Bunny Ears Exclusive: Sgt. Slaughter Tells All!
Wrestling got white-hot in the mid-‘80s thanks to personalities like Ric Flair, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Sgt. Slaughter. The frowning, gurgly, drill sergeant tapped into the aggressively patriotic sentiment of the Reagan era, and Slaughter was one of the most popular faces in WWF (he was so big he even became a G.I. Joe character and action figure)! He retired years ago and faded into obscurity, but now he’s giving Bunny Ears his first interview in 20 years. You won’t believe the truth about the real guy, forever hidden under his signature campaign hat and sunglasses.
When did you start wrestling?
High school. Did it freshman and sophomore year and then quit the team when I got cast as Nathan Detroit in the school production of Guys and Dolls.
Okay, well then how did you get back to wrestling?
After Julliard, I did what every other young actor did and moved to L.A. A Wendy’s commercial and two lines on a Simon & Simon episode didn’t pay the bills, so I took a job as a wrestling coach at a diversion program for at-risk youth. Shoplifters, vandals, that kind of thing. Just a really special place for good kids who had just lost their way.
How did that lead you to the WWF?
One of my charges was a kid named Rance McMahon. Vince’s second cousin. I worked with him every day for six months, really turned him around. Vince took a liking to me, and since I could wrestle, he invited me to the WWF.
And then you were in?
Not quite. I still had to audition, and they told me to prepare an original character.
Thus, Sgt. Slaughter was born.
Well, sort of. First of all, the name is just a play on my own.
Yeah! My real name is Sargent Slaughter. My parents were hardcore Kennedy acolytes and named me after Sargent Shriver, JFK’s sister’s husband and the 1972 Democratic candidate for Vice President. The Slaughter is French — it means “he who laughs in the face of tyrants.”
So, Sgt. Slaughter comes from a long line of Democrats.
I do. Except if I had to put a label on it, I’d say I’m an anarcho-socialist.
Then why present yourself to the world as this gung-ho, jingoistic, flag-waver?
Sigh. That was not my intention. This was, what, 1983? That fascist Reagan had so brainwashed Americans into fearing anything that sniffed of Communism that he easily passed through his trickle-down bullshit and a blank check for his imperialist army. With all that in mind, I imagined some dumbass military guy, seduced by the thought of battlefield glory, with blind allegiance to Reaganism.
How did the audition play out?
I got up in front of Vince and a couple of other guys, dressed in the fatigues, with the sunglasses and hat — which I only wore to hide my premature baldness — and acted like a real asshole. I became this screaming, spitting, straight-from-a-movie idea of a drill sergeant, spouting out stuff like “I will drop you like I dropped bombs on those Commies in Grenada!” It was so over the top that I thought nobody would take it seriously.
But then they did.
Vince flipped. He told me that he’d never seen a character that so meshed with the ideals of its fanbase, and hired me on the spot. Either I’m a really good actor or a really bad actor, because he took it at face value.
Not to be blunt, but how could you live with yourself?
Not very well. I had anxiety attacks almost every night for six years. Playing Sgt. Slaughter literally gave me an ulcer. Stomach acid would rear up into my throat every time I hit the ring or called someone a filthy maggot.
Did you ever find peace?
I did, but it wasn’t easy. There’s been a lot of charity work. I chaired Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in California. And I donated probably 95 percent of my WWF earnings to progressive causes. Latino farm worker unions, health care for refugees, Mercy for Animals, that kind of thing.
I’m flummoxed by what you’ve shared with me, and a lot of my prepared questions seem trivial and unimportant now. But I guess I can ask this one — where is Sgt. Slaughter today?
Well, Sgt. Slaughter is dead, but Sargent S’laughter is alive, and well. I split my time between Haiti and Afghanistan. I work with some truly wonderful humanitarian aid groups there. And I even coach some wrestling classes!
Wow, you’ve lived a truly colorful life. Thanks for talking with us today.
One love, brother.
Image: WWF/WWE, Hasbro