02/26/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
Last fall Mark L. Walberg told his wife, Robbi, that he'd been offered the chance to host FOX's Temptation Island, a reality show that turns a Caribbean paradise into a potential hell of infidelity swarming with pretty young things. "She didn't bat an eye," says Walberg. "She was like, 'Thank God, the bills will get paid this month.' " Actually Robbi may not have been so blasé, but she does have faith in her man. "Mark has given me diamond earrings, taken me wonderful places," she says. "But it's his heart that lets me know he'll never leave. You can't buy that."
And if you could, you wouldn't have the libidinal free-for-all of Temptation Island. Filmed last September on the resort island of Ambergrise Caye, it plays like a real-life soap—steamy shenanigans, tearful recriminations—in which four unwed couples are lured into flirty games with 26 sexy singles. Some 18 million voyeurs have been watching as Temptation slinks toward its Feb. 28 finale. That's when each couple decides whether everything is copacetic or kaput. Though critics have trashed the show as immoral, "what we did there," says Walberg, "is not nearly as bad as I've seen in Club Med."
A pleasant, breezy guy best known as a blip on the talk-show scene in the '90s, Walberg, 38, is enjoying a major boost as FOX's answer to Survivor host Jeff Probst. And perhaps now he'll be a household name that doesn't get confused with Perfect Storm star Mark Wahlberg. "That's why I added the initial," he says.
There were squalls aplenty in Ambergrise Caye. Although a therapist was on call, Walberg had to do more than just ask players about their libidos. "Some of the people would just break down and cry," says Walberg, who told them off-camera about his own relationship experiences. "We'd all hug." There was no such balm for the bickering Taheed Watson, 29, and Ytossie Patterson, 34. When Ytossie let slip that neither had told producers about their 2-year-old son—parents were forbidden to take part in the show—they were moved to another resort to hash out their differences. Walberg was relieved. "When there is a child," he says, "it's an entirely different situation." The Florence, S.C., native learned about such matters of the heart as a teenager. His parents split up not long after the family relocated to Alabama, where his father, Marvin, 64, landed a sales job. Homesick for Florence, Walberg moved back with his mother, Dianne, 61, and sister Caren, 34, both store managers. "Along with the sadness of divorce," he says, "was the gift of going back to my best friends."
Involved in theater in high school, Walberg graduated in 1980 and went to Francis Marion College as a prelaw student. That changed when he joined the upbeat Young Americans singing group. Hoping for a showbiz career, he moved to L.A., but by 1985 he'd gotten no further than a gig as a singing waiter in a dinner theater. One night he served and serenaded Robbi Morgan, a young actress (the first victim in 1980's original Friday the 13th) seated with her uncle. "He didn't know," she says, "that he was auditioning for the rest of his life." When they wed in 1987, an up-and-coming star named Demi Moore
was a bridesmaid. "She was a very good friend," says Robbi, 39, "before she got very busy."
Walberg himself finally got cracking after he went to work as an assistant for Dick Clark Productions. One day the warm-up comic didn't show up for a program. "I jumped out into the audience with a microphone," he says, and he has been there ever since. After stints on such shows as Shop 'Til You Drop, he caught the eye of programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff, who in '95 gave him a syndicated talk show, Mark Walberg. It lasted only 13 months, "and I was anxiety-ridden the whole time," says Walberg. But he knew one thing: "I adore hosting."
Well, what's not to like when the gig turns into a second honeymoon? At one point during the Island shoot Robbi joined Walberg for five days. Watching a sunset, he says, "I looked at her and said, This is heaven.' " Still, both were glad to get home to Morgan, 9, and Goldie, 5, and their three-bedroom house in L.A. "He puts the children first," says Robbi. "He takes them horseback riding. He takes them for doughnuts behind my back."
The parents agree that the kids are too young to watch Temptation Island—or the sequel that is likely to follow. "Yes, there are talks of doing another," says Walberg. "I'm pretty available." Only not that kind of available.
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles