Rudy Boesch, one of the most popular contestants from the very first season of CBS’s reality show juggernaut Survivor, has died. A military veteran who was one of the first people ever to be inducted into the Navy’s famous SEAL teams—specifically, SEAL Team TWO—Boesch drew steady attention to the reality series in its first season, both through his status as its oldest contestant ever, and for his gruff, no-nonsense persona. Despite criticisms of his oft-repeated homophobic comments—often directed at first-season winner Richard Hatch—Boesch often came off as a lovably stern member of an older generation, pulling his weight with military discipline even as he was forced to deal with the daily frustrations of being trapped on an island with people roughly a third of his age.
Reading Boesch’s biography is an exercise in parsing through the two very different aspects of his public life; in the annals of military history, he’s considered something of a minor legend, having spent 38 years in the SEALs, earned the Bronze Star for his work in combat actions in Vietnam, and gained a reputation as one of the most brutally grueling training officers in the military organization’s history. For a time, he was the longest-serving SEAL still serving within its ranks, running obstacle courses alongside his recruits as late as the age of 60, and he was inducted into the Commando Hall Of Honor in 2010.
10 years after his retirement from the military, Boesch became one of the 16 original castaways stranded on Malaysia’s Tiga Island, facing off for the chance at a million dollars in prize money as the last person standing. Despite his frequent, vocal comments expressing his discomfort with homosexuality, Boesch quickly teamed up with Hatch, recognizing in him a penchant for both leadership and scheming. Meanwhile, he became a regular favorite on the show, sliding into the archetype of the bluntly funny elder statesman utterly unimpressed with the younger generation around him. (With, admittedly, a little bit of “older people are allowed to be set in their ways” energy excusing some of his nastier beliefs.) At the same time, and despite being 71 during the competition, he made a habit of displaying his physical prowess and endurance—even though it was a failing of the same, during the show’s penultimate challenge, that led to him being voted off. (Despite having been outmaneuvered by Hatch, he still gave him one of his winning votes.)
Survivor made a star of Rudy Boesch, a role he seemed to ease into with the same calm acceptance with which he approached drinking dirty water or other hazards of island life. Regular public appearances helped bolster the $85,000 he took home as a prize for his third-place finish, and he returned to the franchise (briefly, he got knocked out after two episodes) for 2004's Survivor: All-Stars. He fared less well as an actor (in a bit part on CBS’s military court series JAG) or as the host of his own short-lived Mark Burnett reality production, Combat Missions.
Boesch’s wife Marge died in 2008; the pair had been married for 58 years. Earlier this year, he was reported to have been suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. He died earlier this week, at the age of 91.