When a sitting president endorses your syndicated program featuring hypertrophied men and women in spandex clobbering mere mortals with giant Q-tips, you’ve hit the big time. Bill Clinton once publicly proclaimed his love for American Gladiators, the series where regular Joes and Janes could test their mettle in athletic contests.
While the series, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1989, has eased its grip on the world’s collective throat, the sight of adults in giant hamster wheels will always be a fond memory. Check out these 13 facts about hooded referees, Gladiator dinner theater, and the infamous walkout.
1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR.
In the 1970s, professional arm wrestler Dann Carr organized a series of athletic events for iron worker picnics in Erie, Pennsylvania, which he dubbed a “workingman’s Olympics.” He happened to know a promoter and former Elvis impersonator named Johnny Ferraro, who was impressed by the turnout he had helped organize at a youth center fundraiser. It took years, but Ferraro finally sold the David vs. Goliath concept to the Samuel Goldwyn Company.
2. FOX WANTED TO FAKE IT.
When Goldwyn’s president of television distribution, Dick Askin, was shopping the series to potential markets, he found himself in a meeting with a Fox affiliate representative who had come armed with a very attractive offer. Instead of selling market to market, he offered Askin a 26-episode deal and a commitment from all of the company’s stations. All Askin had to do was agree to script the show—outcomes, trash talk, and all. Askin, who felt strongly that the show should be organic and the results legitimate, turned him down.
3. THE ORIGINAL GLADIATOR NAMES WEREN’T SO COOL.
While most viewers remember the gigantic Gladiators as having toy-ready names like Laser, Nitro, and Zap, some of the earlier nicknames weren’t so memorable. Prior to the show’s premiere in the fall of 1989, the press got word that the athletes had names like Dominoes, Willie, Cattalus, and Evander.
4. PULL-UPS ELIMINATED 90 PERCENT OF TRYOUT HOPEFULS.
Gladiators was constantly on the move, holding open auditions for contestant hopefuls. In an estimate given by Time at the start of its third season, it was determined that 90 percent of the 25,000 who had tried out for the show couldn’t make it past the pull-up portion. (Men were expected to do 25 in 30 seconds; women, eight.)
5. THE AUDIENCE WAS MADE OUT OF PLYWOOD.
Early on, Goldwyn had arranged for a barter deal with Universal Studios Hollywood: In exchange for advertising the attraction on television, the show would get tourists deposited into the studio during tapings. Unfortunately, visitors riding the tram had traveled to see E.T., not Nitro: They often left, leaving empty seats. In order to make the arena look full, the crew would dim the lights and the production would prop up plywood cutouts with hand-drawn faces in the darker sections of the bleachers.
6. THE REF WORE AN EXECUTIONER’S HOOD.
Before settling into its neon-color aesthetic, Gladiators tried taking on a Roman Coliseum vibe. The most jarring component was a sinister-looking referee who wore a robe and hood and made calls with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture. Sensing the medieval approach wasn’t working, refs switched to striped shirts by season two.
7. NOT ALL OF THE GLADIATORS WERE ATHLETES.
While behemoths like Danny “Nitro” Clark had played professional football before joining the show, producers weren’t necessarily looking for athletic ability. They originally sent out a casting call to bodybuilders, which proved to be a poor idea. Among one of the early washouts was Deron “Malibu” McBee, who later garnered YouTube infamy for getting knocked off a raised podium and collapsing in a heap of feathered hair and tanning lotion. Suffering a concussion, the ‘Bu lasted just 13 episodes.
8. THE SCORE WAS COMPOSED BY ROCKY’S BILL CONTI.
Every slow-motion shot of dorsiflexion needs some rousing orchestral music to accompany it, which is why the show hired composer Bill Conti to produce its title theme. Conti is best known for “Gonna Fly Now,” the signature track to the Rocky franchise, and won an Oscar for his work on 1983’s The Right Stuff.
9. THE EVENTS WERE DESIGNED TO FAVOR CONTESTANTS.
Courses like Joust, Assault, and others set a striking visual image: men and women of average size being dwarfed by the attitudinal, beefy Gladiators. But according to Askin, the games were actually designed to minimize their size and strength advantages so the contestants had a realistic shot at winning. “We tried to get events that gave the guy who was five-eight and 170 pounds an equal chance to either meet or beat the Gladiator,” he said.
10. THE GLADIATORS WENT ON STRIKE.
According to "Nitro" Clark's 2009 autobiography, Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage, and Redemption, he and several of the original Gladiators weren’t seeing a nickel from the 75 licensed items like toys, Nintendo games, and apparel that were making the Goldwyn Company millions of dollars. Happy to get the work, they had signed away their likeness rights when they were hired. Goldwyn, however, was unwilling to renegotiate, and largely recast the show in its fourth season. Though it ran several more years, ratings never recovered.
11. RYAN SEACREST HOSTED A KID’S VERSION.
With a massive soundstage and multiple sets, producers wanted to monetize their investment even further by introducing a kid component to the franchise. Gladiators 2000 ran in 1994 and was co-hosted by Ryan Seacrest. In addition to competitors being substantially smaller, it also introduced a cerebral component: They were quizzed on knowledge of everything from history to hygiene. By introducing an educational element, stations would be able to fulfill their necessary quota of informational programming. The show ran for two years before viewers cried uncle.
12. IT EVOLVED INTO DINNER THEATER.
After the success of a 150-city tour that pit Gladiators from the series against local athletes in the early 1990s, investors decided to tweak the franchise for the dinner theater crowd. American Gladiators Orlando Live! debuted in 1995 in front of a crowd of roughly 1300 at a Kissimmee auditorium down the road from Disney World. As contestants got pummeled with tennis balls, spectators could enjoy a sweat-splattered meal for $39.95.
13. A REVIVAL MAY STILL HAPPEN.
In July 2014, producer Arthur Smith announced he was working on a “darker, more intense, more serious” revival of the series following a failed 2007-2008 attempt co-hosted by Hulk Hogan. Smith planned on taking a post-apocalyptic approach reminiscent of The Hunger Games. “And no spandex,” he told TV Guide. “Spandex has left the building.”