Sam Solovey was the first controversial contestant on “The Apprentice” and was dramatically fired three episodes into the first season. Solovey reflects on his interactions with Trump and how the performance skills Trump developed as a television entertainer have helped him surge toward the top of the Republican field. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

In his debut as the CEO on “The Apprentice,” Donald Trump wanted to move fast. He seemed to know in his gut which contestant should be fired and saw little reason to prolong the filming.

But there was a problem. Even if an immediate ouster might be smart in an actual corporate boardroom, it did not make for compelling television.

So when filming began for the 2004 launch of the show, producers asked the famously impatient real estate mogul to slow down, according to Jim Dowd, who was NBC’s senior director of publicity. Trump needed to let the drama play out between the contestants — aspiring young businesspeople who were battling for the grand prize of a one-year, $250,000 job by performing a series of tasks that Trump assigned.

Trump appeared to act on the advice. In the third episode of the first season, he spun one contestant’s slow demise into a dramatic climax — the contestant’s crazed stare — that became an overnight TV sensation and helped transform the show into a ratings goliath. Over time, the show became known for the way contestants would create alliances and belittle one another before Trump picked one and delivered the decisive blow: “You’re fired!”

“If nobody had stepped up” and given Trump the guidance, “ ‘The Apprentice’ wouldn’t be what it was today,” said Dowd, who left NBC to run a public relations firm where he has represented Trump. “And I don’t think Trump would be as sharp.”

Today, as a Republican presidential candidate, Trump emphasizes his success in the real estate business as he makes the case that he can fix a broken Washington. But it is the abilities he practiced over 14 seasons as the host and an executive producer of “The Apprentice” — a blunt speaking style, a tendency to taunt his rivals and play them against one another, and a theatrical sense of timing — that have flustered rivals who at times can’t seem to believe that they are losing to him. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush recently described Trump as “an actor playing a role of the candidate for president.”

Trump, who will embrace that role on a grand stage again this weekend when he hosts “Saturday Night Live,” demurred during a recent Washington Post interview when asked about the source of his skills.

“I’ve never had lessons,” Trump said. “I’ve always felt comfortable in front of a camera. Either you’re good at it or you’re not good at it.”

The show’s climatic boardroom meetings, he said, in characteristically boastful form, were a reflection of his natural talents.

“It was 100 percent ad lib,” he said. “Directly from me.”

Some who got to know Trump through the show say they have not been surprised in recent months to watch him perform in similar fashion on different stages. Trump, for instance, regularly holds forth before packed auditoriums with seemingly stream-of-consciousness speeches that captivate his audiences.

“What people see on the campaign trail is what I saw” on the set of “The Apprentice,” said Andy Dean, a contestant during the second season who recalled Trump playing his part without a script. “He had no teleprompters, no cues,” said Dean, who went on to work for Trump as president of Trump Productions and now volunteers to do media interviews for the campaign.

Trump’s brand was a key part of the package when Mark Burnett, the producer who had struck gold with “Survivor,” pitched his idea for a new business-oriented show to the networks, according to TV critic Bill Carter in his book “Desperate Networks.” Instead of strangers competing to survive in the wilderness, teams of ­go-getters would compete over marketing-related tasks such as promoting a workout class, designing a parade float or hosting a charity event, and then have their work judged by the bombastic real estate mogul in a boardroom constructed in his own Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Burnett declined to comment for this article. Several people involved with the show agreed to be interviewed. Some cited provisions in their contracts that ­prevent them from describing ­behind-the-scenes details.

In the early seasons, the 16 to 18 contestants were selected after in-person interviews, standardized testing, and psychological and medical evaluations, according to two contestants. They had almost no privacy on the set, with cameras following them everywhere except behind the closed door of the toilet. They saw Trump when he assigned them tasks and later in the wood-paneled boardroom, where Trump played the role of alpha-male executive.

It was “pretty much Stockholm syndrome,” said Surya Yalamanchili, a contestant during the sixth season, when the show was moved to Beverly Hills, Calif.

Those boardroom scenes — just 10 minutes on air — often took two or three hours to shoot under the unforgiving heat of lighting for the TV cameras and the eye of the man whose patronage they sought.

From the time they spent with Trump on and off the set, contestants recall a talented performer — and one who was deeply concerned with how he was perceived by others. Just as Trump today speaks frequently of his poll numbers, so, too, was he consumed by ratings.

“He is obsessed with metrics, polls and data,” said Sam Solovey, the first-season contestant who, upon being fired, delivered the glare that became a sensation.

On a morning after “The Apprentice” lost to a rival Fox show, “American Idol,” Solovey visited Trump to introduce him to his fiancee — and found the usually ebullient businessman slumped at his desk.

“It was the only time I saw him totally downcast and dejected,” said Solovey, who soon after signed on to help rally the ratings and bolster Trump’s brand with appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” promoting the Miss Universe pageant and hustling Trump’s latest book.

Elizabeth Jarosz, a second-season contestant who now does brand strategy consulting, remembered that she happened to be standing close to Trump after he finished a press interview. He turned to her. “How did I do?” he said. “Was that okay?”

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow,’ ” Jarosz said. “He was very insecure. And that’s not how he seems now. Now he seems not to care. But I think he really does care.”

Jarosz remembered sitting with Trump at a lounge bar, listening to him explain his view that “all publicity is good publicity.” She said she will never forget the advice he offered. “When people get tired of you is when you do more publicity,” she recalled Trump saying, “because that’s when you become an icon.”

Solovey and others recall Trump demonstrating unusually high “emotional intelligence,” quickly grasping contestants’ flaws and strengths.

“He reads people well,” Solovey said.

Trump used to draw out contestants “like a good conductor in an orchestra,” said first-season ­runner-up Kwame Jackson, until they “talked themselves or someone else off the show.”

That skill is apparent today as Trump challenges his presidential rivals, often by identifying an insult or other line of attack that reveals a specific vulnerability. His searing dig that Bush was “low energy” changed the way many viewed one of his top opponents.

In the third GOP presidential debate, Jackson said, Trump demonstrated this skill in his “killer summary” of why Ohio Gov. John Kasich had questioned Trump’s lack of political experience. “He was so nice,” Trump said of Kasich. “But then his poll numbers tanked . . . and he got nasty.”

Several contestants said the country is seeing a side of Trump — with his incendiary comments about illegal immigrants from Mexico and his attack on Fox News’s Megyn Kelly — that they did not see on the set.

“There wasn’t this insult machine, this sexist machine,” on “The Apprentice,” Jackson said. “That’s what so perplexing. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The show — which evolved over 14 seasons, switching its setting from New York to Los Angeles and replacing its unknown contestants with celebrities in futile efforts to restore its ratings to the first season’s records — gave Trump a heightened sense of the power of television, according to Jeffrey Hayzlett, a guest judge who had been chief marketing officer at Kodak. “I think in America today there is a handful of people who can use the medium as well as he can,” Hayzlett said.

In his next major TV appearance, on “Saturday Night Live,” Trump won’t be able to rely on a team of editors picking through hours of recorded interactions to deliver the Trump they (and he) want to broadcast. Live skits require the kind of preparation that Dowd says Trump has never warmed to: “He doesn’t like ­choreographed roles.”

He will be the fourth presidential candidate to host SNL, according to the show’s Web site, following Ralph Nader in 1977, Steve Forbes in 1996 and Al Sharpton in 2003. None of those candidates rode the show to their party’s nomination, let alone to the White House.

Sharpton, in an interview, said Trump still faces a challenge proving that his stage talents will translate to actual votes. It’s like the difference between being the lounge act and performing on the main stage, Sharpton said.

“It’s not that you have to change your act, but you’ve got to upgrade it and appear like you belong on that stage,” said Sharpton, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004. “People are going to want to see you really have something to say.”

Trump hosted SNL once before, in 2004, flush with success from the first season of “The Apprentice” and championing his credentials as “a ratings machine.”

“I am about to become the ­highest-paid television personality in America,” Trump crowed at the time. “And as everyone in this room knows, ‘highest-paid’ means ‘best.’ ” 

His next SNL appearance promises to be another triumph, Trump bragged in the interview with The Post. “A huge ratings evening,” he said.

But goosing TV viewers isn’t necessarily the same as winning over voters. Consider what happened after the first two GOP debates. With 24 million and 23 million viewers, the August and September debates brought even more people to their screens than the average of 20 million per episode who watched during the first season of “The Apprentice.” The show’s finale trumped both debates with 28 million viewers. But there was no parallel jump in Trump’s overall favorability ratings following the debates, according to Washington Post-ABC News surveys.

Trump acknowledged in the interview that every sort of appearance — a speech, a debate, or even standing on the SNL stage — is different. Each demands its own set of skills.

“So far, I have them,” he said.

“It’s my life,” Trump added. “It just continues to go forward from ‘The Apprentice.’ ”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.