Rudy Boesch, Oldest 'Survivor' Contestant and Retired Navy SEAL, Dies at 91

Rudy Boesch - Survivor - Getty - H 2019

The fan-favorite season one castmember was described by 'Survivor' executive producer Mark Burnett as a man who "knew who he was and remained true to himself."

Rudy Boesch, a decorated Navy SEAL and a pioneering castmember on the first season of CBS' Survivor, died Friday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91.

"Master Chief Rudy Boesch passed away last night. He was surrounded by his family and passed away peacefully," Steve Gonzalez, Director of Operations of SEAL Veterans Foundation in Virginia Beach, told The Hollywood Reporter. "He proudly served our nation from 1944-1990 and his impact on the men and women of Naval Special Warfare and the Special Operations Command is immeasurable. ... Rudy was beloved by all and will be deeply missed."

Richard Hatch, who formed an alliance with Boesch on Survivor's first season and eventually won, shared the following statement with THR: "Rudy and I connected in a special way. Different generations and divergent perspectives in many ways, but we respected one another and enjoyed a close relationship. I’d like to believe he and I paved the way for others to do the same."

Boesch appeared on two seasons of Survivor, including 2000's inaugural installment, competing at the age of 72. He finished in third place.

During the CBS reality franchise's record-smashing first season, Boesch was widely viewed as an audience favorite, thanks in no small part to his frank assessments of his fellow castaways. "The hardest part is hanging around with all the young kids," he complained at one point in the season, adding: "I don't even know what MTV means." In the book Survivor: The Ultimate Game, executive producer Mark Burnett described Boesch as a "stoic and judgmental man," one who did not value "the art of small talk."

"Rudy had long ago embraced the ideal of keeping his mouth shut," wrote Burnett. "He'd joined the navy at 17, in the waning days of World War II. It was the only job he ever held. At 22 he'd become one of the first SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) commandos. Over the next 40 years Rudy became the most senior noncommissioned officer in the Navy. Blue-collar, with a gray flattop, Rudy was the stereotypical old swabbie. When the Navy offered him the chance to become an officer, he turned it down. It just wasn't him, and if there was a defining characteristic about Rudy it was that he knew who he was and remained true to himself. He wasn't changing for anyone."

Despite a surly disposition and a take-no-nonsense attitude toward the other contestants, Boesch became a central player in the first season of Survivor, a core member of the show's first-ever alliance. A player who valued honor and loyalty above all else, Boesch was an odds-on favorite to win the million dollar prize, heading into the final immunity challenge of the season. He ultimately lost during what became an instantly iconic moment for the show, his hand slipping during a grueling but simply designed endurance challenge.

"We all thought Rudy would win for sure," executive producer and host Jeff Probst said in a 2015 interview with — ironically enough — MTV News. "The final challenge was this very basic endurance challenge where you just had to stand and hold your hand on an idol. We looked around and went, 'Rudy's never going to lose this.' We were kind of celebrating that we'd come out to do this show, and the most likable and root-worthy guy is going to win… and then, Rudy dropped out, inexplicably."

The same night he was eliminated from the final challenge of the season, Boesch was voted out, one day shy of victory. Hatch went on to become the winner of the season, an unfathomable result for production at the time. ("We thought our dreams had vanquished," according to Probst.) Instead, it paved the Machiavellian way forward for future winners of Survivor, a series that will celebrate 20 years and 40 seasons on the air in 2020.

In 2004, Boesch returned to the franchise for Survivor: All-Stars, where he was the second player eliminated. In addition to Survivor, Boesch was the host of the 2002 Mark Burnett-produced reality competition series Combat Missions, a natural fit given his long career in the Navy. Having enlisted in 1945 at the age of 17, he completed two combat deployments during the Vietnam War, earning the Bronze Star. In 1990, Boesch retired from the Navy, ending his 45-year career as a Master Chief Petty Officer.

Additional reporting by Sharareh Drury.