Johnny Valiant

Wrestling with his past: Johnny Valiant Tells All, By Kenny Herzog

In the middle of a tiny stage at the forefront of the Theater for the New City in Manhattan, a middle-aged man with graying curly hair and a mammoth, 230-pound frame is flanked by a table and chair, as well as old wrestling posters and memorabilia. He hugs his microphone, peers into the intimately situated crowd and sets sail on a 90-minute one-man show that slices and dices his days as a professional wrestler with animated humor and unexpected sensitivity. Facial expressions constantly mutating, the tone and accent of his voice shifting and shaping itself around whatever he's reminiscing about at that moment, he sometimes sits on his chair and contemplates, only to burst back up in an animated impersonation of former fellow grapplers.

The man is Johnny Valiant, two-time tag-team champion in the 1970s for Vince McMahon Senior's World Wide Wrestling Federation, and later, well-known manager for Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine in Vince McMahon, Jr.'s 1980s incarnation of the World Wrestling Federation. And this is a taste of what it's like to experience his new one-man show, An Evening With Johnny Valiant, which is running each Saturday night through the end of November at the Theater for the New City on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

"It's an improvisational slice of a pro wrestler as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, to a young adult obtaining different world championships and whatnot...not at all scripted," explains the 56-year-old Valiant, who now makes his home on the west side of Manhattan.

"It certainly is not an exposé," he says, "but there was a lot of funny things that happened [in my career] and probably a lot of pathetic things as well. When I do my one-man shows, I don't play to the audience at all. I'm just doing an internal monologue, they just happen to be there along for the ride.

"I'm not like Woody Allen that used to write 150 jokes a day," he later muses. And impressively, he's also gone into this with no real training, relying exclusively on a combination of his own memories and the creative impulses that turn them into something worth paying money to see.

Valiant's flamboyant in-ring persona was as helpful in ascending up the sport's ladder, as it was toward eliciting homophobic jeers from capacity crowds for his then-flashy leather-and-shades attire. He rose to prominence with his tag-team partner and "brother," Jimmy Valiant, and manager, Captain Lou Albano (who you might recall as Cyndi Lauper's dad in the "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" video), and was ultimately a part of the profession over the course of five decades. His tenure with the world-famous WWF, however, came to a halt in 1990.

"It wasn't really smooth," Valiant admits. "Being that we have no retirement or we have no 401K, I was more or less just released and I just took it with a grain of salt and thanked McMahon for his employment over the years."

He also confesses to being disappointed in not remaining with the company (even if behind-the-scenes), because he and Vince Jr. had attended military school in Virginia together as teenagers.

"I would have thought I would have been one of the ones he would have kept around, but I was not," he says with a hint of remorse. "But it's a [transition] that I probably never really have, not so much forgave him for letting me go, but I would have liked to still been involved in it. That transition's seen me do a lot of adjustments with different jobs and whatnot."

From there, the Pittsburgh native moved to New York in the hopes of an acting career. Recently, Valiant has been seen as a prison official on the HBO drama Oz and a bodyguard for mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi on The Sopranos. Overall though, the acting game has proved more difficult for a former wrestling legend than a current superstar like The Rock. As a result, Valiant turned away from fiction 10 years ago and toward his past, crafting his unique standup and improv act. His dramatization of sharing a room with 7-foot, 4-inch Andre the Giant while the behemoth stomped around in the nude and uttered the words, "I'm lonely" is, pardon the cliché, fall-out-of-your-seat funny.

An Evening...has gotten some notice from the likes of The Village Voice and Time Out New York, the latter calling it, "An exorcism of the demons one acquires on the sleeper-hold circuit." Even Darren Aronofsky, director of Requiem for a Dream, has been seen at one of Valiant's performances. But does this compare to either the massive adulation or hatred of thousands of fans packed into an arena?

"Oh yeah, totally," Valiant says without hesitation. "I feel the sparks and the creative juices. Getting into the ring is like getting onto the stage. It's very much a parallel experience."

Valiant has also been known to talk about the trappings of being a professional wrestling superstar in his generation; becoming so consumed by your character that Dr. Jekyll begins to overwhelm Hyde. While the upholding of a wrestler's persona is no longer required to sustain the believability of the product, it would be hard to imagine a member of the sport's primary insurgence would find much to favor in today's immoral, over-the-top WWE spectacles.

"I don't think it's better," he says of the modern version of pro wrestling. "They go down a lot of different roads we would have never been allowed to do years ago, with the sexual overtones and whatnot; all for the purpose, of course, of the reaction of the fans. And I guess it requires a lot more for people's attention nowadays, or else they're gonna change the channel on ya, and heaven forbid they should do that...There's no sense and logic in what these fellows do to themselves today."

As much as everything is out on the table with today's wrestlers and they are allowed to drop their character as soon as they leave the arena, Valiant reveals there's not a whole lot to uncover about the Hulk Hogans, Greg Valentines and more mysterious wrestlers of generations past with whom he's had a chance to work.

"The crazy thing is I managed Hogan, I managed Beefcake, I went to military school with Vince, I traveled the world with a lot of these guys, but in all sincerity, I can honestly say I know nothing about them," he says. "It's all surface. Whatever I knew about them was only a dressing room or maybe in a restaurant or something. Maybe that's the way people want it. There's no communication or connection with us for some reason."

For any athletes suddenly too old to participate in their sport, but lacking an equivalent desire to do anything else, it can be a rough road toward carving out a new life. One look at the number of former wrestlers deceased or living in depressed conditions, from Curt "Mr. Perfect" Henning to Jake "The Snake" Roberts, is proof of that. Valiant, on the other hand, seems to have thing in perspective.

"At my age, I'm quite fortunate to be pursuing a career which I certainly have no business being in, because I'm not an actor and I certainly don't look at myself as a comedian," he laughs. "However, I can do both. And one of these days, maybe I'll get a chance to do something with some merit, but for right now, it's going to be Theater for the New City."


Media Man Australia Interviews

Johnny Valiant - 10th June 2003

Evan Ginzburg - 26th May 2003

Jake "The Snake" Roberts - 3rd June 2003

Peter Franklin, New York City Taxi Driver - 18th September 2003

Elliot Goblet - 20th January 2003

Liam Cody, The Gorskys - 9th November 2003

Related links

Article: The Great Yankee Promoters

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Wrestling Then & Now

Wrestling Then & Now showcase on Media Man Australia

HBO: The Sopranos

An Evening with Johnny Valiant - 28th March 2004 - New England Championship Wrestling

Johnny Valiant: The Professional Wrestling Legend/Actor and Comedian (Credit: NECW)

As a two-time World Wide Wrestling Federation tag team champion, "Luscious" Johnny Valiant sold out huge arenas worldwide and has many a story to tell. And as an actor, stand-up, and improv artist, he's worked with the best that show business has to offer.

In "An Evening With Johnny Valiant" the WWF Hall of Famer tells his life story - and what a story it is! From appearing in the WWF's WrestleMania before 93,000 people to a recurring role on The Sopranos, Johnny has seen and done it all.

Fans of professional wrestling as well as great comedy and theater won't want to miss "An Evening With Johnny Valiant". This current Off Broadway hit is being presented in this exclusive one night only New England area performance, Sunday night, March 28th at Good Time Emporium, 30 Assembly Square Drive in Somerville, MA.


Jimmy Valiant