, fighting storms and ice, and it’s extraordinary. It’s some place and some experience most of us will never know. But then you have Phil in a hospital room talking to his sons — especially that moving conversation with Josh — and that is something we will all likely go through in our lifetime. It’s one of the most relatable moments of the entire series.
It’s funny, because a lot of people would ask me, “Oh, you were out to sea with Phil. How was that? What were you guys talking about?” The truth is we talked more about being dads, and having relationships, and negotiating that world than fishing or the things you might have expected. He was a guy trying to figure out, just like any of us, how he should be behaving in his relationships. [Laughs.] He was one of those people who was really flawed, but understood that he was flawed. A lot of us try to hide it; he kinda knew it. [Laughs.] We talked a lot in the off-season. One of the funniest things was if you didn’t call Phil back within, like, two hours, he would leave you another message. “Oh, gosh, I guess I’m no good anymore.” [Laughs.] For as much as a hero as he was, he was sensitive. He was your classic super tough guy with a sensitive heart of gold.
Fans of the show still, obviously, have such a strong attachment to the Cornelia Marie.
I still feel Phil’s presence in the show. It’s funny, I feel him more now in Josh than I thought I would. I get more of Phil in Josh now than I did when Phil was still alive. Maybe I’m just projecting, but it becomes obvious to me in the Cornelia Marie when I see Josh doing stuff and trying to push himself. When he achieves, I feel like there’s the old man there saying that classic line — even though he said it to Jake — “You could be a f–king astronaut! But you gotta do it!”
The thing you have to remember is Phil Harris was a classic, for our time, TV dad. Let’s face it, we watched him basically raising his boys. Sometimes he was too easy on them, sometimes he was too hard. Sometimes he was amazed at their entitlement. [Laughs.] And then he would have these talks with them. I think one of the sweetest moments, which unfortunately never came to realization, was when Jake admitted that he had a drug problem and Phil said, “Well, I’ll go with you [to treatment].” He was a dad at the end of his rope, just like we’ve seen with other parents in this situation. He was like, “I’m gonna go, and we’re gonna do it together,” and unfortunately he didn’t get to. That’s the biggest shame, that he didn’t get to do everything he planned on doing. But this is a guy who lived it to the fullest. He made a lot of mistakes, a ton of mistakes. But he lived.
Deadliest Catch, now in its 11th season, airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Discovery.