Viceland Reprises Fritz Von Erich as ‘The Great Santini’

Published May 7th, 2019, Uncategorized

by Irvin Muchnick

 

Some folks have been asking me what I thought of the Viceland documentary The Last of the Von Erichs. You can view it for yourself at https://www.viceland.com/en_us/video/the-last-of-the-von-erichs/5c1a9c65be407707c961c831.

Short answer: Viceland has packaged everything very predictably for its “Dark Side of the Ring” format.

My longer answer is a rumination on my 1988 article about Fritz Von Erich and his kids for Penthouse magazine. This was a foundational piece of my unorthodox freelance writing career, and also a bit of a touchstone for how pro wrestling tropes wormed their way into every corner of American life — now including, of course, the White House. Before discussing all that, let’s review the documentary.

Especially for someone as jaded as myself on the manufactured narrative of the Von Erichs as some kind of parallel-universe backwash of the Kennedy family curse, it’s mostly same old same old. People have commented that Kevin, the now craggy-faced sole survivor, makes for compelling optics, and he does. And my thoroughgoing contempt for this family of Bible-beating, hypocritical, manipulative, shameless, pious, pompous, phony, and ultimately self-destructive liars and believers in their own hype is leavened by an appreciation that their pain in general, and Kevin’s burden in particular, is real. Death of a very young son in a fluke accident. Second death of a star wrestler son from … something. Third death of a not-so-star wrestler son:  suicide. Fourth death of a not-so-star wrestler son: suicide. Fifth death of the biggest star wrestler son of them all (who also secretly performed for years on one foot after the other was amputated because of a motorcycle accident injury): suicide.

Now that is unreal.

So as to give the whole deal some credibility and cautionary-tale fatalism and gravitas, Viceland throws in, a la carte, the commentary voices of Jim Cornette and Dave Meltzer. The problem is that Jack “Fritz Von Erich” Adkisson was no mere cautionary tale of what can happen when you get a little carried away with your enthusiasms. Yes, the Kennedys had feet of clay, too. But only the Von Erichs went full Elmer Gantry. They took the excesses of the American dream machine to primal scream. On the 1-to-11 scale of the guitarist’s amp in This Is Spinal Tap, they hit a 12 in loathsomeness.

I might not be laying it on quite so thick if the Viceland piece had come up with a better punchline. Captive, as documentaries always are, to the visual and the sentimental, this one concludes with Kevin in elegiac exile in Hawaii, superficially reflective, and doing what wrestling junkies do best, which is to proceed to push his own sons into a business with both obvious allure and lurking pathologies. So it’s a promo for Ross and Marshall “Von Erich,” the third generation of a wrestling dynasty!

Where did I leave that bucket?

Kevin’s bottom line is that dad Fritz was “a great man.” What it comes down to, then, is a nonfiction version of The Great Santini, that movie starring Robert Duvall as a delusional, autocratic, hyper-macho military patriarch, which ends with the son petering off into mimes of the dead great man’s memes.

As a product of television, either large screen or hand-held device, the Viceland is certainly powerful, and it is admirably accessible to wrestling fans and non-fans like. Here are a few further random technical notes and reservations.

 

  • There’s a major narrative hole in the failure to set up, at least briefly, the story arc that sent David, Kerry, and Kevin into box-office and global television orbit from their base in Dallas. That was the angle of the heel turn of their erstwhile friends, the Freebirds, at the 1982 holiday show. Three years later, Hulk Hogan would get over like no one ever before, and the late Roddy Piper would spend the rest of his life reminding everyone that he had had an indispensable role. “There’s no Muhammad Ali without Joe Frazier,” Piper said. Similarly, there would have been no Von Erich legend without Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy, who don’t earn a second on The Last of the Von Erichs.

 

  • While I’m not going to do a chapter-and-verse on Fritz’s lies, I gagged at the coverage of David’s 1984 death in a Tokyo hotel room as a settled case of enteritis. (David is the “from … something” listing seven paragraphs above.) Look, I don’t know for certain what caused David’s death, but I do know that the family put out multiple “official” and contradictory stories — so it’s fair to speculate that the real explanation is drugs. The late Bruiser Brody told the late Larry Matysik that he, Brody, flushed David’s supply of Placidyl, a sleep aid, down the toilet as soon as he encountered the corpse. In turn, Larry told me, and that’s what I published in Penthouse. Also, when I informed Fritz of this prior to publication, Fritz replied through a spokesman that he would promptly send me a copy of the Japanese death certificate. Needless to add, he never did.

 

  • A word about the retrospective nonsense surrounding the introduction of Lance, the putative Von Erich cousin. Viceland would have us believe that this was some tipping point for fans in the slope from verisimilitude to fake. I’m not so sure about that. How uniquely fake is a fake cousin for people (and an industry) that do things like Fritz’s contrived heart attack (all the better for “shoot-work” coverage on the local television news) and his wheeling out the pathetic Mike in a wheelchair as “the Living Miracle,” and as the come-on for a Cotton Bowl show? When I was reporting my Penthouse piece, my clear memory is that everyone was still rationalizing Lance. That he turned out to be a disaster was a verdict of the marketplace. And the verdict of the marketplace wasn’t that it was right or wrong — just that it failed commercially.

 

*****

Some readers already know the following Penthouse background. Those who don’t and are interested can read on.

In 1979 I moved to New York from my native St. Louis. I am a nephew of Sam Muchnick, the legendary St. Louis promoter and National Wrestling Alliance president, and before his retirement in 1982, the most powerful figure in an industry whose landscape was piecemeal before Vince McMahon consolidated and conquered it.

In 1983 I watched the cable television wars unfold, and I decided, in an epiphany that today seems quaint and dull, that it was emblematic of Reagan-era deregulation … modern media expansion .. transformation of popular culture in the silver age of the American empire, after Edward Gibbon. Plus — let’s not put too fine a point on it — the Decline of Western Civilization.

I failed to convince book publishers that there was a critical mass of an audience both were interested in this subject and inclined to buy books. However, I did gain some traction as an author of long-form behind-the-scenes journalism about the peculiar personalities and institutions of pro wrestling. Such journalism is now commonplace.

“Born-Again Bashing,” my takedown of the Von Erichs in Penthouse, was an early example. It was selected for a volume entitled Best Magazine Articles: 1988. It was written after Mike killed himself, but years before first Chris and then Kerry followed.

Joan Rivers’ Late Show on the new Fox network, her failed mano a mano with Johnny Carson, was going down, and Rivers had been replaced by an amiable but clueless game show host named Ross Shafer, whose producers flew me to Los Angeles for a fully unprepared segment that makes for cringeworthy retrospective viewing on my YouTube page (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNaq_NBWhsk). I hopped down and back to the Bay Area while my wife was a week late delivering the first of our four children. All excited about the level of publicity my work was generating, Penthouse signed me to a two-article contract for more wrestling. The first of these was an overview of the Japanese wrestling scene, featuring an exclusive transcontinental interview with Antonio Inoki; for reasons never explained, Penthouse killed it just prior to scheduled publication in its 20th anniversary edition. So it goes.

When manager Percy Pringle — the late William Moody, who would go on to fame in WWE as the Undertaker’s cohort “Paul Bearer” — resigned from Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling, the letter concluded: “When I read the Penthouse story, I knew the dream was over.”

Like my early exposure of the cover-up of Jimmy Snuka’s probable murder of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino in a Pennsylvania motel room in 1983, the Von Erich piece floats around the Internet in pirate reprints. But the authoritative version is in the collection Wrestling Babylon, published by ECW Press in 2007. Next year ECW will be putting out a third “historical edition” of my second book, Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, which was first published in 2009. I’ll have more to say about that project in a few months.