DON WILDMAN is fast becoming one of the most recognized faces in adventure/documentary television. As the intrepid host of Travel Channel’s Off Limits, Wildman investigates the unique, historical identities of American cities great and small, working across a spectrum of subjects from urban-archeology to geography and engineering. Scaling rusted smokestacks and rickety fire-escapes or slogging through rancid sewers and cobwebbed crawlspaces, Wildman explores the less savory side of our post-industrialized nation. “If you want to get really close to America,” he said in one recent interview, “you have to rub her underbelly.”
Prior to his most recent adventures, Don traversed a distinctly subterranean realm on History’s long-running international series, Cities of the Underworld. In 2010, he discussed and demonstrated–viscerally–the historical developments of urban sanitation for Discovery’s ground-breaking trilogy, Filthy Cities. He stared down into the steaming crater of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius to document the ancient tragedy of Pompeii. Over the years, Wildman has not-so-carefully carved for himself a niche as television’s “everyman expert” willing to take extreme risks to understand the history and geography of the world around him.
Don is also the voice of several notable series including Weird Travels, CNBC’s Ushaia: The Ultimate Adventure, The Incurables on Veria TV, and many other projects airing past and present. This summer, he will host and narrate Mysteries at the Museum, a 12-part series also for Travel Channel.
Born in Philadelphia, Don was raised thirty miles east in the small town of Pitman, NJ. The youngest of five, Don attributes much of his development to being the only boy among older sisters. “At any given moment I had a lot of mothers,” he states, ruefully. “So basically I did nothing wrong for the first fifteen years of my life–how could I??” Theirs was a happy home in which good grades were expected, reading was paramount, and current events were regularly discussed at dinner. “My dad was an educator. He first taught history and then became a high school principal, then a Dean of Students of Glassboro State College (since changed its name to Rowan University). Learning was the most important thing our lives–besides camping.”
The Wildman family toured the eastern seaboard every summer in an AMC Ambassador pulling a Nimrod tent trailer. “It was the only way we knew how to vacation,” Don explains. “We were middle-class America. No hotels, nothing abroad. We just drove for hours on end from one campground to the next, only criteria being if the bathrooms were clean.” More often than not, the daily destination would be historical in nature, either a famous writer’s home, a Presidential museum, or some battlefield dating from the Revolutionary or Civil Wars. “I automatically gravitated toward the dioramas,” remembers Don, “otherwise we’d just wander around in these fabled fields of conflict, which to a young boy’s eyes are pretty much exactly what they are–big, open fields.”
But it all rubbed off. To this day, Don still slows down for most any historical sight. “I simply cannot resist a roadside sign discussing troop movements, ferry crossings, or the ruins of an iron foundry—that’s some delicious stuff.” Indeed, this peculiar upbringing laid the foundation for his career today.
“In my family it was completely ordinary to spend a whole day piecing together a historical event in your own mind,” explains Don. “Even as young children, we were expected to use our imaginations, ask questions, and read materials–you learned or you were left behind,” he says, thinking back. “No, really, my dad would drive away and leave you–it was that important.”