Freddie Blassie, the silver-maned wrestler with a voice from the depths of the earth who made himself a hero to mat fans in the 1950s and '60s by playing the villain, has died. He was 85.
Blassie, who became a cult figure outside the ring and starred with comedian Andy Kaufman in "My Breakfast With Blassie," died of heart failure June 2 in Hartsdale, N.Y., according to Jeff Walton, a onetime wrestling publicist in Los Angeles who knew Blassie well.
A fierce competitor in the ring known for unorthodox methods and a penchant for bloodletting, Blassie was verbose and boastful. Fans might recall his interviews with local announcer Dick Lane in which he would proclaim his vast superiority over a number of lesser opponents, branding them all "pencil-neck geeks." Those colorful interviews helped make him a celebrity in the newly expanding medium of television.
Born Fred Blassman in St. Louis, Blassie played baseball and football in high school. He also reportedly excelled as a boxer. He joined the Navy at the start of World War II and started wrestling initially under the name of Sailor Fred Blassie while stationed at Port Hueneme.
After the war, Blassie returned to the Midwest and continued wrestling professionally. Using a variety of names, he wrestled the top performers of the day including Lou Thesz and Gorgeous George, but did not reach their level of popularity.
After a move to the West Coast, he tried a different promotional scheme -- that of a villain. The nastier he was in the ring, the more popular he became to fans on the other side of the ropes.
Sportswriter Jim Murray called him "the worst villain since Hitler" in a 1961 column in The Times.
Blassie, Murray wrote, "has dedicated his life to wrapping up as much hate as one man can safely carry in a lifetime. As a result he has wrought something of a revolution in the unmanly art of exhibition wrestling."
That revolution -- making the villain the hero -- put fans in the seats and money in Blassie's pocket.
He won the WWA World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship from French star Edouard Carpentier at the L.A. Sports Arena in 1961. According to Walton, Blassie's biggest achievement came Aug. 27, 1971, when he met and defeated Canadian wrestler "Golden Greek" John Tolos at the Coliseum before 25,000 wrestling fans.
Blassie held various regional titles, Walton said, including the WWA World Title on five separate occasions, the Americas' Heavyweight Title nine times and tag team belts with various partners over the years.
By the 1970s, Blassie had relocated to the East Coast where he successfully pursued his mat career. He was popular in Japan as well.
He retired from competition in the late 1970s to manage a new generation of gladiators such as Hulk Hogan.
Blassie did not just fade away after he left the ring. He worked for Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment. He did an advice segment on the "Tuesday Night Titans" TV program, made personal appearances and did radio interviews.
The film "My Breakfast With Blassie," which came out in 1983, was a spoof of "My Dinner With Andre." The camera followed Blassie and Kaufman as they ate and discussed life at a local restaurant that looked like a Denny's.
Blassie is survived by his wife, Miyako, and three children.
Funeral services will be held at noon Friday at Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, N.Y.