Rudy Boesch, who had a distinguished military career that included being one of the first Navy SEALs, then attained an entirely different distinction in his 70s when he became a contestant and audience favorite on the popular CBS reality show Survivor, died Friday in Virginia Beach, Va. He was 91.
Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor, announced his death on Twitter, calling him “one of the most iconic and adored players of all time.” Steve Gonzalez, director of operations for the SEAL Veterans Foundation, told the Associated Press that the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Boesch was known to millions of television viewers from Survivor: Borneo, the first season of CBS’s Survivor franchise. It premiered on May 31, 2000, and became a phenomenon over the next three months.
The show, which was something new for American viewers, put strangers together in a remote location, with the field progressively narrowing as contestants chose to send someone home each week – “voting them off the island” in the show’s catchphrase, which entered the American lexicon.
Mr. Boesch was one of 16 castaways that season and the oldest. After almost being sent packing early on, he became a durable if cranky member of the cast, capable of adapting to and allying with a wide range of fellow castaways, including Richard Hatch, the cocky, scheming eventual winner.
Mr. Boesch was given to a plain-spokenness that was sometimes endearing, occasionally borderline offensive. “The homosexual, he’s one of the nicest guys I ever met, and he’s good at what he does,” he said of Mr. Hatch, who is gay.
“We got to be pretty good friends,” he added, but “not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Boesch was one of the last four contestants, and he was surprised to find himself a celebrity even after Season 1 ended that August.
“I thought this would die out after a couple months, and they’d say, ‘Rudy who?’ and I’d be back to normal,” he told Bryant Gumbel in an interview with CBS in January, 2001. “But it didn’t.”
Long before his reality-show fame, though, Mr. Boesch was famous to a few: other SEALs, the informal name for members of the navy’s specially trained sea, air and land units. In the 1960s, he was chief of SEAL Team 2, one of the first two SEAL units formed.
“Putting it as simply as I can,” James Watson wrote in his 1997 book, Walking Point, about his experiences as a member of that team, “I don’t think anyone will ever be able to fill the shoes of Rudy Boesch.”
Rudolph Boesch was born on Jan. 20, 1928, in Rochester, N.Y. He joined the merchant marine in 1944 and enlisted in the navy the next year, training in underwater demolition and serving on ships over the next 17 years.
In 1962, he was among the first SEALs, given charge of setting physical fitness and other standards for Team 2.
“Rudy Boesch had a special understanding of his men,” Mr. Watson wrote, “what they did, and why they did it. That is very rare. There was never a man more devoted to the Navy and the SEALs.”
Mr. Boesch served two tours in Vietnam, though he never talked much about what specifically he did in the service. Between the tours he worked and competed with the navy bobsleigh team. He retired from the navy in 1990 as a master chief petty officer.
“If you want to see the benefits of regular exercise,” Mr. Watson wrote, “take a look at retired Master Chief Rudy Boesch.” He mentioned photographs of Mr. Boesch bobsledding in 1970.
“Except for his hair color being a bit lighter, there is no difference between a picture of Rudy today and one taken way back then,” he wrote. “Even the haircut hasn’t changed.”
Mr. Boesch was apparently still in excellent shape a few years later when he auditioned for the producers of Survivor, according to a 2000 article in The Virginian-Pilot.
“He impressed them by doing 70 push-ups and almost as many situps with a 35-pound weight on his chest,” the paper reported.
Mr. Boesch, interviewed by the paper after the first season of Survivor had been filmed on the island of Pulau Tiga but before it was broadcast, was typically blunt about his feelings regarding the other contestants.
“I was with much nicer people in the Navy,” he said. “On Tiga, you had a lesbian, a hippie, a homosexual and this neurologist who shaved his whole body every third day. Some of the people there earned my respect. But I had a hard time getting along with the younger ones. We don’t speak the same language. Our morals are different. I’m from another generation.”
Mr. Boesch returned to the show in 2004 for Survivor: All-Stars, but was voted off early. He was the oldest contestant ever to appear on the show, which is in its 39th season.
Mr. Boesch capitalized on his Survivor fame by giving speeches and writing, with Jeff Herman, The Book of Rudy: The Wit and Wisdom of Rudy Boesch (2001).
His wife, Marge, died in 2008. He leaves three daughters.
In November, 2000, Mr. Boesch, freshly riding the fame of that initial Survivor season, appeared at a SEAL event in Fort Pierce, Fla., where he had trained more than a half-century earlier.
“I was at the Emmys,” he told The Stuart News of Florida, “and someone told me that I’d gotten more applause than Brad Pitt. I said, ‘Who’s he?’ ”