October 4, 2005
Pepper Martin: The acting years
By GREG OLIVER - Producer, SLAM! Wrestling
Without Woody Strode, there would have been no Pepper Martin, actor. There also wouldn't be colorful tales of drinking with Lee Marvin, beating up Superman or awakening John Ford in the wee hours of the morning.
While establishing his name in Roy Shire's San Francisco promotion in the very early 1960s, Martin's presence was requested down the highway in Los Angeles. Martin said he got $300, plus the transportation cost, for one match against Count Billy Varga. ("We had a good match and he was a very difficult man to work with. He had a very awkward style.")
But more importantly, it was the beginning of his Hollywood life. Flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles on a Friday, his friend Woody Strode was supposed to pick him up in the airport during a heat wave. Instead, Strode had Martin paged at the airport, and instructed him on the proper bus to take in order to get to the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood.
After Martin's match, the wrestler-turned-actor Strode took Pepper to see Hollywood. "We went up one side of the Sunset Strip then down the other," said Martin. They ended up at the Seven Seas on Hollywood Boulevard after midnight.
Around 2:30 a.m., Strode had an idea.
"We're going to go to Papa's house!"
Strode, Martin and their designated driver, Kit Kauffman, whose parents owned a hardware store in Montebello, wound up in Bel Air, driving around looking for John Ford's house.
Wanting to see the great director, Strode knocked on the door and rang the bell. The door cracked, and a black man peered out, who recognized Strode.
"Woody, what are you doing here this time of night?"
"I want to see Papa!"
"Papa's asleep, everyone's asleep, Woody. Go home."
"Naw, I want to see Papa."
Martin picks up the tale. "Finally, another light went on in the background and we hear this booming voice, 'What the hell is going on down here?' He opened the door, and here was this old man with his black patch over his eye and his housecoat on. He said, 'What the hell you doing here this time of the night?' 'I want you to meet my friend. He's a professional wrestler, Pepper Martin.' 'I don't care who the hell he is. Get out of here before I call the cops.' Now me when I heard that, with my big, stupid mouth, 'What do you mean call the cops? We'll blow up your whole f'n house!' 'Who the hell are you?'"
Needless to say, they got turfed from Ford's house. Embarrassed, Strode decided to take his friend to see notorious tough guy Lee Marvin.
Martin described the scene. "It's now about 3:30, quarter to four in the morning. He had a wall around his home. I push Woody over the wall, Woody got over the wall and he opened up the gate. I walked in and two poodles come around nipping at our feet, barking. We knock on the door, rang the bell, and the door opened. I can still see Lee as clear as it was this morning. He was standing there in his boxer shorts and a T-shirt, and he said, 'Woody, what the hell you doing here this time of night? C'mon in. Who's your friend?' 'He's Pepper Martin. He's a professional wrestler. Remember I talked to you about him?' 'Yeah, c'mon in.' 'Well, we've got a driver, a kid driving the car.' 'Well, who's he? Tell him to come on in too.' We walked through the house, went to the back and to this huge, huge den. He said to me 'What do you drink?' I said scotch. He threw me a bottle of scotch and he threw Woody a bottle of vodka. 'Let me put some clothes on, and I'll be back down.' He came down and we partied until about eight o'clock in the morning. They took me to the airport and I went back to San Francisco." (A footnote: Ford and Martin later became friends, and they'd swim at the director's pool on Sundays.)
It was truly the start of a new career. Los Angeles wanted Martin back, so, with Shire's blessings, he finished up in San Francisco.
In Los Angeles, Martin became good friends with headliner Freddie Blassie. It was Blassie who offered Pepper the gig of commentating with Dick Lane. Leery about the move to the broadcast table, Pepper talked to Dick Lane about it first. "[Lane] was probably one of the nicest men you'd ever meet. He said, 'Pepper, I think that would be great.' 'I've never done this before.' 'Oh no, I'll teach you. You'll learn from me.' So Freddie Blassie is really the one responsible for me getting into commentating."
Martin swears that he had no plans of becoming an actor, despite becoming buddies with Strode's acting cronies. "At that point, I had no plans in my conscious mind of getting into show business. I got into commentating and everything was working out really well."
Then disaster struck. Pepper was hurt during a match in Long Beach. The ring there had a very wide apron, and Martin was bodyslammed onto the apron. "My legs went over the side and I bent over and hurt my back. When I came back to the dressing room, I said to the doctor who was there, 'I hurt my back. Would you have a look at it?' He said, 'Well, you probably just strained it.' I showered, got in the car, went to the liquor store and got a six-pack of cold beer. By the time I left the liquor store I was shuffling. I could barely bend over or straighten up, and I could barely walk."
Martin, his wife Jordy, and their two daughters, were living in Montebello. "When I got home, I had no feeling in my right leg and I couldn't get out of the car. So I parked the car behind our apartment building and honked the horn. Eventually my wife looked out the window."
Jordy helped him into the house, where Pepper proceeded to fall face-first onto the floor. After a night of alternating heat and cold on his back, Strode carried Pepper on his back into the doctor's office like a bag of coal. Pepper's back was broken, a small vertical crack in his spine. Instead of surgery, Martin had a palette made up to lie on at home for the next four-to-six weeks.
By June, he was better, and planned to give his notice, go back to Canada, then decide where to go. Martin went out for a beer with Dick Beyer, who was working as The Destroyer in Los Angeles, and he suggested going to the Northwest because they needed a babyface. Pepper talked to Portland promoter Don Owen, who asked him what he wanted to work the territory. "I thought, 'I'm going to get outrageous.' Alright, ten percent. I'll stay six weeks. If I get over, I'll stay. If I don't get over, that's my notice, and I want ten percent.' 'You've got a deal.' I thought to myself, 'I've got a deal?'"
The Pacific Northwest ended up being Martin's best-ever territory, and he stayed there from 1962 to 1966. As in Los Angeles, he got involved in the TV end as well, commentating in Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Eugene.
He held the Pacific Northwest tag team titles with Billy White Wolf, Paul Jones, Luther Lindsay (twice), and Shag Thomas (four times). Martin was also Pacific Northwest singles champion five times, often battling fellow Canadian Pat Patterson. "We switched the belt -- Pat and I laughed about this the last time we were together -- something like 28 times," Martin laughed, alluding to many undocumented title switches. "We had a run for about a year and a half. It was absolutely incredible."
Martin also helped Owen book the territory, and is the one responsible for bringing in Stan Stasiak, who became virtually identified with the Pacific Northwest.
A storied feud with "Moondog" Lonnie Mayne actually ended with Martin being legitimately injured. "I was in the hospital and a doctor came in and said 'Your career is over. You've got to hang it up.' I'm thinking to myself, 'My goodness, what am I going to do? I don't know anything!'"
To the rescue came Harold Sakata, a wrestler he'd befriended over the years, who had had some success in Hollywood already, and is best known for his role as Bond villain Oddjob in Goldfinger. "In those days, if there was a wrestler away from his family and friends, we would always invite them to dinner on Sunday."
Sakata was there to help Jordy take her husband home from the hospital. "He handed me a business-sized envelope. He said, 'Pepper, I'm leaving tomorrow morning to go to Spain to do a picture. But I just got back from Hollywood.'-- he had just done a series of Vicks 44 commercials. 'I talked to my people and told them about you, and they're interested. They want to talk to you. All the information is here in this envelope. You're to call them tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock.'"
The next morning, Martin did call and was encouraged that he was remembered from the stint broadcasting with Dick Lane in Los Angeles. But before heading to Tinseltown, he had to go through painful rehabilitation. He also kept doing the commentating for Don Owen.
In late 1966, Martin drove from Oregon, arriving in Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon. He went to Woody Strode's house, and together went to the beach to see Lee Marvin. Marvin discouraged Pepper from talking to that agency that Sakata recommended, saying that they were full of shit. So Marvin arranged a meeting Monday morning with Meyer Mishkin, his agent.
Mishkin was a true Hollywood character. "Ever wonder what Santa Claus looked like? He was 5-foot tall, and he looked just like Santa Claus. He had white, whispery hair, white, rosy cheeks, a little pot belly. He invited me into his office, and I'm like, 250, 255. First thing he said to me was, 'Well, nobody's going to stand beside you.' 'Why?' 'You're big, you're in great shape, you'll draw focus from everybody.'"
Martin went to stay the night at Lee Marvin's, and they had a few drinks, even in the morning, when Pepper recalled Lee's wake-up drink being vodka and coffee. Mishkin called, and Pepper had an interview at MGM Studios for a show called Hondo. He flew up to Portland, helped pack the house, and said goodbye to everybody. With a $225 fee to join the Screen Actors Guild, Martin was on his way.
"My first year in the business, I did 14 shows. And I thought everybody in the business had done 14 shows," he laughed. Usually, he was cast as one of the featured "heavies" in the 36 films or more than 200 TV shows he worked on.
"I started off as a featured player, what they call featured billing. I never, ever got below featured billing in the first year I was in the business," Martin said. "Eventually, the agent moved me up for bigger parts. I went to co-star. Then my first big break came on the first play that I did ... feature film, I got a big break doing The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin. That was a co-starring role, and one of the lead heavies, not the lead heavy, maybe the third lead heavy."
From there, Martin went to the stage, where he really got a chance to shine in William Saroyan's comedy The Time of Your Life, a touring production which starred Henry Fonda, Jane Alexander, and a very young Richard Dreyfuss. Now that the casting directors had now seen his range, "that's when things really started to move for me."
When health issues reared up a decade ago, Martin stopped acting. Having had his right eye removed and battled lung cancer, he is content to be out of the rat race. "There's a certain peace that comes when you don't have to deal with rejection." He's content to golf. "You know how hard it is to do nothing? It's wonderful."
But Martin never really left wrestling behind. He had a deal with Don Owen for one last match against Lonnie Mayne at the Ice Palace, the big arena; "Don was very faithful, right up until the end. He gave me 10%, plus expenses."
Ray Stevens called about Martin doing the commentary with Hank Renner on the San Francisco TV show. Pepper flew to Las Vegas to meet with Roy Shire, and they agreed to Pepper's acting career took precedence. Shire flew him up to Sacramento every week for the shows.
His wrestling career so recently behind him, Martin had a little trouble setting aside his macho persona, and would argue with the heels during interviews.
On one last occasion, Martin worked in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. Shire had booked Martin into the match without telling him. Martin had his reservations about wrestling again, primarily because he was only about 210 pounds. "He talked me into it," laughed Martin.
Victor Berry, who worked in Shire's office, was not a huge fan of having Pepper wrestle and co-announce. "He was a babyface but he never really got super popular with the fans. They definitely would cheer for him but he was not a good draw. He was usually a middle-of-the-card wrestler," said Berry. The end of Martin's co-hosting duties came without notice, said Berry. "It ended with no fanfare -- Hank just came out by himself one night and things returned to normal."
After years away from the mat game, wrestling is slowly drawing itself back into Martin's life. He's considering writing his autobiography, and has started attending reunions. This year marked his first trip to the Gulf Coast Reunion in Mobile, Alabama, and his first trip to the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in Las Vegas. "Comparing the two is like apples and oranges. [Mobile] is a very laid-back, you don't get dressed up ... It was fantastic. It was absolutely fantastic. The food was incredible. All the ladies down there cook and bring their desserts and meals. It was terrific, it really, really was. Las Vegas, I thought was terrific also." Martin is scheduled to be honored by the CAC in June 2006 at the next reunion.
"When I look back, what a wonderful life I've had. I've had an incredible, incredible life."
Greg Oliver founded SLAM! Wrestling with John Powell way back in
1996, and has been writing about pro wrestling since 1985. His just-published book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams (with Steven Johnson) is the second in a series, following The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. Order them both from the SLAM! Wrestling Store. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.