Dagenham-born king of American reality TV features in 'rich list'
PUBLISHED: 12:40 09 May 2017
The king of American reality TV, master of a multi-million pound estate, Mark Burnett has certainly come a long way from his Dagenham roots.
The 56-year-old president of MGM Television and Digital Group, creator of The Apprentice and the man who brought Survivor and The Voice to the US, left east London aged 22 to find his fortune, and find it he did.
The exec and his wife Roma Downey rank eighth in the East Anglia round-up of The Sunday Times’ Rich List 2017, with wealth of £390m, up £15m from last year.
The tale of the man who catapulted businessman-turned president Donald Trump into the limelight has all the markings of a classic ‘rags to riches’ story, albeit in the modern explosion of reality TV.
Born in 1960, the only child of Ford factory workers Archie and Jean Burnett, the producer grew up in Dagenham and was educated at The Warren School, Romford, and Redbridge Technical College, Ilford.
A short career with the British Army followed, including service with the Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War, but ahead of an SAS mission in central America, the story goes, he quit due to his mother’s concerns, and moved to Los Angeles.
Mr Burnett moved to the US with just $200 in his pocket, working as a nanny, and in insurance, eventually selling shirts on Venice Beach.
“I had no education and no capital, so a simple solution was to sell T-shirts on the beach,” he told Forbes magazine in 2014.
“I didn’t need a store and it was a low cost of entry.”
But after participating in French adventure race the Raid Gauloises, Mr Burnett brought a similar contest to America, Eco-Challenge, and this inspired him to make Survivor, a format first aired on Swedish television.
“When I got the green light for Survivor, I didn’t even have an island,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg last year.
“I convinced Malaysia to give me free airline tickets, hotels, and a helicopter to look for an island. I found Pulau Tiga.”
The show, ‘stranding’ contestants on the remote island, was an instant hit, and the producer’s career was born.
Successive winning formats have followed, including The Apprentice (2004), Shark Tank (a version of Dragons’ Den, 2009) and The Voice (2011).
“The Donald Trump that I know, that I work with, is the same Donald Trump at home – in his kitchen eating food we’ve made ourselves out of the fridge,” said the producer in a 2010 documentary interview.
“Donald’s a billionaire but he’s a really down to earth, normal guy. And at the end, he’s a really loyal friend – and as I’ve seen him with normal people.”
But the friendship caught Mr Burnett up in some controversy during last year’s presidential race. The leaked Access Hollywood recording revealing Mr Trump to have made lewd, sexist remarks in 2005 – and allegations, strongly-denied, of inappropriate behaviour on the set of The Apprentice – led to calls for the producer to release tapes from the show.
MGM told the media it did not have the legal right to do so, while Mr Burnett was forced to make a statement in the face of claims he had supported Mr Trump’s candidacy.
“Given all of the false media reports, I feel compelled to clarify a few points. I am not now and have never been a supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy. I am not ‘pro-Trump’,” he said.
“Further, my wife and I reject the hatred, division and misogyny that has been a very unfortunate part of his campaign.”
Mr Burnett, appointed MGM president in December 2015, has in recent years moved into faith-based entertainment with his wife, producing the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur and making popular TV series The Bible and AD. The Bible Continues.
He has been recognised with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and awards include Emmy and Producer’s Guild of America nods.
“I only do things I love,” he told Forbes. “I knew that if I could have a business I was passionate about, I’d have an extraordinary amount of energy that I could put into that business.”