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TV Review: Jeff Corwin stalks planet's past and present monsters

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Luaine Lee, Scripps Howard News Service

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- When Jeff Corwin was little, his mother used to frisk him before she'd allow him into the house. The surveillance wasn't for illicit cigarettes or drugs or firecrackers. She was searching for creepy-crawly things.

 
 
"Giant Monsters"

When: 8 tonight on the Animal Planet, with a repeat at 10 p.m.

Starring: Jeff Corwin.

   
 

A tree frog, a spotted salamander, a garter snake -- all were welcome to share digs with Corwin, who never got over his preoccupation. Now, as the star of Animal Planet's "Jeff Corwin Experience," Corwin will take his obsession one step further.

In a two-hour special premiering tonight, Corwin will mix it up with "Giant Monsters," including Tyrannosaurus rex. He shares screen time with computer-generated critters of yesteryear as well as beasts that still prowl Earth.

Though he admits he's part ham, Corwin's credentials are authentic. He has a master's degree in natural resources conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and earned undergraduate degrees in biology and anthropology from Bridgewater State College.

He grew up in a small coastal town in Massachusetts. After college, he was working in a field station in Central America when a documentary film crew stumbled on him and asked him to be part of their project.

"That's when the bell went off," he says. "And I said: That's what I want to do. People saw it and said, 'You might be able to do this, you've got some skills. You could capitalize on it.' Riding on that positive feedback, I went back [to the States], quit my job -- and then it took years and years and years and thousands of dollars."

Corwin credits perseverance for his TV success. "I gave up a pretty good job working in the field, traveling, on a course of academic research to make this happen. ... I lost my job, lost my security, had to wait tables for five years," he says, looking boyish in khaki pants and a long-sleeved blue shirt.

Casting agents weren't clamoring for clean-cut academics with a portfolio packed with reptile 8-by-10s. "I tried doing everything in television, from voiceovers to learning about the industry and about what it is to make relationships," he says.

"And then one day I said, 'I'm 27 years old, about to get married, and it isn't happening.'"

He went to graduate school, and that's when the call came from the folks at Disney.

"They said, 'We loved that tape you sent. Let's make a TV show.' I made a pilot and it went to series and it ran for three years, and I went back and finished graduate school and this happened."

Corwin is married to Natasha, who's working on a Ph.D. in comparative literature. They're expecting a baby in July.

His job keeps him on the road 10 months out of the year. Two months after his marriage, Corwin had his closest call. "I was in Central America, and I got bitten by a coral snake, a very venomous snake, and came within not so many breaths of expiring," he says.

Corwin mixes healthy dollops of common sense with his work in the wild. Occasionally, even he feels intimidated.

"We were in Bali tracking king cobras. We had three hours, and king cobras are very elusive, secretive gigantic snakes.

"Sure enough, on a waterfall, we find this king cobra with his hood up. The only way I felt secure was to use my tong to carefully work it. The guy I was with said, 'No, here, we catch it with our hands.' I'm like, 'You're crazy! There's no way I'm doing that.' He reached down and did it, and I was really angry at myself for not just taking the chance because this was my dream to see something like this. It was like sort of at the last minute I didn't do the bungee jump.

"Then I thought, 'Maybe that's still an important message ... that I didn't do it because it wasn't worth messing up the snake and messing up myself.' And to top it off, the guy was missing half his fingers from being nailed.

"He made a joke: 'It looks like you couldn't do it.' I said, 'Yeah, but I've got all my fingers.' "

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