The news that hit like a brick this past weekend, that Survivor season one fan favorite Rudy Boesch was dead at the age of 91 after a long battle with Alzheimer's Disease, wasn't only a blip on our timelines. It provoked a trip down memory lane, for all of us who were there during that seminal inaugural season of the greatest reality show on television. Rudy was a big reason why we started watching. He's a big reason why we keep watching.
Rudy, a former Navy SEAL, will forever be known, first and foremost, by his unlikely kinship with Richard Hatch. The connection these two shared was more than a piece of the first successful alliance in the show's history. It was a relationship that defined what the show is all about: people coming from all walks of life, building a society together and learning more about themselves by meeting people they may never have encountered in their real lives. And Rudy was as real as they came. His short, punchy confessionals — On Richard: "He's fat, but he's good"; On Greg Buis' relationship with his sister: "It sounded like he was talking maybe incest" — weren't played up for the cameras. They were genuinely Rudy. In the nascent stages of reality television, Rudy, the oldest contestant to ever play Survivor at 72 (and then at 75 in Survivor: All-Stars) gave us something new and fresh.
On Friday night, Rudy died. The news started trending on Twitter, which only happens for Survivor these days when a colossal event occurs. Rudy's passing was exactly that. He is remembered not only by the loyal fans and former contestants who have seen his legacy manifested through countless heartfelt moments in the 38 seasons since Borneo, but also by those who no longer watch Survivor but remember the first season in 2000 that captivated a nation.
Ours was an interesting bond, Dear Rudy! You and I helped open minds and undermine predjudces. While your time here has passed, you will remain loved and iconic, dear friend!— Richard Hatch (@HatchRichard) November 2, 2019
It was hard not to think of Rudy even days before his death, in the latest episode of Survivor. When Jack Nichting made what he thought was an offhand comment about Jamal Shipman's buff, calling it a "do-rag," it turned into a constructive discussion about racism. In this scene, Jamal, a gripping narrator, was able to teach not only Jack a valuable lesson about an uncomfortable topic; the college administrator also educated countless souls watching at home. This vital segment is the lifeblood of Survivor. It all began with Rudy embracing Richard, a gay man, as his equal.
There's an episode of Borneo where Rudy is running through the woods during a challenge with a handheld video camera. As he approaches each question testing his knowledge of a story Jeff Probst relayed to him and his tribemates, he replies, comedically, over and over again, "I don't know." I bet if we asked Rudy - before Alzheimer's Disease took over his body and sapped him of his ageless strength - to describe his Survivor legacy, he would provide the same straight answer: "I don't know."
It's impossible to know exactly when Rudy stopped knowing, when the memories of his indelible friendship with Richard faded; when he forgot about the risible empty threats he made to his castmates during his abbreviated run on All-Stars; when his recollection of his regular visits to Survivor finales as a distinguished member of the audience disappeared. What we do know is that these powerful, entertaining and ultimately influential moments of television are ones that we can't soon forget. Because Rudy lives on, in ineffaceable clips, but, more importantly, in every reality television scene where two people from different backgrounds forge a friendship, promoting a more accepting world in the process.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. EST on CBS.