LOS ANGELES - Not even "Boston Rob" Mariano's newborn baby could stop him from returning to "Survivor."
Mariano is among 20 former contestants who will compete in CBS' "Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains," the reality series' 20th season, premiering Feb. 11 (8 p.m. EST). He left behind 4-week-old daughter Lucia Rose and wife, Amber Brkich, who bested Mariano to win the "All-Stars" edition in 2004 and accepted his marriage proposal during the finale.
"If she was out here with me, I don't think I'd have a chance in hell at winning," the former "Survivor: Marquesas" and "All-Stars" player said of his wife.
"I think they'd get rid of both of us right away," he said. "With her not here, I think I'll have a little bit of room to manoeuvr. Hopefully, I can sway some people my way."
The cutthroat Mariano will be joined on the "villains" tribe by players such as bratty waitress Courtney Yates ("China"); cantankerous videographer Randy Bailey ("Gabon"); sarcastic cyclist Tyson Apostol ("Tocantins"); and pompous soccer coach Benjamin Wade ("Tocantins").
Mariano's biggest handicap? Not being familiar with new players like Wade.
Wade, who calls himself The Dragon Slayer, says his motto is "trust no one, slay everyone."
"I'm not going to trust anyone, even people I've played with before. I'd like to say that I can trust Tyson because he and I were rock-solid in the last game. Maybe that's too obvious, and other people will look at that."
The cast members - except for "Samoa" bad boy Russell Hantz, who was still filming the 19th season - were individually interviewed in secret last August before production on "Heroes vs. Villains" began in Samoa. It will be the third time on "Survivor" for nine of the castaways, many of whom participated in the "All-Stars" and "Fans vs. Favorites" editions.
"I have the opportunity to do something that most people don't even get to do once in their lifetime," said Jerri Manthey, "The Australian Outback" and "All-Stars" mean girl. "I'm doing it three times. Just the opportunity itself is enough reason for me to say 'yes' to this again. I couldn't sit at home knowing they were doing this and be OK with that."
The "heroes" tribe will include lovable mentor Rupert Boneham ("Pearl Islands," "All-Stars"); emotional pinup model Jessica "Sugar" Kiper ("Gabon"); and Texas hunk Colby Donaldson ("Australian Outback," "All-Stars"), who is hoping Manthey won't be gunning for him this time.
"Jerri is like a bad fungus," said Donaldson. "You can get rid of it, scrub it, do whatever you want to clean yourself of it, but eventually it comes back. This is my third game that I've played with Jerri, and she was quite instrumental in getting me out the last time. I don't have an axe to grind. Hopefully, she's gotten the revenge out of her system."
Half of the "Heroes vs. Villains" cast are contestants who won or came in second place during their "Survivor" seasons. The four previous $1 million prize winners returning to the game are "villains" Sandra Diaz-Twine ("Pearl Islands") and Parvati Shallow ("Cook Islands," "Micronesia") and "heroes" James "J.T." Thomas Jr. ("Tocantins") and Tom Westman ("Palau").
"I do feel like I have a target on my back as a past winner," said Westman. "You hope you're not walking into a stacked deck where everyone doesn't want you to get anywhere near the cash. You could get the early boot for that. I acknowledge the danger, but this game is funny. People usually align with people they think can help them get further."
Diaz-Twine, the sassy mother of two and bank teller who won in 2003 before game-changing twists such as the Hidden Immunity Idol and Exile Island were introduced, said she isn't worried about trying to outwit, outlast and outplay other "Survivor" veterans - other than "Fans vs. Favorites" winner Shallow.
"Who won? Parvati. The rest of them are wannabes," said Diaz-Twine, who declined a spot on "All-Stars" but signed up to participate in "Fans vs. Favorites" only to be cut at the last minute. "They're all trying again to succeed where they failed once then twice. You know what I'm saying? How many times do you have to fail? Come on."
The 20th season will be the fifth to feature former contestants. Eighteen castaways were assembled for the "All-Stars" season. The "Guatemala" chapter heralded the return of "Palau" stalwarts Stephenie LaGrossa, who will be on the "heroes" tribe, and Bobby Jon Drinkard. The "Micronesia" 16th season featured a tribe of 10 vets battling a group of fans.
The "heroes" team will also include nurse Cirie Fields ("Panama," "Micronesia"); pageant queen Amanda Kimmel ("China," "Micronesia"); medical student Candice Woodcock ("Cook Islands"); grave digger James Clement ("China," "Micronesia"); and on the "villains" side, account manager Danielle DiLorenzo ("Panama").
Richard Hatch, who was convicted in 2006 of failing to pay taxes on the $1 million he earned for winning the Borneo-set first season of "Survivor" in 2000, asked a judge last July if he could leave home confinement early to compete in the 20th season. He argued that any money he earned from the reality show could be used to pay his tax obligations. His request was denied.