Of all those ensnared in the swiftly decaying orbit of Donald Trump, the most conflicted must surely be Mark Burnett.
As the producer of The Apprentice, Burnett has a depth of knowledge of Trump’s true vileness that is probably unmatched. But—to use Trump’s own mafia idiom—Burnett has never ratted, nor is he ever likely to.
But, with the president cornered as never before, Burnett, a man who takes his Christianity seriously enough to make a movie called Son of God, has a serious reputational problem: How can he remain silent about Trump and yet appear pure of soul?
As soon as the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced it was suggested that equally damning evidence of Trump’s proclivities must be sitting in the vaults of Burnett’s production company after 11 years of taping The Apprentice.
Indeed, Bill Pruitt, one of the producers on the show’s first two seasons, tweeted on the heels of the Access Hollywood firestorm: “#trumptapes there are far worse. #justthebeginning.”
It never happened. Trump rode out the scandal and won the election. Until Omarosa Manigault Newman redirected attention to Burnett’s role as the supposed guardian of the vault and asserted that there were tapes of Trump using the N-word this particular ticking bomb was all tick and no bomb.
After Omarosa launched her book, Unhinged, with that assertion Trump tweeted: “Mark Burnett called to say there are NO TAPES of the Apprentice where I used such a terrible and disgusting word as attributed by Wacky and Deranged Omarosa.”
Burnett never confirmed that he made that call.
Omarosa immediately got supporting fire from Tom Arnold, who had once appeared on The Apprentice, in an eye-popping interview with Jimmy Kimmel: “Mark Burnett can do something,” raged Arnold. “He does nothing because he’s the best friend of the president. He sits next to him at a prayer breakfast. If you could see one day of Donald Trump on that set, one full day, you’ll realize, Oh My God, that’s what’s going on in the White House. He’s incompetent. He’s racist. He sexually harasses people.”
But Arnold has a vested interest in the turning up the heat. He has new series on Viceland, beginning Sept 18, Hunt for the Trump Tapes with Tom Arnold.
To be sure, other less motivated anecdotal evidence has appeared. In 2016 the Hollywood Reporter spoke with nearly a dozen men and women who worked with Trump on the show. One of them, Randall Pinkett, the first African American winner, claimed Trump asked him which of the contestants he would sleep with.
Another, a woman camera operator, was made uncomfortable by things he whispered to her as she was shooting close-ups. She described it as ”borderline sexual misconduct.”
Transcripts exist of at least some of the recording sessions. In one, in 2010, Trump complains about the condition of the skin of a female contestant: “Her skin sucks, okay? I mean her skin, she needs some serious fuckin’ dermatology.”
Magician and former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Penn Jillette claimed that Trump often made racist and misogynistic remarks on the set and that Burnett had tapes.
But television studios are not by nature verbally sterile. Like all high pressure, openly competitive workplaces they expose human failings. Rampant libidos and misogyny were once as common as chain smoking. That atmosphere has long gone along with the nicotine smell, but Trump has never been susceptible to any restraint on his impulses, sensing correctly that in that behavior he enjoyed the consent of millions of others to whom political correctness was anathema.
The important thing to know here is that the Trump we know today was significantly shaped by The Apprentice and Burnett, therefore, has some degree of paternity, as well as the obligations implied by paternity.
Burnett realized that he could take the already self-created New York personality known as “The Donald” and tutor him into becoming a national celebrity.
The whole thing involved pulling off a giant masquerade—that Trump was some kind of quintessential American business wizard.
To do this Burnett decided to do what any canny producer does with a potential star—to work within the bounds of what he had, not attempting to change Trump but to amplify his salient traits: braggadocio and the narcissism natural to television.
Burnett seems to have the same feel for American archetypes that Sinclair Lewis had by inventing characters like Babbitt and Elmer Gantry—in this case the consummate con artist. The staging was artful. It began with the concept of the boardroom as a snakepit overseen by a dark-coated looming and irascible mastermind.
Such fables are built on a promise. In this case the promise was that a great business career could be made or ruined according to Trump’s hard-nosed judgment. That was the con, and it worked. In fact, it worked so well that Trump himself came to believe in it so completely, to fill out and play the role with such conviction, that he became that person.
In the same way, after 18 months in the Oval Office, Trump believes he is a real president, not an impostor. He even runs the White House like the TV set with its inherent rivalries and betrayals.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the creation of this character, one so expressive of a dark seam of American culture, is that it was achieved by someone who is not American.
Burnett’s own origin story is as impressive as any career arc could be.
He was born in 1960 and grew up in a British version of Detroit, in Dagenham in east London at a time when it was virtually a company town. The company was Ford, where both his parents worked. It was about as far from the swinging London of the 1960s as you could imagine, a grim industrial landscape polluting the marshlands and the river Thames around it.
Burnett chose a bold way of escaping: at 17 he enlisted in one of the most esteemed units of the British Army, the Parachute Regiment. Fortitude and endurance—qualities that would later be the core dynamic of his first big hit show, Survivor—are the bedrock of these elite troops, known as The Paras.
Burnett was battle-hardened in the Paras. In 1982 he fought in the Falklands War, Britain’s last reckless exercise in colonial adventures that earned Margaret Thatcher, prime minister at the time, the enduring soubriquet of The Iron Lady, when the remote British island possessions were liberated after being invaded by Argentina.
The Paras distinguished themselves in some of the toughest fighting as they drove the Argentinian occupiers into the sea. At the end of the brief war they had lost 40 dead and had 93 wounded.
Later that year everything in Burnett’s life turned on a whim. Having left the army he was on his way to Central America, via Los Angeles, following a request for someone of his military skills to help in a security operation. His mother reached him by phone before he left L.A. and said she feared the mission was too dangerous.
He heeded the warning, and took a job as a live-in nanny in Beverly Hills.
In 1991 he entered a competition to compete in a French reality TV show, Raid Gauloises. He won a role and, knowing a good thing when he saw it, bought the rights to the format and launched his own version, Eco Challenge.
By 2009 he had become so much a master of the genre that Entertainment Weekly named Survivor the number one reality series of all time.
Burnett has emerged as a new kind of Hollywood mogul, straddling television and movies. In 2015 MGM bought his production company, One Three Media, and this year MGM made him chairman of its Worldwide Television Group in a deal that keeps him at the studio until 2022.
As the three major TV networks struggle to compete with Netflix and the mass migration of viewers to streaming, Burnett has become an indispensable rainmaker, producing prime time shows that dominate their time slots: Survivor (CBS), The Voice (NBC), and Shark Tank (ABC).
He also oversees some acclaimed scripted drama series, including Fargo (FX) and The Hand Maid’s Tale (Hulu).
His touch is less sure with biblical epics. With his wife, the actress Roma Downey, he has produced two clunkers, Son of God, in 2014, (Rotten Tomatoes rating 21 percent) and the 2016 remake of Ben Hur that was the box office bomb that summer, grossing only $26.4 million on a budget of more than $100 million.
Two TV series, The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues, have fared better because they attract worldwide syndication. The Bible, produced for the History Channel, had a global audience of more than 100 million.
“What I always thought growing up, which I think a lot of people feel, was that the Bible was like a rule book and—if I stepped left or right—a lightning bolt might hit me,” Burnett has said. “But actually it’s a love story.”
In Hollywood the view is that Downey is his personal love story. She is a strong influence behind the muscular religious programming. And she and Burnett are highly active philanthropists, supporting a project that raised money for Iraqi and Syrian Christians displaced by wars, a nonprofit providing aid to children living in poverty around the world and another in Virginia that provides cleft lip and palate repair for children.
Set against this dedication to good works are the jarring noises off from Trump world and, specifically, the accusations that Burnett is protecting Trump by withholding the tapes from The Apprentice.
Few people would doubt that in those 11 years on The Apprentice the essential coarseness of Trump was at play and upset people. However, production companies don’t, as a rule, keep outtakes around for long. They have no value. Also a lot of the interaction between studio staff, the producers and the cast takes place when no cameras or sound tapes are running.
Even if Burnett were willing to release tapes (which is highly unlikely) he could be prevented from doing so by legal arrangements made with Trump.
In any event, should any tapes appear their impact would now be underwhelming. Trump has trouble assessing the relative lethality of any revelations about his conduct. He has ill-considered hair-trigger responses and, for a brief time, it did seem that he was really rattled by Omarosa and the ghosts of The Apprentice. That’s the least of his troubles now.