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The two-part “30 for 30” documentary on the seminal 1990s competition show “American Gladiators” has now concluded, wrapping up an epic saga that cut right to the core of the American Dream.
The documentary dove deep into the largely unknown history of the show, which dominated the TV landscape in its initial run in syndication on US television and around the world. It revealed stories of love, lust, betrayal, friendship, injury, agony, and everything in between from the creators of the show and the Gladiators themselves.
So how did a nearly three-hour doc about a show famous for events like jousting with things that looked like huge cotton swabs and rolling around in giant steel balls called Atlaspheres come together? According to the doc’s co-director Ben Berman, he was skeptical when initially approached by Vice about the project but changed his mind once he learned more about the story.
“A little bit into my research, I thought ‘I think we can make a documentary about the history of “American Gladiators” as a microcosm to the history of America and the way history is written,’” Berman told Variety. “I thought there was something actually smart we could do with this documentary about what one might perceive as a pretty unintelligent subject matter.”
The central figure in the doc is Johnny Ferraro, the co-creator of “American Gladiators.” Ferraro’s relationship with his fellow co-creator Dan Carr takes up a major portion of the screentime, with Ferraro’s version of events not always lining up with the real story.
Berman said that he respects Ferraro, and that he is “to some degree the godfather of reality TV.” But that doesn’t mean Berman didn’t recognize when Ferraro was looking to obscure the truth.
“As a documentarian who’s tasked with telling a full story, it did not sit well with a documentarian like me to just hear everything that he’s saying and not ask or want to hear other sides of that story,” Berman said. “There’s a very specific narrative that Johnny articulates. He wasn’t too interested in giving us people or recommending that we speak with people that might have a different narrative than him.”
“I think Johnny and I are actually, at times or in certain ways, similar people.” he continued. “We like control. We like to determine our own fate. But I think when you’re a subject of a documentary, what you’re signing up for is to be documented, not to do the documenting.”
But Ferraro’s is not the only story told. Former Gladiators Lynn “Red” Williams (aka Sabre), Deron McBee (aka Malibu), Michael Horton (aka Gemini), Salina Bartunek (aka Elektra), and Billy Smith (aka Thunder) all share their experiences, which included low pay and a requirement in their contract that they pay for all their own medical care.
Yet both Williams and McBee said they were excited when they were called to be part of the project, as they were both convinced that the show would return in some form.
“I still get recognized every single day,” Williams said. “So it’s not surprising, especially when you see things about all these other shows from the 90s. We were pretty popular in a pretty popular era, so I’m grateful, but I’m not really surprised.”
“I didn’t realize it would come back in this form, but I knew it was such an impactful show,” McBee added. “It just took America and the world by storm to the point where everybody was talking about it. ‘Gladiators’ was in Europe and across the world. So I suspected that somehow or another it was going to come back.”
Williams also said that he looks back on the show fondly, in particular for the friendships he made with both his fellow Gladiators and some of the contenders. In particular, he recalls the story of “American Gladiators” grand champion Wesley “Two Scoops” Berry, who is also featured in the doc. Williams said he first Berry at a contender tryout.
“’Two Scoops’ and one of his homeboys, they start talking to me immediately, yelling and screaming,” he said. “So I walk over and I say ‘Man, you talking that talk. Make it through this and you’ll see me.’ Then he said ‘Yeah, but you need to watch me because they might try to keep me from being on TV because I’m gonna be so good they might be scared for you!’ And actually he and the other guy, we’re pretty good. So I tried to give a recommendation for both of them, but they took “Two Scoops” and that was the greatest recommendation in the history of contenders and all of the Gladiators worldwide. He was the best of the best of the best.”
For McBee, his favorite time on the show was the interactions he got to have with fans, particularly during the arena tour the Gladiators did.
“You never really realiz what it’s like to be a celebrity until you get to meet the people that appreciate you and love what you do,” he said. “I remember being at Madison Square Garden, just seeing a packed Madison Square Garden with Gladiator fans. And I was just in awe thinking, wow, this just really is amazing.”
Both also say they have no hard feelings whatsoever toward Ferraro, with Williams saying no one can take anything away from the man because “he thought something and he said ‘I can make it happen.’” McBee echoed those sentiments, calling him a “dear friend.”
“I love the man,” McBee said. “He was the one that gave me the opportunity to change my life in so many beautiful ways. We’re all flawed human beings and we all make mistakes in our lives.”