DATE April 18, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Gary Leffew discusses his career as a bull rider
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in this week for Terry Gross.
My guest, Gary Leffew, is a veteran of what's been called the most violent
eight seconds in sports. For years, he was a rodeo bull rider. He's now an
actor, writer, creative consultant to the HBO series "Deadwood," and operator
of a bull riding school at his ranch in Nipomo, California. But in 1970,
Leffew was national bull riding champion. His mastery of the craft and
ability to capture the experience in words set him apart from other cowboys
and led to a career outside the ring.
Unlike rodeo events like cattle roping or bronco riding, the bull ride isn't
based on tasks performed on the ranch. It's sheer daredevil fun, and the
thrill is rooted in real danger. Bulls can weigh a ton, and are chosen for
their nasty temperament. Riders have, on rare occasion, been killed by angry
bulls and injuries are common. When a bull somehow escaped from a rodeo in
1937 and terrorized the citizens of Ft. Worth, police had to fire 40 shots
into him to bring the animal down. Gary Leffew has survived hundreds of close
encounters with bulls. I spoke to him about his life in and out of the rodeo.
Well, Gary Leffew, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. GARY LEFFEW (Former Bull Riding Champion): Hey, it's a pleasure to be
DAVIES: Good to have you. Do you remember the first time you got on a bull?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yes, I do.
DAVIES: Yeah? Tell us about it.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, I was about 19 years old. I was just out of high school,
looking for adventure, going in a lot of wrong directions. And so a friend of
mine had started riding bulls a year before I had, and he was at a rodeo in
Clovis, California, which--actually, I was in there with a bunch of
motorcycle-riding buddies of mine and I run into Videll(ph) and he invited me
down to come watch him ride at the rodeo. So as things turned out, at this
redneck joint where we were hanging out--my hair was long and I think I had a
beard at the time, so I looked more like a hippie than a cowboy--and so one of
these rednecks, you know, went out of his way to pick a fight with me. And
I'd wrestled through high school and so I was small but I could handle myself
pretty good. So me and the big redneck went outside, and I come back and they
come dragging him back in beat to hell. And after a while, I think the
cowboys seen that hey, this little guy, this little hippie can fight, you
So when I was behind the chutes waiting for Videll to ride, there was a bull
behind him that someone was turning out. I said, `How come there's nobody on
that one?' And they said, `The guy's scared of it.' And I said, `Well, I'm
not scared of it.' And so these cowboys--you never seen a bunch of cowboys
get so friendly. They put a hat on me and put some spurs on me and put me
down on this bull, and as it turned out, he was a real notorious bull that had
broke a guy's jaw the week before and broke a guy's arm the week before that.
He was--he not only bucked but he was really mean, and he had one eye missing.
I mean, he was about as scary-looking a bull as you ever seen.
Mr. LEFFEW: So when I was sitting down on this 1,800 pounds of mad-as-hell
bull, you know, I was about as scared as you're going to get. I mean, my
chest was just heaving with adrenaline. But, you know, it was just something
that, you know, I was going to do, you know. I just wanted to see what it was
like, and I didn't go very far. Went a couple of jumps, went down on his head
and he slung me about 20 feet, and lucky I come away unhurt. But it was the
thrill of my life. I really found my calling that day.
DAVIES: So you find your way to the rodeo circuit, and get pretty good at it,
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah. Well, I wasn't real good at first. I was good enough just
to get by, you know. It was different times then. It was, you know, the
early '60s and you know, motels were $6 and gas was 29 cents, and so living
was pretty cheap and it was easy, and there was a lot of guys around then that
didn't make a lot of money, but it didn't take a lot of money to get down the
road then. But you know, I kind of fell in with those guys. They were what
they called the brush hands, the fun-loving guys of the game. And...
DAVIES: So, what? You'd drive a pickup from one town to the next and...
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, yeah. You go to...
DAVIES: ...you hit the barn and wait for the...
Mr. LEFFEW: You go town to town to town, you know. You'd work about 150
rodeos a years, so that'd be 150 different towns that you'd be making in a
year. Fun life, fun life. It--you know, when I first started, it didn't
matter that I made a lot of money, just if I made enough money to keep going.
That was all I really cared. But when I got married and as responsibilities
started to show up in my life, then it was fish or cut bait. I had to start
getting better, and ironically, that was when I really went downhill. I
started worrying about whether I would be able to make it or not, would I be
able to make a living doing this and support a family. And whenever you
worry, I found out later that you take an emotionalized thought and you keep
running it through your mind, it becomes an order. And if you're worrying
about something going wrong, then something going wrong becomes an order.
So I become hypnotized by my own negative thinking, and I went six months in a
row without staying on a single bull. My wife was pregnant, we was broke. I
was about to the point where I was going to quit the game, and I got turned on
to a positive-thinking book called "Psycho-Cybernetics," and it really turned
my life around.
DAVIES: All right. So before we talk about how you learned to do this and do
it well, let's acquaint our audience with what the bull riding competition is
like. The riders come in and they draw a bull at random, right?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah, they draw...
DAVIES: And you want to get a bull that's as tough as possible, right,
because that gives you a higher score? Tell us about the scoring system and
what the rules are.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, the--it's pretty simple. The tougher the bull, the higher
you're scored on him, you know. So ideally you want to get the toughest bull
there if you're really good. Sometime those really good bulls hardly ever get
rode, so the guys that get those get throwed off, so you might win on a
middle-of-the-road bull, you know. Sometimes I've even seen it where you win
on a bull that's not very good at all because all the other bulls are so good
they throw everybody else off, so...
DAVIES: Now--right. And to get a score, you got to stay on for eight
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah, you got to stay on for eight seconds.
DAVIES: And if don't stay on eight seconds, you don't get a score. But if
you stay on for eight seconds, it's a matter of how tough the bull was and how
good your ride was, right?
Mr. LEFFEW: That's right. And mainly it's just--you know, the riding is just
pretty much hanging on. If you hang on and stay on that bull and he's the
best bull rode, you win first.
DAVIES: And what are the rules about what you can do with your hands and
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, you got to keep one hand in the air. You hang on with one
hand, and spurring is worth more points, but usually if you're spurring, it's
a bull that's not that good, you know. If you're spurring a really good bull,
you'll get an extra point or two, but it's--usually when they're that good,
you're so busy getting them rode that there's not a lot of time for spurring.
DAVIES: All right. So when you get on a bull, your bull does not have a
saddle, right? Tell us what is around the bull.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, there's just a loosely braided bull--what they call a bull
rope. It's just a rope with a handhold braided in it, has a bell hanging to
it. The bell kind of accentuates the action and creates more excitement as
the bull's bucking. Pisses the bull off a little bit. He'll buck a little
more when that bell a-ringing there, because he don't like it. But you know,
essentially you're hanging on with one hand, you got to keep the other hand in
the air. You can't touch it during that eight seconds, and so you--when they
open that gate, you got eight seconds that you got to stay on.
Mr. LEFFEW: I know that don't seem like a long time in normal living, but as
Einstein says, time is relative to what you're doing.
DAVIES: Oh, that sounds like a long, long time to me. Now does the rider
actually put the rigging on the bull himself?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah. He--yeah.
DAVIES: Now what's the purpose of that?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, you have--you know, there's rope-makers that makes ropes
for the cowboys, and some like them, you know, a little bigger handhold, some
like a little smaller handhold. Some like a hard twist, some like a soft
twist. There--it's just all individual taste, what's comfortable in your
DAVIES: OK. So now I'd like you to take us through that eight seconds. I
mean, you're on that bull. How do you secure--start with how you secure your
hand and what you're feeling as you're waiting, and then what happens when
that gate opens.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, you know, it's--you know, you put your--there's rosin on
your rope, and that rosin is designed to create a grip, you know, because
these bulls, you got 1,800 to 2,400 pounds of bull under you, you know, it's
a--they create a lot of power on your hand. So it takes a really good grip to
hang on to that rope, so the rosin helps hang on. So you rosin your rope up
real good, and then you warm it up just before you get on. You put your hand
in the handhold, then they pull the rope up snug on the bull to where it's not
going to run around on his back, and then you take a wrap around your hand.
And a lot of guys run it out through the finger. Just gives them a little
more grip, and makes it a little harder to get your hand out. So that's why
some of those guys you'll see hang up and get dragged around out there once
they buck off.
But then you slide up your rope, and when you nod your head they open the gate
and you try to pick up the timing and the rhythm of that bull and try to pick
up a flow with him.
DAVIES: What do you mean by the rhythm, the flow?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, as an animal is bucking, you know, he's coming away up in
the front end, he's dropping that front end, then he's kicking up with his
hind end. So every one of them has a little bit of a rhythm, you know.
They're--and you try to pick that rhythm up. It's much like dancing, only the
rider is on the female side. The bull's the leader, you're the follower. And
so you pick up his leads, and you--and his rhythm, and you try
to--you--there's no muscling anything that big and that powerful. It's more
get in flow with them and try to be one with them.
DAVIES: I've read that you say that you try to throw power back at the bull.
What do you mean?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, it's--I don't think you throw power back at them, but you
try to be one with their power. Once I got really good at riding, when I
started--got into meditation, I learned to drop off the conscious--out of the
conscious level of thinking and get down to lower levels of thinking where
everything happens much faster and much quicker and you have much more of a
sense of rhythm there. And also when you get down to a lower level, you're
kind of at the same level where the animal thinks and you're able to kind of
pick up his thought pattern, where you know where he's going as he's going
there. And you kind of--you become one with him and you flow with him. It's
kind of a Zen-type thing, but it really works.
DAVIES: Well, yeah, tell us a little bit about that. You said earlier that
when you started really concentrating on doing well because you had a family,
you did worse. How did you get into a different mind-set for this?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, the reason I was doing worse because I was actually,
without knowing how the mind works, is whenever you--I was worrying. I was
worrying a lot, and whenever you worry, you take an end result, a negative end
result, and the worry process is--you run it repetitiously through your mind
so much that the mind thinks it's real. And it also thinks that that is what
you want to happen, so you can be in the middle of the best ride you ever
started and all of a sudden self-sabotage takes over, and takes you right out
of the game. And that was happening over and over again, and I couldn't
understand why I would get started but I couldn't finish.
And then when I started to learn what self-sabotage was and how the mind
works, then I'd learn to reverse the worry process. I started to worry about
how good it would feel to be in perfect time with a great bull, to, you know,
what the sound of the crowd would sound like because they were screaming,
standing on their feet just screaming their lungs out, just that adrenaline
rush of being 15 feet off the ground and in complete control on something that
out of control. And by worrying in that direction, I'm sending in one message
after another of what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like
and what it feels like to win, you know, to be in winning situations.
And then you take it on through to stepping off on the ground to a standing
ovation, going to the secretary's office to pick up a check, pick up a buckle,
drive off in your new car. You know, you just see this totally different
lifestyle from what you've been living and the way you've been living. You
start to see it differently in your mind, and you keep rehearsing it and
pretty soon it becomes real.
DAVIES: It sounds almost as if when you're on this--What?--ton of angry bull
in one of the most scary, intense situations anybody could face, you're
Mr. LEFFEW: It--you're very relaxed. When you're doing it right, it is the
most euphoric experience that you'll ever--that you can imagine, you know,
because this bull is so out of control and so powerful, yet you're at one with
him. You're just totally at one, and it's--you know, it's an incredible ride.
DAVIES: So when you're on the ride, I mean, this heaving, thrashing animal
will send you how high into the air?
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, jeez, you know, I've seen guys throwed 20 feet in the air.
You know, it didn't seem like they'd ever come down. And then, you know,
gravity takes its course.
DAVIES: Did that happen to you?
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, I've been throwed up there. You bet I have. You know, I've
been throwed into fences, I've been throwed over fences, I--you know, the
worst thing is when you get--you hit the ground and that ton of animal comes
down on you and steps on you.
DAVIES: Oh, that must yank you out of that Zen state pretty quickly.
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, yeah, but when you--and you find when you're in that Zen
state you don't get there very--you don't--that doesn't happen very often.
And it's more--every time that I look back and a wreck happened, it was--I was
caught in the conscious thought process.
DAVIES: My guest is former champion bull rider Gary Leffew. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're speaking with Gary Leffew. He was the bull riding champion in
1970. He now teaches bull riding at his ranch in California. He is also a
writer and actor and a creative consultant for the HBO series "Deadwood."
You described achieving sort of a Zenlike state to--and that it made you a
really much better bull rider, and I'm wondering kind of how that attitude
went over with other cowboys, who, I could imagine, might kind of think that
was pretty sissy.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, really at first, there was--everyone was--you know, I was
kind of a laughingstock for a little while, you know. They were saying,
`Zen,' you know, `positive thinking.' You know, they were just throwing all
this stuff at me and making comments. But the bottom line was, is I just kept
riding rank bulls and I kept winning. And pretty soon the guys that were the
most vocal and were making the most fun would--I was telling them about this
book I'd read, this technique, and they were coming around, they'd have that
book in their coat or something. And they'd try to find a time when no one
was around, and they'd go, `Hey, Leffew, what page was that on?' They'd want
some tips, you know.
DAVIES: How is riding a bull different from riding a wild horse?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, the horses don't come after you after it's over, you know.
And they're--you know...
DAVIES: Oh, my God.
Mr. LEFFEW: ...you either ride them or you don't. But when you get off a
bull, there's--you know, you can get stepped on, you can get run over, hooked,
and you know, a lot of--most of your injuries happen after even the ride is
DAVIES: How--what's the right way to dismount after you've lasted your eight
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, what you do is you kind of--as the bullfighters really come
in and when they turn the bull what they call away from your hand--it's away
from the hand that you're hanging on with--and you will kind of slip over on
the side, but at the same time, you'll slide back to their hip. And as they
kick, the kicking action of that hip, and as you're ro--and as they're
turning, it kicks you--you ride that kick out and away from them, so you might
land 15 feet away from them. And when you get real good at it, you'll slide
back there and you'll ride that kick out there and land on your feet with your
hands in the air. You know, it really looks cool and it's fun to do.
DAVIES: What made you stop competing in rodeos? When did you know it was
Mr. LEFFEW: Twenty years of doing it, 20 years of doing it, really. I--it's
like any athletic game. You start to lose a step, and once you do, what used
to come easy starts to become hard, and you know, it's--you just--you
hate--any athlete hates when that time comes when you just--you don't have
that edge anymore. And you know, the bulls are--you know, they just keep
bringing on new ones. They keep breeding them and bringing on fresh ones, you
know. So they're not getting any slower, and when you start to slow up, they
start to get an edge on you and it starts to hurt.
Mr. LEFFEW: And so every rider knows when it's time to go. I lasted longer
than most. Being around for 20 years is a long time.
DAVIES: Now you were the world bull riding champion in 1970, is that right?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yes, sir.
DAVIES: Yeah. Now the game, I suspect, has changed a lot. I mean, I gather
there's sort of--has it become more sponsors, more...
Mr. LEFFEW: Much more, yeah.
Mr. LEFFEW: There was--you know, nobody had sponsors in those days. Now it
has become really big-league, big-league sponsors, lots of money. The
winners---I think there's a million-dollar bonus for the guy that wins the
championship, over and above what he wins. So he gets a million there, he
makes another million from winning the year-round championship, and then all
your sponsor bonuses, you know. So it's--you know, for--a champion can make,
you know, $2 million to $3 million anymore.
DAVIES: So they have trainers and teachers and groupies and...
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, they have it all. They're like rock stars. They--instead of
going to a rodeo every day, they--the bull riders today, they go to one event
a week, maybe two, and they're both on the weekend. And so they have the week
to just play, where in my day, we were going somewhere every day. You had to,
to make a living.
DAVIES: Do you--I mean, do you think that the lifestyle is less authentic?
Is it corrupted, the game?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, I think it's become more professionalized. It's--you
know, I was talking about those guys I was running when I first started, the
brush hands. When the Arabs raised the price of gas the first time and I
think it went from 29 cents to 50 cents, and then everything else started
going up, inflation really started hitting hard, those guys started
disappearing because they couldn't sleep 10 guys to a $6 room anymore. Rooms
started getting expensive, gas started getting expensive and they weren't
making any more money than they ever did. So it was a really fun bunch of
guys that disappeared from the game. But they'd be up all night picking
guitars and drinking whiskey and carousing with women. And they were
fun-loving, but when it come time to ride they were always too full of whiskey
and too short of sleep to make much difference in the riding game. But man,
were they fun to hang around.
DAVIES: Is what--I read that groupies in rodeos are called `buckle bunnies,'
is that right?
Mr. LEFFEW: Buckle bunnies, rosin baggers--there's a lot of different names
DAVIES: Now explain buckle bunnies. What is it?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, buckle bunnies, I think, just--you know, a lot of times
the cowboys, they'll get an excess of buckles they've won, you know, they'll
give one of these old gals a buckle or, you know--I don't where the original
name come from, but they're...
Mr. LEFFEW: You know, bless their heart, they're a part of the game and we're
all glad of it.
DAVIES: Right, the point being that the trophy you get win first prize is a
buckle, right? I mean, a belt buckle.
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah.
Mr. LEFFEW: A belt buckle, yeah. And so you have a bunch of them, you know.
So it don't hurt to give one away here and there to a sweet little buckle
bunny, and they prize it.
DAVIES: Now you now teach bull riding at your ranch. How did you get into
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, I started in 1969. It's just kind of paying back, you
know. And I enjoy teaching. Wasn't great at it when I first started, but
like anything else--I wasn't great at bull riding when I first started--you
learn as you go. You start to learn what works and what doesn't work. And
now we've trained more champions than probably all the other schools combined.
DAVIES: When you get a crop of students at your school, can you tell who's
going to make a good bull rider?
Mr. LEFFEW: You know what I look for is not all the talent, is more try, how
much try and heart they have, because it's--I've seen a lot of guys with tons
of talent that the first time they got slam-dunked or got stepped on or got
hurt, they give it up, you know, where another guy that's--you know, he ain't
got a lot of ability right away but he's getting stomped on, drug, and he just
keeps coming back at you. And you know, try finds ability, no matter what
you're doing and when you got heart and you got try, you know, and you just
keep coming at it, at you, you know, they're going to figure out a way to make
DAVIES: Bull rider Gary Leffew will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, teaching actors how to be tough cowboys. We continue our
conversation with bull rider Gary Leffew. When he's not teaching bull riding,
he's a consultant for the HBO series "Deadwood."
Then, women tough enough for the Wild West: Director Ruth Leitman and
wrestler Lillian "The Fabulous Moolah" Ellison talk about the new documentary,
"Lipstick & Dynamite," which chronicles the history of ladies' wrestling from
the '40s to the '70s.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, back with
bull rider Gary Leffew. He's a former rodeo champion who teaches bull riding
at his California ranch. But Leffew is also an actor, writer and creative
consultant for the HBO series "Deadwood," which recently won a Peabody Award.
His job is to add cowboy authenticity to the show's scripts. Here's a clip
from "Deadwood" where Calamity Jane, played by Robin Weigert, has come down
with what she regards as a fatal illness, and is being examined by the town's
Doc Cochran, played by Brad Dourif.
(Soundbite from "Deadwood")
Mr. BRAD DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) All right, sit up if you're not too drunk.
Your liver runs from your chin to your genitals, so I suggest you quit
Ms. ROBIN WEIGERT: (As Calamity Jane) I will when you do, you ugly son of a
Mr. DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) Nature is a forgiving mistress, and you might
could have some time to fill before she collects her due.
Ms. WEIGERT: (As Calamity Jane) As if I'd credit any opinions of yours on the
subject of health.
Mr. DOURIF: (As Doc Cochran) Well, if you do care to sojourn among us,
Charlie Utter has put aside a room for you at the freight building.
Ms. WEIGERT: (As Calamity Jane) Does he have any animals in there?
DAVIES: That's from the HBO series "Deadwood," where my guest, Gary Leffew,
is a creative consultant.
Tell us how you got associated with "Deadwood," this authentic HBO Western.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, I come by it kind of strangely. I was--I'd just got into
writing. I'd--you know, I've done a lot of things in my life, and then by
chance I run into an old rodeo buddy of mine at Las Vegas, Nevada, at the
National Finals Rodeo, and I was telling him that I was interested in writing,
but I was looking for someone that could really help me along, and he said,
`Well, I have--I train horses for a guy named David Milch, who's trying to do
a Western and he's kind of stuck, and he needs some help, so we ought to get
you two together.' So that's how we got together. He introduced--I went down
and he introduced me, and so he asked if I would be interested in working on
the project, and I said, `Sure.'
Mr. LEFFEW: `Sounds good. Anything to work with a guy like you is fine by
DAVIES: Now in that series, "Deadwood," we're looking at a gold mining town
on the edge of lawlessness. You kind of help them capture that feeling,
right? I mean, how did you help them do that?
Mr. LEFFEW: You know, I think what he was looking for, you know, was the, in
my mind, spirit of the people that were there. Because we went to Deadwood
and hung out there a few days, and did a lot of research, but I finally told
him, I said, `You know, I think what you're really looking for is the spirit
of the people that was here.' There was a restlessness about gold seekers,
that once you got hooked into, it was real hard to go back to a normal life
of, you know, farming or doing merchandise or whatever. It's--that gold
fever, once it gets ahold of you, you get hooked on it and you end up going
from one gold camp to another and searching for that bonanza the rest of your
life. And what that reminded me of was, you know, the modern-day rodeo
cowboy. I said, `I believe that's the closest that you're gonna come to what
you're looking for, and if you'll let me bring in eight or 10 of the wildest,
craziest, over-the-top individuals I ever knew in the rodeo game, I think
you'll see what Deadwood was really like.'
DAVIES: Did you do that?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yes. I started calling all these guys up. He told me to get
ahold of them, so I was making arrangements for them to come out on, you know,
Southwest or something, and he sent a Learjet to pick all of them up, except
for a couple that come down from Canada, and he flew them in first class and
put them up in the Loews in Santa Monica, which is about $400 a night. He
really treated--they'd never been treated that great in their life.
DAVIES: So what did all these cowboys do? Were you just going out to dinner?
I mean, how did you spend your time?
Mr. LEFFEW: We went out to dinner. We went to bars, strip joints, just
anything that seemed like fun. But everywhere they went they were the center
of attention 'cause they were just--they really knew how to have fun. They
were loud, they were over the top, and they just--they really had a good time.
DAVIES: No arrests or gun play?
Mr. LEFFEW: No. One of the guys come at--one of the guys I brought out was a
former NCAA wrestling champion. He was a world's champion steer roper. The
meanest, toughest guy I probably ever knew in rodeo, probably in life. He was
mean, he was tough and he could back it up. But his own knees were gone, you
know, and he come out of the bar there one night and--with a drink in his hand
and one of the guys goes, you know--the guy at the door said, `Sir, you can't
take that outside,' and you know, he said some profanity to him and the guy
said, `No, sir, I'm serious, you can't take that outside,' and he said another
profanity and, you know--and we didn't know it, but this guy that was at the
door was one of those guys that fights in cages, you know, so he was down and
really tough. And there was an actor with us that was with David and he went
over and talked him out of, you know, jumping on Alan(ph), 'cause--you know,
it would probably have been pretty good watching. We was all waiting to see
Alan get his ass kicked. But it--you know, the guy talked him out of it, but
this guy was furious. He was--you know, but that was the type of guy he was.
He used to get--bullying people all his life, and so...
DAVIES: Kind of guy you'd see in Deadwood?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah, he would've been in Deadwood, this guy, and he'd have
probably been--you know, he'd have been bullying people and probably killing
some people. I mean, he was a real--the real deal.
DAVIES: Well, Gary Leffew, how did you get into acting?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, I--a friend of mine called me up. He had a television
commercial for a bull rider, and I was world's champion at the time, so I went
down there and tried out for it and, you know, my stats were better than
anybody else's, so I got the job of riding, and then the agent that I hooked
up with said, `You know, you've got a great look. Would you like to start
going on interviews?' And I said sure, you know, because my rodeo career was,
you know--by that time I was winding down and so I was looking for something
that was a lot like rodeo with a little bit of time spent and a good payback,
you know. Nothing can--you never gonna find that you only work eight seconds
a day, but television commercials come about as close as you could get. And
in those days, everything was national, you know, so I started going on
interviews and I took that same energy deal that I'd been playing with in bull
riding and started applying it to the--you know, creating that winning light
when you walk in there and look in that camera. And I end up getting 13
national commercials that first year I started, and I've done well over 200 in
the last 35 years.
DAVIES: You did one of the old Timex commercials, `takes a licking and keeps
on ticking,' right?
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah, with John Cameron Swayze.
DAVIES: Tell us about that one.
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, you know, it was one of those deals where, you know, all
his stuff was, you know--they was really roughing the old watch up, and then
the--and it's supposed to take a licking and keep on ticking, so I was getting
on this bull as he's doing his spiel, and then as I ride the bull out there a
ways and then I slide back--kind of like getting off, slide way back on his
hip, and he throws me way in the air, must have throwed me 10 feet in the air,
and I come down and they had all this fuller's earth and all this dust, you
know, where I hit, and it just blowed all this dust in the air, so it looked
really wild. And I come out of the dust, you know, and he says, `How you
doing, cowboy?' and then I said, `We're both still ticking, John.' And--you
know, so it was a real nice commercial. And...
DAVIES: Did that require more than one take? That's a rough take.
Mr. LEFFEW: Oh, yeah. I think I got on about eight bulls that day. There
was just one right after another till we got, you know--and then they would
pick the one that was the wildest, and then we did--you never do anything in
one take in the commercial business.
DAVIES: Right. You also have become a stuntman and stunt coordinator, right,
for films at times, right?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, more for rodeo movies, you know.
Mr. LEFFEW: We did--I doubled Cliff Robertson in a movie called "8 Seconds"
years ago, and coordinator--the stunts--actually wrote a stunt in the end of
where this guy hangs up to this bull, and it was one of the wildest pieces of
footage I've ever seen, 'cause during the hang-up of this bull, who had horns
as long as your arms, looked like baseball bats running out of both side of
his head, he ended up between his horns, rattled him around as he spins,
throws him off his horns, and as he hits, his side's still hung up. He throws
a horn back, hits him right between the eyes, you know. The blood flies, and
then he scoops him up between his horns again, rattles him around there for
another--seemed like an eternity, and then throwed him about 20 feet in the
air. And then when he hits, they cut to me on a bull. When I got off, this
bull scooped me off and throwed me another 20 feet, you know. So I ended up
with separated ribs. This guy ended up with a hole between his eyes, and
Cliff Robertson looked like, you know, he'd been run over by a train when they
drug him off, you know. But it was really wild. If you ever get a chance,
it's called "8 Seconds." At the end is that footage that they shot.
DAVIES: And that all made it into the film, yeah.
Mr. LEFFEW: ...(Unintelligible) in there. Yeah. Yeah. It all made it in
the film. And then we did one on my ranch a few years ago called "Cowboy
Up," and so--and then we did the movie "8 Seconds." I was--I taught Luke
Perry how to ride bulls for the movie.
DAVIES: Is it easier working with animals or actors?
Mr. LEFFEW: You know, it's--you know, actors, you know, when you talk about
working with actors, actors--I've had more luck teaching actors how to ride
bulls than anybody, because they're trained mimics. You show them something,
and they have that state of mind where they seem like they get off their
conscious mind and they just act as if, and in doing so, they pick up bull
riding really quick. Luke Perry, for the movie "8 Seconds," I had the
job--they said, `We hear you're the best teacher in the world.' I said,
`That's right.' They said, `Well, we'd like you to teach Luke Perry for the
movie.' I said, `Cool.' They said, `The catch is, you can't put him on any
bulls to teach him. You have to do everything without putting him on a bull.
Yet the day that movie's over, he's got to get on six or seven bulls and look
like a professional bull rider.' So everything I did was teaching him
mentally and then doing drills. Drills and mental meditation.
DAVIES: Now why did you--yeah, Gary, why did they want him on the bulls after
the movie was over?
Mr. LEFFEW: Well, they wanted to get everything in the can.
DAVIES: Oh, I see. That was the last scene they would shoot.
Mr. LEFFEW: If he got on a bull and got hurt, then there went, you know, a
lot of investing. But once everything was in the can and then they put him on
a bull and he got hurt on the first one, they wasn't out anything. They could
just go ahead and double him. But we put him on six or seven bulls that day.
The first bull that he got on, he made the most beautiful ride you've ever
seen. It was just--it looked like Lane Frost come out of the grave and made
this ride for him. It was unbelievable. And not long after that he come to a
Bull Riders Only, one of the professional events, wanted to get on one of the
good ones, and we said, `We ain't got no easy ones,' and so we run in this
professional bull, and the bull spun both ways right in the gate. He rode him
to what the judges would have been--said would have been probably an 84-,
85-point ride if he'd been in the contest. So, you know, where does a guy
that's never rode a bull, all of a sudden with just mental training, jump out
and ride like that?
Mr. LEFFEW: Really shows you the power of the mind.
DAVIES: Well--and a great teacher.
Mr. LEFFEW: Yeah. All I did was teach him age-old concepts that been around
for thousands of years.
DAVIES: Well, Gary Leffew, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LEFFEW: Hey, it's a pleasure, my friend. And y'all tune in to
"Deadwood." It's a great show.
DAVIES: Gary Leffew teaches bull riding at his ranch in Nipomo, California.
He's an actor, writer and creative consultant for the HBO series "Deadwood."
Coming up, wrestlers from another kind of ring. We learn about the first
ladies of professional wrestling from filmmaker Ruth Leitman and Lillian "The
Fabulous Moolah" Ellison.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Ruth Leitman and Lillian Ellison discuss the new
documentary "Lipstick & Dynamite," which profiles lady wrestlers
DAVE DAVIES, host:
A new documentary called "Lipstick & Dynamite" tells the story of the early
days of women's professional wrestling.
(Soundbite from "Lipstick & Dynamite")
Ms. ELLA WALDEK (Former Wrestler): You had to give June Byers back what she
delivered or she'd rip you to pieces. She had a June Byers slap. She would
take an open hand like this, and right between your throat and your breast
bone right here, she would lay that thing in, and not only would it sting, it
damn near knocked your head off.
DAVIES: That was former wrestler Ella Waldek describing what it was like to
go up against a particularly tough opponent named June Byers. Many of the
lady wrestlers of the '40s, '50s and '60s came from broken homes and tough
backgrounds to find careers as part fighters, part entertainers, and always
pawns to promoters in the male-dominated business. With names like Kill'Em
Gillem and the great Mae Young, they pulled hair and hammered each other
around the ring on cards dominated by male wrestlers.
One of the women featured in "Lipstick & Dynamite" is Lillian Ellison, who
wrestled under the name The Fabulous Moolah. Unlike most of the women in the
documentary, she's managed to stay in the business as a promoter, and recently
as a wrestler again, even though she's in her 80s. While women in the film
who long ago left the ring share perspectives ranging from nostalgia to
bitterness, Moolah still carries the bravado of a performer who'll tell you
she can beat women and men a quarter her age. I recently spoke with The
Fabulous Moolah and with filmmaker Ruth Leitman, who produced and directed
"Lipstick & Dynamite." I asked Leitman how women first got into wrestling.
Ms. RUTH LEITMAN ("Lipstick & Dynamite"): There was a legacy that led back to
the late '30s that there were these women from economically challenged
backgrounds that were recruited to the road by one promoter named Billy Wolfe,
and he basically had men--other wrestlers who were wrestling in territories
all over the country that would see women in diners and in shopping centers,
and he would pick them up and offer them $50 and send them to Columbus, Ohio,
for a chance at becoming a wrestler.
DAVIES: What were they looking for? Beauty, brawn, skill?
Ms. LEITMAN: All of the above: beauty, brawn, skill. They were looking for
women who were very attractive and very athletic, and often on the spot they
would say, you know, `Get down there and do some sit-ups for me, or show me
what you can do. Do push-ups.' And so many of them were acrobatic and
athletic, and they would perform for the chance to--basically they were
offered fame, fortune. Many of these women were sort of presented and
marketed like movie stars. They wore furs and high-heeled shoes, and they
were presented as show girls.
DAVIES: As we listen to the stories of these women and how they got into it,
I mean, there's some pretty tough survival stories here, aren't there?
Ms. LEITMAN: They really were looking for a way out of some difficult home
lives, so that they learned how to fight when they were young because many of
them came from abusive homes, they were ready to get out there and get into
the ring. But it was also a way for them to have a career, and they really
perceived it as a career, and some of them were able to do it for decades,
especially Lillian and Mae Young.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. It seems as if some of the common
denominators among the women who were selected by promoters for these early
days of lady wrestling were women who were attractive, but very, very tough,
and from backgrounds that they really wanted to get away from. As these women
describe things that happened in the ring, I mean, they were--it was some
pretty mean stuff. I mean, there was biting and hair pulling and throwing
people around the ring, which is part of wrestling, but it also seemed like it
was done with intent to inflict some pain at times, and I'm wondering how they
got along on the road, all these ladies. Did they have the respect that
athletes have for one another, or were they more like, you know, prisoners on
Ms. LEITMAN: Well, I don't think they got along so well on the road. I think
that there were some that were able to travel in pairs and even some of the
women talk about their tag team partners trying to upstage them, getting--you
know, Penny Banner talks about her tag team partner promising to wake her up
so they could both be the same amount of suntan before they got into the ring
that day, and Lorraine Johnson beat her to it. I think that that was another
thing is that when women wrestled in tag teams, as tag team partners, they
tried to make them look exactly the same, exactly same build. As a matter of
fact, Penny Banner tells a story that they asked Lorraine Johnson to gain a
few pounds and Penny to lose a few pounds so that they were the exact same
weight, and it was all really for the titillation of the crowd.
DAVIES: It's interesting when you look at the pictures in the film of women
wrestling, I mean--and they--you know, they're attractive young women in I
guess would look something like bathing suits, but it also appears that in the
early days they were seen as something like a sideshow attraction, and
somebody in the movie says, `Well, they'd either have a midget or they'd have
some other gimmick, and sometimes it was women.' And were they real
competitives or were they a sideshow?
Ms. LEITMAN: They started out as a sideshow on the carnival where they would
take all comers. Mildred Burke, who was the champion, would--there would be a
purse of $10 for anyone who would go out there and challenge her, and once
they started--and, you know, anyone could challenge--boys, men, other
women--and so here were these athletic women from all over the country, a
lumber--a woman who worked for a lumber company or someone who worked on a
farm, and that--they would have their opportunity to get into the ring. When
Billy Wolf saw how these women would draw the crowds, he decided to put them
into the arenas. So they were actually first a sideshow. They were an
attraction. They were brought in on the card to bring the attendances up when
they were falling. And as Carl Lower(ph), gentleman in the film, states that
they were basically an attraction. They brought in women or they brought in
midgets or they brought in a woman wrestling a bear or an alligator to keep
the attendance up. But the men still--the male wrestlers still got the bulk
of the money and they were still the headliners.
DAVIES: What did these women do after they left the ring? And how well did
it prepare them for a different life?
Ms. LEITMAN: I think that being in the wrestling ring--and I think that they
would certainly all agree--that it prepared them for a lot of things in life
that followed. Gladys "Kill'Em" Gillem, who also states that she could never
win. She says in the film that she never won a match because she wasn't
supposed to. She wasn't one of Billy's favorites, so she decided that she had
a family to take care and she decided to go into other parts of show business,
and she became a lion tamer, and she became--she wrestled alligators and bears
after that. And Ella Waldek went into law enforcement, and Penny Banner went
into real estate, and also she's a senior Olympian today.
Ms. LEITMAN: Ida...
DAVIES: Yeah, I was just gonna say, a lot of them seem to be smart,
self-confident women, you know, that have really achieved some things.
Ms. LEITMAN: Oh, they definitely are, and I think that Ida has accomplished
so much in her life, and then the other two that did not go on to other things
are Lillian Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah, and the great Mae Young, who are
still working today in wrestling.
DAVIES: And I think that's probably a good point we can bring Lillian
Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah, into the conversation.
Are you with us, Moolah?
Ms. LILLIAN ELLISON (The Fabulous Moolah): Yes, I am.
DAVIES: Great. Do--should I call you Lillian or Moolah?
Ms. ELLISON: Whatever you want to, but if you write a check, just don't let
DAVIES: All right. That's...
Ms. ELLISON: I've been called a lot of things. I don't mind.
DAVIES: All right. Now it's said that you held the world title for 28 years
going back to 1956, right?
Ms. ELLISON: Yes, sir. I won it in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1956, and lost it
in Madison Square Garden in 1985.
DAVIES: Take us back to those days in the '50s a little bit. What were a
couple of your favorite moves in the ring?
Ms. ELLISON: Favorite moves?
Ms. ELLISON: Anything I could get to win. I liked to do the drop--flying
drop kicks and flying head scissors, and liked to do flying mares.
DAVIES: What--describe a couple of those for us.
Ms. ELLISON: OK. Flying drop kick is when you jump flat-footed from the
floor up as high as the person you're looking at and kick them in the face or
in the chest, wherever you want to kick them, and then you fall to the floor.
And then the flying head scissors is where you jump up, would put both legs
around their head, and throw them forward as you come down. And a flying mare
is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your
shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard as you can. And I love doing that.
DAVIES: My guests are Lillian Ellison, known in the ring as The Fabulous
Moolah, and filmmaker Ruth Leitman, whose film "Lipstick & Dynamite" documents
the early days of women's professional wrestling. We hear more from Moolah
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to my conversation with The Fabulous Moolah, wrestler
Lillian Ellison. She's one of the wrestlers profiled in "Lipstick &
Dynamite," the new documentary about women's professional wrestling.
I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about what it was like in the ring
and the crowd. I mean, they're yelling at you. Did you feed off the crowd?
Could you hear individual people yelling at you?
Ms. ELLISON: Well, I would tell you, it's kind of hard to explain, but it
just gives me a joy when I walk out to the ring and I hear people yelling. I
don't care if they're yelling or booing. It just gives me a thrill to know
that the people are there to enjoy themselves and enjoy the entertainment that
we will be giving them. And, well--and then it's hard to explain, because
like in the city of New York, I used to go--I would go in the ring and I'd get
everything thrown at me, from rotten eggs to rotten oranges, and everything
else, and then when I'd come out of the ring, they'd be tapping me on my back
and said, `Moolah, we love you. You're so great. We love you.' So it's hard
DAVIES: When you're in the ring, did you ever turn around and respond to
Ms. ELLISON: Oh, I yelled back a lot, yeah.
DAVIES: Like what would you say?
Ms. ELLISON: Well, I don't know, whatever it called for.
DAVIES: Lillian, why do you think you...
Ms. ELLISON: I would tell them to shut up or, they thought they were big
enough, to climb inside the ring, I had something waiting for them. Whatever
I felt like telling them.
DAVIES: Were there rules in--you know, a lot of people, when they see
wrestling, it looks like anything goes. I mean, were there rules about what
you couldn't do in the ring? Like, for example, grabbing someone by their
hair and throwing them into a turnbuckle?
Ms. ELLISON: Yes, there's rules, but everybody does not abide by the rules,
and I'm one of them.
DAVIES: You're one that does not always...
Ms. ELLISON: I do my own rules. In fact, I don't mind wrestling men because
I know their weak points.
DAVIES: Give me an example of their weak points. Well, can you give an
example of a rule that you bend?
Ms. ELLISON: Well, I would--in fact, I wouldn't mind choking you or gouging
your eyes, pulling your hair or kicking you below the belt. It wouldn't
bother me at all.
DAVIES: OK. Well, I'm glad we're in two different cities here. Most of the
other women in the film, "Lipstick & Dynamite," went on to other careers, but,
Moolah, you just stayed right in it, and I'm wondering, did you ever think
about leaving? What kept you in the wrestling game all your life?
Ms. ELLISON: What has really kept me in it so long is that, as I--every year
I got older, I could see people, senior citizens, sitting in a rocking chair
or either saying, `Oh, well, I'm gonna retire this year and I'm--and
this'--and when you do that, you can bet one thing: You're driving nails in
your coffin. And I will be wrestling when I'm 100 years old, and I want the
senior citizens to know just because they're 60, they're 65 years old, they do
not have to sit in a rocking chair and rock, because when they do, they're
rocking themselves to the grave.
DAVIES: Well, I'm gonna let you go, and let me just ask you, Moolah, you are
still going after--What?--five decades in the ring. How long do you plan to
Ms. ELLISON: Till I'm 100. That's not far off.
DAVIES: All right. Well, we'll book a ticket for that match. Thank you so
The Fabulous Moolah, wrestler Lillian Ellison. She's one of the lady
wrestlers profiled in "Lipstick & Dynamite," the new documentary about women's
professional wrestling. We also spoke with the director of the film, Ruth
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.