Chat with...Richard Wiese, host of Westport-based tv show ‘Born to Explore’
WESTPORT — “The modern-day Indiana Jones” — that’s how the website of “Born to Explore,” a travel show on PBS, describes its host, Weston resident Richard Wiese.
Travels to remote tribes in Tanzania, rainforests in Indonesia and sacred temples in Cyprus are some of the adventures Wiese has undertaken as host and executive producer of “Born to Explore,” which has won two Daytime Emmys and is produced in a casual office above Tavern on Main in downtown Westport.
“In 2003, I was tagging jaguars in the Yucatan peninsula and we’re hacking our way through the forest with hound dogs and came across all these Mayan ruins that I knew no one had seen before,” Wiese said, describing a scene that coming out of the mouths of most people would seem groundbreaking, but one he conveys as routine.
In addition to “Born to Explore,” Wiese was recently re-elected president of the Explorers Club, a role he served in from 2002-06. Started in 1904 in New York City, the Explorers Club has included some of the 20th century’s most esteemed adventurers, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to summit Mount Everest.
Before Wiese was a globe-trotting television host and president of an international society, however, he was an actor and model who once starred in a love scene with Brooke Shields, performed in skits on “Saturday Night Live” and graced the pages of People magazine’s most eligible bachelors list.
“I was not a good actor, but nevertheless I did it for more years than I would’ve wanted,” Wiese said.
Despite the money and ease of being an actor and model, Wiese said the work slowed his progression as an individual and sidetracked him from developing a meaningful professional career.
One day, walking the streets of New York City in the mid 1980s, Wiese wandered into the Explorers Club for a lecture on the black bears of northern New Jersey. As a kid growing up on Long Island, Wiese had a lot of exposure to science and travel from his uncle, then head of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nuclear engineering department, and his father, a pilot with Pan American World Airways, who was the first pilot to solo an airplane across the Pacific Ocean in 1958 and took Wiese on an expedition to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro when Wiese was 11.
As a science major at Brown University, Wiese said he was thrown off the path to medical school when a scout from Ford Models recruited him.
After the lecture at the Explorers Club, Wiese became involved with the group, was officially asked to join in 1989, and elected to the organization’s presidency after 9/11. The youngest president in the club’s history, Wiese said he improved the organization’s fundraising and publicity during his first tenure in the role. This time around, the 58-year-old hopes to educate the public about field research and promote global exploration at a time when science is under siege and national divisions on the rise.
“I think the role of the explorer in terms of imparting information remains the same and, while certain geographic locations have certainly been conquered, once you start expanding to space and the deep ocean it’s just mind-boggling where it can go,” Wiese said.
Before his first tenure as the club’s president, Wiese started working as a science television show host. Afterwards, he decided to pitch the idea for “Born to Explore” to ABC, where it ran for five years, starting in 2011, before moving to PBS. While it started as a high-end adventure show, Wiese said it has evolved to see its role as bridging cultural gaps.
“I think ‘Born to Explore’ has been very good in giving voice to little-known cultures,” the Weston resident said.
The idea of global citizenship is embedded in the DNA of “Born to Explore,” Wise said. “When I film in Islamic places, I try to portray people as having values very similar to you and I,” he said.
As the show’s host, Wiese said he seeks to raise awareness about wildlife and land degradation, and human challenges, too.
“People don’t realize there are more slaves today than there were 200 years ago,” he said.
The best part of exploration are the unexpected, chance meetings with people along the way, such as the time Wiese met the only professional fishing woman in all of Chile. The woman hasn’t taken a day off in her adult life — other than giving birth to her son — and goes out fishing every day by herself, Weise said.
“You meet these little shreds of humanity,” he said.
Weise said he also explores at home with his wife, 9-year-old daughter, and twin 8-year-old boys, and enjoys tidepooling at Compo Cove and walking in the Connecticut woods with his family.
Of all his endeavors, Wiese said fatherhood tops the list.
“I love being a father. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
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