Survivor honored one of its original and most popular players ever on Wednesday’s episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols. Rudy Boesch, a former Navy SEAL who found fame later in life as a 72-year-old cast member on the original season of Survivor — and became the oldest contestant ever once again when he returned at 75 for Survivor: All-Stars — died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease on Nov. 1 at the age of 91. At the conclusion of Wednesday’s episode, the show aired a photo of Boesch along with a tribute card that read: “A Survivor Icon. An American Hero.”
It was a fitting honor for a man who served his country with distinction and then became one of the first-ever reality TV stars, and an unlikely star at that. Survivor host Jeff Probst first paid tribute to Boesch on Twitter on Nov. 1 as news of his death began to circulate.
Boesch retired from the Navy after 45 years in 1990 as a Master Chief Petty Officer, and became an almost instant celebrity a decade later when Survivor debuted May 31, 2000 on CBS. His blunt and curmudgeonly demeanor won over viewers who watched the sometimes politically incorrect contestant form an unlikely friendship and alliance with the gay (and often naked) Richard Hatch, at one point famously proclaiming that “Me and Richard got to be pretty good friends — not in a homosexual way, that’s for sure.”
Hatch also paid tribute to his former tribemate and alliance partner on social media.
51.7 million people watched Survivor’s season 1 finale, in which Boesch made it all the way to the final three before losing in an endurance challenge to Kelley Wigglesworth and being voted out.
Boesch returned to film Survivor: All-Stars in 2003 (airing in 2004) when he was 75 years old, once again making him the oldest player to ever compete on the show. He was voted out second after suffering an injured ankle.
Boesch’s Survivor fame led to other TV work, including a guest spot on CBS’s JAG and becoming the host of Survivor producer Mark Burnett’s 2002 reality competition series Combat Missions. The then-72-year-old also made PEOPLE magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” issue in 2000 as the “Sexiest Soldier.” When asked about his newfound fame in the article, Boesch struck a predictably low-key tone. “Movie stars don’t impress me,” he replied. “Discipline does. I’d rather talk to a soldier.”
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