Don Fargo, who died today, November 8, 2015, in Pensacola, Florida, was the greatest disguise artist wrestling has ever known, with 18 different names in the ring. But even more memorably, he was easily one of the greatest characters outside of the ring too.
He had been battling cancer for more of this year. On Thursday, he fell and was taken to the hospital, where doctors found that the cancer had spread to his lungs. He died on Sunday afternoon.
Born Don Kalt, he was raised in New York City and Pittsburgh, where he got into bodybuilding big time, and won the 1952 Mr. Pittsburgh bodybuilding contest. He got his big start for Al Haft’s Columbus, Ohio, promotion as Don Stevens, brother to Ray.
Kalt gave credit for his career to former world champion Buddy Rogers, whom he met during his time in Columbus, Oh. “He was my idol. I mirrored him a little bit. He didn’t mind because I was doing such a good job of it,” he said.
Bobby Davis managed him as Don Juan the Magnificent for a little while, before Davis himself went on to greater fame managing Buddy Rogers.
The Fargos tore up the tag team scene in the Northeast and the South during the 1950s as the original pretty boy heel tag team that was cocky, hip, cool, and thoroughly despised.
“The best in the world. They were just ahead of their time. They were the first. They were just way ahead of everybody else,” Cowboy Bob Kelly said in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams. “If there were two guys today who could do what the Fargos could do in the ring, and you let them talk, and let them do what they wanted out there, they’d draw big, big money. Those two guys could do it.”
During their four years as an established team from 1956 to 1960, Jackie and Don Fargo were sensations wherever they set foot, from New York to Georgia to the Carolinas to Tennessee. Even after they went their separate ways, they reunited in the south from time to time and had another huge run in Tennessee in 1964-65.
“All I had to do was walk in the ring and they’d go crazy,” Jackie once said. “We could wrestle the devil and we would have been the heels.” Added Don: “When me and Jackie were together, we were the greatest team. That sounds like bragging, but we had a good thing going.”
When Don decided to break, he morphed into Jack Dalton of the Dirty Daltons in the South and Southwest. He had championship teams with Kenny Mack doing a biker gang takeoff, Rene Goulet doing a foreign legion gimmick … it’s hard to keep track, to be honest.
“All told, someone told me I had 18 different gimmicks, 18 different names,” Kalt once said. “I just found out two more records the other day. I forgot I wrestled as ‘The Fonz,’ Fonzo Fargo.”
There was even a second incarnation of the Fargos, with a young Greg Valentine as Johnny Fargo.
The met in Detroit, where Don kept bothering The Sheik (Ed Farhat) about having Baby Face Nelson – Valentine’s name then – as his partner.
“Don was a little bit wild — which I found out later on — extremely wild,” said Valentine in 2011. “Nevertheless, he was a great worker and I learned a lot from him. Anybody who’s breaking into this business, if they can tag up with someone 20 years their senior, and you can just suck all of the experience right off of them, which I did. He really helped me out a lot. We were together, I’m going to think, a couple of years, and then we broke up; then we got back together again, and then broke up.”
It was Valentine who introduced Don Fargo to the audience when the Fargo Brothers were inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2014.
But for as great as Fargo was in the ring – and he was one of the best – he knew the importance of living his gimmick outside the ring as well.
First, his in-ring talents.
“Donny Fargo had phenomenal ring psychology. I worked with I don’t know how many times,” the late Cowboy Bob Kelly told Steven Johnston. “He knew when to sell, when not to, when the babyface should come back on him and when to stop him. He’d rather you hit him than miss him. People just believed that him and I were really sour on each other. He was just vicious, mean and rugged.”
It didn’t matter WHO Don Kalt was portraying, continued Kelly. “The people didn’t even know the difference. People never, ever told me that’s Jack Dalton, If they did know, they never told me about it. But his appearance was completely different and his wrestling was completely different. When he was Donny Fargo, he wrestled a little more. As Jack Dalton, he’d come in the ring kicking and fighting.”
His stories in his autobiography, The Hard Way (written with Scott Teal) should be required reading for how kayfabe once existed and how wrestlers were wrestlers all the time.
“Every gimmick I did, I’m the only guy that lived. I lived it,” Kalt once said. “I wore my legionnaire’s outfit on the streets. I wore my cowboy and gun shit on the streets. I did all that. Nobody else did it. They would come to the matches, be who they were, and when they left, they went back to a normal life. Not me, I stayed in costume 24 hours a day.”
A few anecdotes from the pages of The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels:
Let’s start with former WWWF world champion Ivan Koloff: “I met him in California with Superstar Billy Graham. We were on the beach and he had these body piercings by his eyes and this big black mark running down his arm. It looked like he’d been burned. I said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s where I put my cigarette out.’ ”
Johnny Powers – “J.P.” to friends: “At 2 a.m. in the morning, I get a call from the cops. This is in Greensboro. ‘You know a Donnie Fargo?’ ‘Uh, yes sir – are you a policeman?’ ‘Yes, but this sorry guy here is on a motorcycle and he is in trouble with his girlfriend and he needed something to give to her, and he drunk all his money up, his paycheck from you.’ There was a bunch of good-looking flowers in the front of a lady’s house. So Donnie, at 2 a.m. in the morning, drives up, makes tracks with his motorcycle, picks up the flowers, and goes off to make up with his girlfriend. But somebody got his license plate. Donnie says to the officers, ‘Well, J.P. will tell you. J.P. will understand.’ Also, he said J.P. will bail him out. Now, who else would do that except Donnie?”
Gun-totin’ partner Nick Kozak was with him at the U.S. Fast Draw Championships in Houston: “When we pulled, we pulled a thumber; we pulled the gun from our waist and, coming out of the holster, we thumbed the hammer back. There were guys who fanned it when they pulled. When the gun came out, they’d just with the left hand shoot the hammer back, and they’d fan. The guy who beat me was a kid out of Dallas, 5-8, 5-10, maybe, skinny, typical geek-looking guy. He jerked that gun out and fanned it, it was like 25/100ths of a second. When Don seen this, he said, ‘Did you see how fast that guy was? I’m going to try fanning it.’ Don had his nice white shirt on, he put his gun in his waist belt and practiced it a couple times, and it was faster than he was doing it. So he said, ‘Oh, I think I’ve got this thing knocked!’ He put a couple black powder shells in his deal, and we said, ‘Go!’ and he pulled and fanned and fired. Well, the first time he did it, he pulled the gun out and without realizing it, the barrel was facing across his stomach. And when he pulled the trigger, the black powder fire burned the front of his shirt off and just peppered his belly with gunpowder. He stood there and went, ‘Fuck!’ I’ll tell you, we hit the floor.”
Here’s one that is more innocent, but no less mindblowing, from Gulf Coast star Terry Lathan: “He was a fabulous artist. One of the best artists I’ve ever seen. He did one of the Ten Commandments, Moses holding the Ten Commandments up in the air, this huge storm overhead. It is probably the most dramatic painting I’ve ever seen in my life. Picasso couldn’t have done any better. The painting, when you looked at it, it floored you. How could this guy, of all guys, paint this scene of Moses holding the Ten Commandments? It was unreal.”
Also unreal is much of Kalt/Fargo/Dalton’s story.
He will always be one of the more colourful, fascinating personalities ever in wrestling.
“Don had a charisma about him that just fit him. He was one in a million, never was one like him and never will be,” said Latham.
In the last few years, he lived in a trailer in the woods near Cantonment, Fla., with his wife Margie.
- Greg Valentine inducts Don Fargo into the PWHF
- Book review: Don Fargo lets it all hang out in ‘The Hard Way’