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Survivor Contestants You Might Not Know Passed Away

For more than 20 years, the beloved reality competition show "Survivor" has been one of the most popular viewing options on television, cranking out an average of two seasons a year across its impressive run. What eventually became "Survivor" was first aired in 1997 as a Swedish reality competition show called "Expedition Robinson" (later shortened to just "Robinson"). That transformed into the American series "Survivor" three years later, and since then, dozens of countries have had their own version of the show — some using "Survivor," some using "Robinson," and some going with a different title entirely.

The franchise has been going for so long at this point that you probably won't be surprised to learn that some former castaways are no longer with us, but that doesn't make the deaths of these "Survivor" contestants any less sad. From past winners to fan favorites, here's a list of "Survivor" castaways that you may not know passed away.

Ralph Kiser

A competition show like "Survivor" can't go on for years and years without introducing twists and gimmicks along the way to keep things fresh. For Season 22, "Redemption Island," that meant a new wrinkle where players voted out during the Tribal Council went to the titular island, where they could win their way back into the competition. Contestant Ralph Kiser made it to the final ten in the season with this unusual format, and also became a frequent source of comic relief for viewers as he frequently misspelled his fellow castaways' names when voting in the Tribal Council.

After "Survivor," Kiser went back to his home in Virginia where he returned to the animal auction he owned and operated. 11 years later, in 2022, Kiser passed away from a heart attack at the age of 56. Following his death, Jeff Probst said of Kiser in a tweet: "His huge smile, his positive attitude and of course his infectious rooster crow made him one of the most likable to ever play Survivor."

Caleb Bankston

Various seasons of "Survivor" have brought back castaways from previous seasons, and one of the most interesting ways the show did that was seen in Season 27, "Blood vs. Water." The gimmick: Ten contestants from previous seasons were put together on a tribe called Galang, and that team went up against a tribe of ten loved ones called Tadhana. This brought Caleb Bankston to "Survivor" via the Tadhana team, as he was the fiancé of Colton Cumbie from the "Survivor: One World" season. Bankston lasted on the show until the inevitable merging of the two tribes, but didn't make it to the top eight.

Bankston was in a train accident in 2014, only a year after "Blood vs. Water" aired. He was the conductor of the train when it derailed. An investigation into what might have caused the accident proved inconclusive. "The entire 'Survivor' crew is together in Nicaragua," Jeff Probst said in a statement (via The Hollywood Reporter). "We are shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of Caleb. He was one of the most humble and likable contestants we've ever had the pleasure of working with on the show. A true gentleman. He will be missed by so many. We extend our most sincere condolences to his family and to his fiancé, Colton."

Rudy Boesch

The first season of "Survivor" — retroactively referred to as "Survivor: Borneo" — seems quaint now compared to subsequent seasons in that there wasn't yet a need for big twists or clever gimmicks. The basic premise of the show was still novel enough to be exciting, and the initial group of castaways got to become noteworthy by nature of just being the first. Still, various members of that season stood out at the time and remain among the most talked-about in the history of the show, and one such castaway is Rudy Boesch, who would later return for "Survivor: All-Stars" in the eighth season.

At 72 years old during "Borneo" and 75 during "All-Stars," Boesch remains the oldest castaway in the history of the show. With that in mind, it's impressive that he only just passed away in 2019. The retired Navy SEAL was 91 years old and died after complications from Alzheimer's disease. Following his death, fellow first season castaway (and winner) Richard Hatch referred to Boesch as a "dear friend" and pointed out how their unlikely friendship was a great example of overcoming prejudices. "While your time here has passed, you will remain loved and iconic," Hatch said in a tweet.

Cliff Robinson

Not all "Survivor" castaways are new to television. Take, for example, Cliff Robinson of the "Survivor: Cagayan" season. Prior to competing on the 28th season of the show, Robinson had been an 18-year veteran of the NBA. The 1989 draft pick was awarded the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 1993, followed by being voted onto the All-Star team in 1994. His basketball pedigree made him an ideal candidate for "Survivor," despite his age (46) at the time. 

Although he proved himself a capable competitor on the show against a field of almost all younger contestants (only Trish Hegarty was older at 48), Robinson's health took a bad turn after his time on "Survivor." In 2017, he suffered a brain hemorrhage, and he had a non-cancerous tumor removed from his jaw the following year. In 2019, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which ultimately caused his death: In 2020, at 53 years old, the NBA and "Survivor" veteran — known to his fans as "Uncle Cliffy" — passed away from the disease.

Ashley Massaro

Another "Survivor" contestant who was famous before her time on the show, Ashley Massaro had already been a WWE wrestler for two years when she appeared on 2007's "Survivor: China," the 15th season of the series. However, her time on "Survivor" was as contentious as it was brief: She instantly butted heads with her fellow contestants and was voted off in only the second Tribal Council of the season. A year after her short time on "Survivor," it was announced by the WWE that Massaro had been released from her contract with the company.

Massaro said at the time that she asked to have her contract terminated early due to her daughter being sick, but there was apparently more to it than that: She later detailed what she said were poor working conditions and joined a 2016 class action lawsuit against the WWE for failing to look after the health and safety of its wrestlers, a legal conflict that came to be known as the "WWE Concussion Lawsuit." Three years later, Massaro died by apparent suicide. She was found unconscious at her home after failing to show up for a radio station gig. Efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful and she died while being transferred to hospital.

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Jennifer Lyon

Season 10, "Survivor: Palau," had a World War II theme and even used actual relics from the war for the backdrops of challenges and the Tribal Council set. The season also introduced audiences to Jennifer Lyon, who quickly became a fan favorite for her upbeat, positive attitude. She stuck around in the competition for quite some time and made history when she was eliminated in the series' first-ever final four fire-building challenge after a deadlocked Tribal Council vote. After "Survivor," Lyon took a crack at acting when she appeared in the films "Daddy Day Camp" and "Cannibal Feast" — though she's not to be confused with actor Jenn Lyon, known for the TV shows "Justified" and "Claws."

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lyon was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. She attended the "Paulu" reunion that year, at which time she reconnected with "Survivor" host Jeff Probst and some of her fellow contestants and was able to rekindle some of those friendships in the final years of her life. Per Entertainment Weekly, Probst in particular spoke of how he and Lyon "became very close, very fast" during that time and had a lot of emotional discussions about the impact of her disease on herself and her family. Lyon died in January 2010 at the age of 37.

Angie Jakusz

Unfortunately, Jennifer Lyon isn't the only contestant from "Survivor: Palau" to have passed away since her time on the show. Her fellow castaway Angie Jakusz is the second member of that season to lose her life to cancer. Jakusz initially had trouble fitting in with her tribe due to her quirkiness, but soon won them over with her skill in challenges and felt like a more seasoned athlete than her relatively young age (she was 25 when she appeared on the show) might have otherwise suggested.

Speaking to People, her fellow castaway Coby Archa later praised Jakusz for the way she "broke the casting barrier" by having "dreads and tattoos" at a time when that was almost unheard of on the show, particularly among women. In 2021, it was revealed that Jakusz had died after being diagnosed with cancer. In the description of her history with the disease on a GoFundMe page set up by her family to cover her medical expenses, it is inferred that her cancer had previously been in remission but returned. Sadly, she was unable to fight it off again and passed away in January of 2021 at the age of 40.

B.B. Andersen

It's no secret that the producers of "Survivor" enjoy casting young, physically attractive contestants, but they've also done an admirable job at bringing in much older castaways than one might expect from this type of show. This mixed approach was established right off the bat, as the "Borneo" season had not only the 72 year old Rudy Boesch but also the 63 year old Sonja Christopher and the 64 year old Bill "B.B." Andersen. That being said, while Boesch shocked everyone by making it all the way to third place, his fellow 60+ contestants were the first two voted out.

Andersen has the unfortunate distinction of being the second castaway ever voted off "Survivor." For what it's worth, he had previously made it known pretty quickly that he didn't care if he was eliminated. Even though his time on the show was brief, he still managed to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into endorsement deals with both Reebok and Home Depot. Andersen died from brain cancer aged 77 in 2013, 13 years after ensuring his place in pop culture history as one of the original cast members on "Survivor."

Keith Nale

In Season 29, "Survivor: San Juan del Sur," Southern charmer Keith Nale, along with his son Wes, were among the nine pairs of loved ones competing against one another for the $1 million grand prize. As the season's underdog who struggled strategically, it was impressive how far the Louisiana native made it in the competition. His physicality and charm took him all the way to the final four. In fact, he made such a lasting impact that he was invited to return by public vote for Season 31, "Survivor: Cambodia." Again, Nale advanced far into the competition using his physical strengths before being voted off in the final five.

The two-time competitor was undoubtedly a fan favorite for his easygoing, down-to-Earth demeanor. When his son broke the news of his death in April 2023, it understandably hit fans hard. "He passed away this afternoon. He'd been battling cancer for the past few months and we found out about it in January," Wes told Entertainment Tonight. Following the announcement, "Survivor" host Jeff Probst and the series' Instagram account issued a collective statement honoring Nale, reading, "On behalf of the entire 'Survivor' crew, we send our deepest condolences to the Nale family. Keith was a one-of-a-kind human. Completely unique in every way. He brought endless joy and laughter to 'Survivor' fans and to those of us who made the show with him. He was adored by so many and will be greatly missed."

Dan Lembo

Dan Lembo was 63 years old when he competed on Season 21, "Survivor: Nicaragua." However, despite his age, he carried himself well, getting all the way to the top five before being voted off. He was a frequent target, but Lembo was often spared due to his strategic gameplay and the fact that he wasn't perceived as being as big of a threat as other castaways. The group's reasoning behind Lembo's eventual dismissal was attributed to his popularity among the jury, leading to a unanimous vote for his elimination. Audiences most fondly remember him for a viral moment, immortalized as a meme, in which he sits atop a giant chair, playfully swinging his feet.

In September 2022, Dan Lembo died from progressive supranuclear palsy at age 75. According to his daughter-in-law, Lembo was diagnosed with the incurable brain disorder six years before his death. His loved ones remember him in his obituary as "a charismatic, larger-than-life, outgoing bon vivant. He loved nothing more than spending time with his children and friends – new and old."

Dan Kay

The 17th season of "Survivor" was the second shot in Africa and the first to be filmed in high definition. Subtitled "Gabon – Earth's Last Eden," this season introduced viewers to Dan Kay, who revealed that he had an early midlife crisis that made him quit his job, sell all of his investments, and audition for "Survivor." Given that he had put so much on the line prior to competing on the show, it's a good thing he wasn't voted off quickly: Kay ended up making it to Day 20 before he was eliminated.

While it's not known what Kay did for work after his time on "Survivor," he continued to pursue adventure as an active skier and runner, completing a half marathon. Eight years after he appeared on "Survivor" and hit the reset button on his life, Kay died unexpectedly at the age of 40. The cause of death wasn't revealed to the public, with Kay's girlfriend telling Radar Online: "We're not releasing how he passed at this time." No further public statement from Kay's loved ones has been released on the matter.

Sunday Burquest

Around a decade ago, the internet helped to fuel a war between the generations, pitting Baby Boomers against Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers. "Survivor" pounced on this in 2016 when they went with the gimmick of "Millennials vs. Gen X" for the show's 33rd season. One of the early standouts of the Gen X team was Sunday Burquest, whose easygoing and likable demeanor let her form multiple alliances that kept her safe until various back-stabbings led to her elimination at 7th place.

In 2021, only five years after her "Survivor" stint, author and youth pastor Burquest passed away at age 50 from esophageal cancer that also spread to her ovaries. Doctors had only given her "a few months" to live upon the initial diagnosis, but she ended up making it for ten. Prior to that, she had beaten breast cancer in 2012, before her appearance on "Survivor." In a heartfelt Instagram tribute, Jeff Probst spoke warmly of Burquest's smile and her kindness, stating, "She seemed to understand better than most that life is for living, so say yes to life whenever possible."

Clay Jordan

Texas-born Louisiana resident Clay Jordan was the runner-up in Season 5, "Survivor: Thailand," despite being the last man picked during the tribal Schoolyard Pick. Ultimately beaten by Brian Heidik, the two formed an alliance that secured their spots in the top two. However, Heidik proved to be the more calculated and strategic castaway. Throughout his 39 days on the island of Ko Tarutao, Jordan also made some enemies with his occasional controversial remarks. Tensions were particularly high between Jordan and opposing tribe member Robb Zbacnik, who memorably grabbed Jordan by the throat in a heated moment. Despite being a divisive castaway, he was undeniably one of the most entertaining.

Just a few months after his wife's death, Clay Jordan died after a "short illness" in May 2022 at the age of 66. His daughter made the announcement on Facebook, writing, "Clay Brooks Jordan, my sweetheart of a Dad, went to heaven to meet Jesus and be reunited with his beautiful bride! Andy and I are so heartbroken, but We get comfort from knowing they are together and he is no longer in pain. We love you, Dad! You will forever be my HERO!"

Roger Sexton

The oldest contestant in Season 6, "Survivor: The Amazon," 56-year-old castaway Roger Sexton performed well physically but was ultimately voted off after making some enemies along the way. Caught up in the gender dynamics of the competition, Sexton let his misogynistic mindset get the better of him by dismissing the female castaways. When the original alliances based on gender lines shifted without his knowledge, Sexton was blindsided and became the seventh castaway to be voted off. His boot episode remains one of the most memorable episodes in "Survivor" history.

In October 2022, Sexton died at age 76 from Lewy Body Dementia. He passed away at his daughter and son-in-law's home in Walla Walla, Washington. "Confidence, discipline, and determination to succeed were all vital components to Roger's character," his family said in his obituary. "His constant drive and amazing physicality allowed him a lifelong pursuit of his love for backpacking in the high country of the Sierra Nevada's, skiing the powdered bowls of California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, mastering the powdered terrain while helicopter skiing in the Ruby Mountains, and riding the dusty trails of Southern California on his mountain bike."

Zhanna Friske

Russian actor, singer, and model Jeanna "Zhanna" Friske was a two-time contestant on the Russian version of "Survivor," appearing in "Posledniy Geroy 4: Konets Igry" and "Posledniy Geroy 5: Superigra." In her first season on the show, Friske was among 20 castaways consisting of Russian celebrities. She made it to the final day but lost to Yana Volkova. After returning from the island, Friske announced her solo career, splitting from the musical girl group Blestyashchie. The next year, she returned for "Posledniy Geroy 5: Superigra" as one of the nine returning castaways. Again, Friske ended the season as the runner-up, losing to Aleksandr Matveev.

Friske continued to thrive in the spotlight after her time on "Posledniy Geroy," becoming a well-known celebrity in Russia. However, in January 2014, just months after their son's birth, Friske's husband announced that she had brain cancer. According to Billboard, Friske refused chemotherapy while pregnant with her son for his safety. In June 2015, Friske died at age 40.

Rob Dickson

Former Australian Football League (AFL) professional footballer Rob Dickson won the title of Sole Survivor in the first season of "Australian Survivor." Although the season was poorly rated in comparison to the American version, Dickson impressed viewers with his physical and strategic abilities throughout the intense 39-day competition near Port Lincoln in South Australia. Dickson secured his spot in the final two by winning the final immunity challenge, and, at the climactic Final Tribal Council, he defeated Sciona Browne with a five-to-two vote.

In April 2009, Dickson and his two sons died in a car accident during a trip to South Africa. He and his five-year-old son Byron died in the collision, with eight-year-old Gabriel later passing away in hospital from his injuries. Dickson's wife Dusty survived the crash. "Our family is devastated by the news," Dickson's brother said in a statement (via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation). "Rob was a wonderful brother, a wonderful son and father to his boys." Dickson was inducted into the Australian Survivor Hall of Fame in 2020.

Tebby Gasennelwe

24-year-old castaway Tebby Gasennelwe was the Sole Survivor of "Survivor Africa: Panama." Gasennelwe, who was from Gaborone, Botswana, triumphed against 11 other castaways over the course of 21 physically and mentally grueling days. When it came down to the final four, the remaining castaways competed in two challenges in order to determine the final two. Gasennelwe advanced after winning the first challenge and ultimately won in a five-to-one vote against runner-up Jeremiah Zulu, taking home the $100,000 grand prize and becoming one the youngest "Survivor" winners to date.

Sadly, her life came to a premature and shocking end: In August 2016, Gasennelwe was murdered by her gardener at age 34. A memorial Facebook page created by Gasennelwe's loved ones shared her obituary, describing the writer and entrepreneur as "a selfless soul" who "deeply enriched our lives." The page is still active to this day, where loved ones continue to share cherished memories of Gasennelwe.

Cris Bolado

Cris Bolado, a former Philippine Basketball Association professional basketball player who went by the nickname "The Lucky Charm," was one of 16 castaways in Season 2 of the Philippine version of "Survivor," "Survivor Philippines: Palau." Bolado retired from professional basketball in 2003 due to an injury, but he was still in great shape when he arrived on the island of Peleliu to compete on the show. He possessed a clear physical advantage over the other castaways, standing at 6 feet 7 inches tall.

On day 21, Bolado was voted off in a two-one-one vote. He was the last castaway to be eliminated before the merge. Although Bolado was given the chance to rejoin the competition in the final face-off challenge a few days later, he ultimately lost to the season's runner-up, Justine Ferrer. In September 2017, Bolado died in a motorcycle accident in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he owned a restaurant. Bolado, who won nine basketball titles between 1994 and 2003, was just 47 at the time of his death.

Bernard Deniaud

In Season 15 of the French version of "Survivor," "Koh-Lanta: Malaisie," 60-year-old retired nature guide and self-proclaimed adventurer Bernard Deniaud impressively made it to the top five. Initially banished at the start of the season after not being selected during the tribal Schoolyard Pick, Deniaud managed to find his footing after being integrated into the Mawar tribe. He eventually made it to the merge and was the last Mawar tribe member standing. However, Deniaud was ultimately eliminated after losing the Orienteering challenge alongside Philippe Bizet.

In May 2021, Deniaud died from an unpublicized illness at the age of 69. The show's host, Denis Brogniart, tweeted in remembrance of the castaway, writing, "He was a man who loved nature, a great sportsman who loved long-term challenges." Despite keeping his distance from the show after the season's conclusion, his competitiveness and genuine spirit lives on within the show's legacy in France and around the "Survivor" world.

Jean-Claude Errin

In Season 6 of the French version of "Survivor," "Koh-Lanta: Vanuatu," 60-year-old heating and sanitary warehouseman Jean-Claude Errin made it to day 18 before being medically evacuated from the game after an injury to his hand during the fifth reward challenge failed to heal. Errin was one of three castaways who had to be medically evacuated this season, which was especially difficult due to a cyclone and several earthquakes — sadly, climate change has continued to take a toll on "Survivor."

Given his age, Errin did relatively well throughout the challenges before his injury. "I wanted to show my children and my grandchildren that old people can still do something good," he told Le Républicain Lorrain (via TV Mag). In October 2019, Errin died from a ruptured aneurysm at the age of 74. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years earlier. The show's host, Denis Brogniart, took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to commemorate the departed castaway, writing, "Thoughts for his loved ones and all the adventurers who were lucky enough to know him."

Sinisa Savija

Sweden's "Expedition Robinson 1997" was the inaugural season of the "Survivor" franchise and arguably the first reality TV competition of its kind. Bosnian refugee Sinisa Savija and 15 other castaways were stepping into metaphorical uncharted territory when they were put on Tengah Island in Malaysia. Although Savija coped with the challenges, he struggled to connect with the rest of the castaways, with Swedish being his second language. As a result, Savija was the first ever castaway to be voted off the show.

In July 1997, just four weeks after he returned from the island, Savija died by suicide aged 34. The show premiered two months after his death, and his screen time was significantly cut down due to the circumstances. Savija's loved ones attributed his suicide directly to the show and its impact on his mental health. "He became deeply depressed and agonized," said Savija's wife (via The Guardian). "He felt degraded as a person and didn't see any meaning in life." His death continued to raise questions about the ethics of reality TV in the years that followed.

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Sonja Christopher

Sonja Christopher will go down in television history as the very first contestant voted off the American version of "Survivor," after she was given the boot at Tribal Council during the show's premiere season, "Survivor: Borneo," in 2000. Competing on the show at the age of 63, Christopher was a retired teacher and music therapist who had just survived a much graver challenge — invasive breast cancer — and the end of her relationship after more than a decade. That's when she saw an article in her local newspaper about CBS holding auditions for a reality show in which 16 people would be stranded on a remote island for six-plus weeks.

Christopher only lasted three days on the show after having trouble with the first challenge, despite her (and her ukulele playing) being popular with viewers and castmates. She did not accuse the rest of the cast of ageism as some have suggested. "I was pretty beaten up," she told EW in 2020. "To this day, I still have bruises that don't go away." A native of Washington and longtime resident of Walnut Creek, California, Christopher passed away from undisclosed causes on April 26, 2024, at age 87.