Richard Wiese has eaten rotten shark in Iceland. (“It’s putrid — the worst food I’ve ever had.”)
He’s gone to sea with the only commercial fisherwoman in Chile. (“She was so subdued at first. Out on the water, she turned into Meryl Streep.”)
He’s slopped through dung-filled dye pits in Morocco. (“Places no one would go.”)
He’s traveled all over the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. With a tiny crew — 2 cameramen, a sound guy and a producer — he films astonishing stories of unheralded people and places.
After each trip — up to a half dozen a year — Wiese heads home to Westport. There — in a small warren of offices on the 2nd floor next to Bobby Q’s restaurant — he and a staff of 4 turn the footage into 26 annual episodes of “Born to Explore.” The fascinating Saturday morning TV show is entering its 5th season on ABC.
Most Westporters have no idea that the show is planned, organized and edited right here in Westport.
Those who do may not realize how successful it is. “Born to Explore” has been nominated for 11 Daytime Emmys. According to Wiese, only Ellen DeGeneres has more for syndicated shows.
And she’s got more folks doing her hair than Wiese has trotting the globe.
“Born to Explore” is an apt title. Wiese’s father — a Pan Am pilot — was the 1st man to solo the Pacific Ocean in a plane.
Wiese himself climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his father at 11 years old. In 2002 he became the youngest president ever of the Explorers Club. He’s been on the go — cross country skiing to the North Pole, living with pygmies in Uganda and aboriginals in Australia, even helping discover 202 forms of new life in the 1st microbial survey of New York’s Central Park — after graduating from Brown University.
“Born to Explore” followed the publication of Wiese’s guidebook of the same name. He’d watched a lot of “exploring” TV shows. They all seemed sensationalized, or “lacking authenticity.” His goal was to show not only scenery and convey discovery, but to offer an understanding of the rich diversity of people around the world.
Litton Entertainment was looking for exactly that kind of programming. A strong partnership was formed (though Wiese retains full editorial control).
Since “Born to Explore” debuted, Wiese says, the cultural component has grown even more important. “We think we’re helping change perceptions of the Arab world, Africa” and other misunderstood places, he notes.
Last fall, during a Turkish crisis with Syria, Wiese was filming in Turkey. “The people were so warm and non-threatening,” he says. In Africa, he met a wonderfully intelligent 11-year-old Zulu girl. Wiese would “put her against anyone at Staples High School.”
With 3 young children at home in Weston, Wiese says, his shows also reflect “an appreciation for mothers everywhere.”
“Born to Explore” is filmed from Belize to Botswana, Iceland to Indonesia. But many of the ideas are generated at 42 Main Street, simply by looking at a large map of the world.
Another idea came from Jim Fowler, of “Wild Kingdom,” “Today” and “Tonight” show fame. Visiting the Westport office, he suggested a show about the northernmost alligator on the planet.
Developing an idea is one thing. Then comes the hard part: finding guides, getting permits, figuring out how to reach interior Africa or South America.
But Wiese and his staff are creative — before and during each shoot. There is no script. “We make on-the-spot decisions, and proceed,” Wiese says with pride.
The approach works. “We see the world in such a different way than if we were tourists,” he explains. “We meet such salt-of-the-earth people.”
They may not speak a common language. But Wiese, his crew and the men, women and children they film communicate through food, music, art and nature. “If you share a meal with someone, you understand them,” he says.
On most exploring shows, Wiese says, “the host is a superhero who survives everything. Well, that person doesn’t exist.” Although Wiese comes close to being superhuman.
So what’s it like — after traveling the world — to come back to Westport?
Wiese — who grew up across the Sound, on Long Island — loves it. “Life is about seeing the world, wherever you are.”
One of his favorite spots — anywhere — is Compo Cove. The other night, he and his son fished in Sherwood Mill Pond.
Sounds as if — like his father and grandfather — the young boy is born to explore.