“I went to see [producer Mark Burnett] at a restaurant [in a] hotel called Shutters at the beginning, before the pilot, and he said, ‘We’re looking for a real a-hole and you’re it,’” O’Leary exclusively told Us Weekly on Monday, September 25, while promoting Shark Tank’s milestone 15th season — which premieres on Friday, September 29.
Being one of the ABC series’ most formidable Sharks is a role O’Leary said he’s happy to take on. He joked: “I’ve won the Most Villainous Guy on TV [award] twice. I’m so proud of that. Sure, we’ve won a few Emmys, but winning the award as the Most Hated Man, that’s hard to do. I’m so proud of it.”
Before Shark Tank’s premiere in 2009, he and costar Robert Herjavec worked together on the show’s U.K. counterpart, Dragon’s Den. Just like O’Leary, Herjavec, 61, was contacted by Burnett, 63, to join the series — only on much shorter notice.
“They were already starting to shoot and they had somebody else that was going to be me — somebody who was actually pretty famous, we can’t say — and then it didn’t work out,” the Canadian businessman explained to Us. “So, Mark called me. I was actually skiing, and he said, ‘We’re doing this show called Shark Tank with Kevin. You should come and do it.’ And I said, ‘Great. Where do you shoot?’ He said, ‘California. Can you be here by tomorrow?’ And we got a visa in 24 hours. It was incredible.”
Despite his previous experience on Dragon’s Den, Herjavec thought Shark Tank would be a “hard concept to get off the ground” for American audiences. “In the first season, I remember we had dinner and we were all like, ‘Wow, that was great. We’ll never see you again,’” she shared.
O’Leary agreed, adding, “The premise was for reality TV, if you got five years, that was a huge run. And for the first few years it struggled, but then it captured the imagination of everybody that had inspiration to be an entrepreneur in America, and that’s everybody.”
Now 15 seasons in, the show’s success “surprised everybody involved in it,” according to O’Leary. “It became a family show at the same time, it went geometric in its fourth year and we’ve never looked back,” he added.
“We’ve been working together for 15 years and I will say this — and this just shows you how much we like each other — I buy [Barbara] a new broom every year so she can make it to California,” O’Leary quipped, to which Herjavec replied, “You’re so mean to her.”
O’Leary, for his part, stated that he’s “not mean at all,” before stating, “I think of her like my great-grandmother, very lovingly.”
Shark Tank season 15 premieres on ABC Friday, September 29, at 8 p.m. ET.
With reporting by Christina Garibaldi