Talking Wrestling and Comedy with “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase
Ted DiBiase is one of the most memorable performers in the history of professional wrestling – not just because of his legendary abilities inside the ring, but for his World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) stint as The Million Dollar Man, a super-rich villain who used his wealth to humiliate fans and wrestlers alike. In particular, DiBiase became known for his diabolical laugh, a lusty snarl that resonates with fans to this day.
DiBiase – part of a legendary wresting family that includes his late father, “Iron” Mike DiBiase, and his son, Ted DiBiase Jr. – became a Christian minister after his wrestling career ended due to injury in 1993. But the 63-year-old is still connected to fans of the squared circle, and he’s about to join fellow WWE legends Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts as a retired wrestler who is now taking stories of his life to comedy clubs, including a recent stop at Absolute Comedy in Toronto. I spoke with DiBiase in late March about his Million Dollar Man persona, some of his funniest stories in and out of the ring, and the craziest characters of the wrestling business.
Wrestlers are pretty famous for their pranks on each other – or their “ribs,” as wrestling industry people like to put it. Who would you say was the greatest prankster in the business?
Well, a lot of people would say it was the late Mr. Fuji. If Fuji liked you, he really liked you. But if he didn’t like you, you’d better look out. [laughs] It was kind of like the old thing where he was smiling to your face, but he’d be stabbing you in the back. I’ve heard stories where if you’d done something that really made him angry, he’d invite you over and actually feed you a gourmet meal that had been laced with Ex-Lax.
I don’t know if this was Fuji, I don’t know who did this because nobody ever really owned up to it, but Haystacks Calhoun – a 600-pound guy – was someone who talked pretty big. One of my dad’s friends shared a story where Haystacks was in the dressing room one day, and he was saying, “All you shooters,” – and shooters in our business means you’re the real deal, and my dad was an amateur wrestler who lettered four times at Nebraska and won the AAU national heavyweight wrestling championship wrestling for the Navy in 1946, so he was regarded as the real deal – and Haystacks said, “All you shooters, I bet you can’t get me on my back,” so my dad said, “OK, let me give that a go. You get down there on your hands and knees, and I’ll get down there in the referees’ position, and when somebody says ‘go,’ we’ll see if we can get you on your back.”
And so old Haystacks got down there on his hands and knees, and my dad backed up and kicked him as hard as he could right in the solar plexus. All he could hear was his air going out, and my dad rolled him over like a baby.
Then there was the story of Haystacks having to go on an international trip, and somebody Ex-Laxed him, so to speak. And so he gets on this plane for twelve hours or whatever it was, only he’s too big to get in the airplane bathroom. As the story was told to me, they had to take him to the back of the plane and they gave him a mail sack to go to the bathroom in, and they had to hold a curtain up so nobody could see him. Can you imagine those poor flight attendants?
Then I’ve seen things where [famous Nasty Boys tag team member] Brian Knobbs one night was on a plane, and Brian is a great guy, really, but he’s like Dennis the Menace – sometimes he just won’t shut up and he’ll go around and bother everybody. Well, he finally gets in his seat and passes out, and Steve Keirn goes to the flight attendants and asks if they have any fingernail polish, and they were more than happy to give it to him.
So Steve went and shaved one of Brian’s eyebrows off, painted his fingernails red, and across his forehead he wrote, in lipstick, “You’re a dumbass.” Brian wakes up and sees his fingernails painted and says “Oh, ha ha ha, very funny,” but doesn’t look in a mirror or anything, so he finally gets to the airport to meet his wife who’s waiting to pick him up. He’s coming down the escalator, and she sees him with one eyebrow shaved and reads what was on his forehead, and she tells him, “You are a dumbass.”
The late Owen Hart had a reputation as one of wrestling’s best-ever ribbers. What are your memories of Owen’s sense of humor?
Oh yeah, Owen was well-known for that. Sometimes we would wrestle in places where you’d go into locker rooms that had benches that were drilled into the ground. You couldn’t move them. And as a rib, what Owen would do was he’d take a chain and he’d wrap one part of it around the posts of that bench, and then run it through the straps on your travel bag and padlock it. And so you’d come back from the ring and your gear and all your stuff inside it is secured to the floor. There’s no way to set it free unless you tear up your bag or get a pair of bolt cutters. So that was a serious rib.
You’d made a name for yourself in wrestling long before you came to the WWF in 1987, but moving to that company gave you more of a worldwide platform. Were the initial vignettes for the Million Dollar Man character as fun to do as they looked? The segment where you offered $500 to a kid if he could bounce a basketball 15 times in a row, only to sabotage him after 14 times, certainly had a humor to it.
Oh gosh yes, we had a blast. And of all those things we did, the one I get asked most about is that little boy with the basketball. Everybody wants to know if we really jilted that kid, and the answer is, of course not, it was rehearsed. But that whole thing was TV, and anything we did on TV, especially with a kid, was rehearsed. And in rehearsal it was fine.
But the kid was six years old. And when we did it live, I had to be The Million Dollar Man, and I had to be totally hardcore. So when I looked at him – and I’ve got a really deep voice – I said, “When you don’t get the job done, kid, you don’t get the money,” it scared the heck out of him, and with crocodile tears, he ran to his mother. He couldn’t have done it any better. And of course, when I got to the back, everybody was high-fiving each other going, “That was awesome, that was great.” And I said, “I’m glad you’re all happy, now can you find me an armored vehicle to get me out of the building?” Fans were very hot at me.
You worked for Vince McMahon for a long time, and he’s clearly a fan of broad humor, almost an old-time vaudeville style in some senses. Was he the one who encouraged your famous laugh, or was that something you developed and recognized fans responded to?
That laugh is actually an exaggeration of the way I really laugh. I cut this promo one day, and at the end of it, I just really bellowed it out like that, and Vince just happened to be walking by. And he stuck his head in the door and said, “Ted, that’s the Million Dollar Man. I want to hear that laugh every time you cut an interview.” That was insight on his part. I tell everybody all the time: I had a 25-year wrestling career, and I’m most known for laughing.
You also worked with Andre The Giant toward the end of his life. What are your memories of working and traveling with him?
Andre was genuinely a good man. He was funny and he was fun to be around. It was pure joy to travel with him. Of course, he could drink, now. A lot of people didn’t realize it, but he had severe back problems and health issues that came along with being a giant, so there were times when he was just very uncomfortable and he was always looking to be comfortable. He hated drugs – he was very anti-drug, wouldn’t take any pain pills – but he would sedate himself by drinking. But I’ll be honest with you, in all the time I was with him, and I’ve seen him consume a lot of alcohol, I never saw him stagger or slur a word. He was always under control.
This new comedy tour is something different for you, but as a minister, you’re hardly new to speaking in front of large groups of people. What do you have to change as far as making the adjustment to comedy clubs?
I would just say it right up front, if you come to hear me, you’re not going to hear Andrew Dice Clay type of material. Vulgarity, in my mind, is not cool. It’s not going to be that kind of comedy. It’s stories from the road, on the road and off the road. And it was so successful the one time I did it, I just took a chance, and Jake The Snake Roberts and Mick Foley have both done this, so I gave it a try and the response has been just phenomenal. And fans will get an opportunity to ask me questions as well, and in answering them, a lot of times that will trigger other stories to tell them.
I think with a lot of comics, their gift is improv. They don’t have a script. They’ll have a couple of good ideas they start with, and go from there. And it’s the same in wrestling. The only thing I ever knew for certain in wrestling was exactly how it would end.
And if I’d had a history with a wrestler, if we’d ever had a couple of matches or a feud, I might say “Okay, the last time people saw us in this city, this is how it ended, so maybe we should start differently.” But everything after that was improv, and that’s the real art of wrestling. A lot of these kids who wrestle today, they map their whole match out, and you can’t do that for an hour. That’s what I feel is like something that’s missing to a degree now.
There’s comedy in wrestling, and there’s unintentional comedy along the lines of the Gobbledy Gooker and The Shockmaster. Is there something along those lines that stands out for you as far as making you laugh when that wasn’t the initial intent of it?
Poor Hector Guererro was the Gobbledy Gooker. They make this costume for him, and they didn’t realize it, but the way that thing was made, they put a spotlight on him and he can’t see anything – absolutely nothing. It’s just a great big bright light, so he’s basically out there walking blind. I felt for him.
Adam Proteau writes about entertainment, culture and sports; his work has appeared in outlets including The Hockey News, ESPN.com, The Toronto Star, Playbill.com, The Canadian Press, and TheGlobeAndMail.com.