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Patriotic spandex and giant Q-tips: An oral history of American Gladiators

The inside story of how a half-baked backwoods movie idea made reality TV history.

Thirty-four years ago an ironworker named Dan Carr and an Elvis impersonator named John Ferraro took over a high school gym and put on a fundraiser production for the people of Erie, Pa., originally called King of the County. The show was a Rust Belt rethinking of the coliseum spectacles of ancient Rome, in which strong men fought to the death for entertainment’s sake.

The locals who accepted this challenge were far from mythic. They were electricians, truck drivers, car dealers—anyone who would savage his neighbor for $500. The feats of strength in which they engaged were crude: arm wrestling, tug-of-war. . . . The whole thing was set to music; 5,000 people showed up.

Ferraro had the good sense to hire a camera crew, as he hoped to sell the idea as a movie. (Carr bowed out.) But when he finally got in front of Hollywood macher Samuel Goldwyn Jr., Goldwyn told Ferraro that what he had on his hands was a much smaller production, something that would work better on TV.

For seven seasons American Gladiators—revised to pit Average Joes against a team of superfit pros—enthralled a curious nation with its star-spangled spandex onesies, campy stage names, blow-dried personalities and punishing hits. When Bill Clinton copped to watching the show, it went from being a fratty, ironic viewing choice—“Star Search for the working man,” Ferraro calls it—to a metaphor for ­exceptionalism.

This is the story of a cult hit, told by the people who powered the ratings machine, from its inauspicious start in 1989 through its conclusion in ’96.

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RAW MEAT

Michael (Gemini) Horton, gladiator: Before Gladiators, I played football for the Patriots. I was trying to make the transition from athlete to actor.

Dan (Nitro) Clark, gladiator: I’d just finished playing pro football with the L.A. Rams and then in Italy. I’d moved to Hollywood to be an extra on the HBO show 1st & Ten, with O.J. Simpson. I didn’t know what an extra was back then—all I knew was that I would be playing football on TV for $125 a day. I thought that if you were on TV then you were famous and automatically hanging out with Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy; I didn’t know I would be the lowest guy on the totem pole. When that job ended, I ­couldn’t accept the failure. I’d seen O.J., Lawrence Taylor and Roger Craig on that show. And while those guys ­would’ve crushed me on the field, they ­couldn’t touch me on camera. I had a certain chutzpah that they ­didn’t. Then, right when my Hollywood dream was running on fumes, I heard about a show that was looking for athletes who were good in front of the ­camera.

Deron (Malibu) McBee, gladiator: I was working as a personal trainer when the guy riding the Lifecycle next to me saw that casting ad in the trades and said, “Dude, this sounds like you!”

Gemini: The audition in 1988 was in L.A., at Lake Balboa Park in the Valley, but I was about two hours late because I ­couldn’t figure out exactly where it was. Finally, I stopped at a store to get a six-pack of beer and some ­peanuts—I was done looking for that thing! But then two really fit girls in athletic clothing walked in and I asked them if they had been at that audition. They said, Yeah, and they told me where it was. The people who showed up were overweight, some with knee braces on. . . .

Nitro: When I tried out they had us do these stupid football drills.

Gemini: . . . and from that big group they narrowed it down to 12 people—six guys, six girls. Then six—three guys and three girls: me, Nitro and Malibu; Zap [Raye Hollitt], Sunny [Cheryl Baldinger] and Lace [Marisa Pare].

Nitro: They had us pick from a bunch of character types—double personality, babes-and-waves, loud and cocky. I chose the last one; they’d originally named that character Evander, but I came up with Nitro. They put us on camera and asked us questions in character. They asked me what I ate and I said, “raw meat.” What a tool I was.

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THE BURNING BUSH

Gemini: We shot the pilot at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center near Burbank. It was horrible. We got paid $500 for the day and they kept us there from 9 one morning till 4 a.m. the next. The things they had us doing were ridiculous, all these games rigged up to give it the aura of a sports competition. There was horse manure ­everywhere—the space was usually used for riding—but that ­wasn’t the most unbelievable thing. That would be Johnny Ferraro; he was always dressed like Elvis. Always. And the whole thing: glasses, scarves. . . . He walks into our trailer . . .

John Ferraro, co-creator and executive producer: They were in a small, little room.

Gemini:  . . . and he says, “I’m Johnny Ferraro. I own the show. And you guys are all gonna be big stars.”

Ferraro: It was almost like when you see the burning bush. I mean, I saw this thing. Even though I had only done the one small event in Erie, I saw what American Gladiators could be.

Gemini: All six of us, we’re looking at him like: We just did this s--- in horse manure, played these games that don’t make any sense, and you’re gonna make us stars? And you look like Elvis?! Yeah; good luck, pal.

Mike Adamle, announcer: The pilot was pooh-poohed by Goldwyn [head of Samuel Goldwyn Television], until he saw one event called Assault, where we had gladiators stationed at different air-gun stations, shooting tennis balls at the contestants. In particular, the sight of one of the female gladiators competing in this thing got a big reaction. On that small little moment [Goldwyn] decided we had something.

Ferraro: We edited that tape down to seven minutes and took it, along with the gladiators, to the 1988 National Association of Television Program Executives convention. This was back when syndication was in its day. We signed up stations from all over the country with a 13-­episode order. Next thing I know, we’re shooting inside Universal Studios’ Stage 27. 

Nitro: During those original tapings we ­couldn’t get enough people from the studio tour to fill the audience, so they painted faces on planks.

Ferraro: We shot that first order in two weeks, very inexpensively. The production was . . . crude. The “referee” was an ­executioner—a guy with a black hood giving the thumbs up or down [essentially disqualifying a player after a given event]. I thought, My God, all of these years of work and it all comes down to this?

Adamle: It was a constant evolution, getting the games right, getting the gladiators comfortable with the games, getting the competition to the point where it was authentically exciting. One key guy who put us over the top was our eventual referee, Larry Thompson; he was one of the Pac-10’s top football officials. He spent, like, two weeks coming up with the rules for every single game.

Ferraro: We had pitched the whole thing as a late night show, something that could go up against Saturday Night Live.

Adamle: The producers came away with the idea that our core audience was gonna be males 18 to 35. But by having men competing too, that demographic [grew to include] women. The ages shot up to 55 on the high end, down to 10 on the low end because the Gladiators were basically comic book superheroes come to life.