By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back, Bruthas and Sistas. It’s time for another edition of what has become a sought after series here at the GP. I thoroughly enjoy hearing the stories and getting the behind the scenes nuggets that may be overlooked by a generic biography.
This week I wanna look back on a conversation I had with a man that left his footprint not only in the wrestling business, but on movies and in the theater. He wined and dined with the greats of his day and married an icon of that era. Indeed, Matt Cimber, has led a life of amazing accomplishments, and fanciful happenstance as he looked at life from the director’s chair.
Born Thomas Ottaviano in 1936, Matt grew up in New York’s famous Little Italy neighborhood. At age fourteen he became a Blue Devil, when he attended the renowned Poly Prep school in Brooklyn. His sister was a vocalist enrolled in a music academy across the city and young Matt used to go with her when she would take him to her lessons at Carnegie Hall. It was during one of these trips that he met Michael Chekhov, a Russian that escaped the disparity of the USSR in those days and made it to America with his wife. Chekhov became a teacher at the Hall and young Cimber would sit in on his classes and absorbed the knowledge of the Russian thespian. Many of his techniques were adapted by great actors including Eastwood, Nicholson, and Brynner. Matt fondly remember his teacher in our talk:
“I learned alot, and I was very fortunate to be a student of Chekhov.”
After graduating from school and attending college, Cimber became involved in the “off Broadway” movement that was gaining ground among the young talents of the city in the late Fifties. He put together an assembly of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald called The Young and the Beautiful which found success and acclaim from the critics, as well as lending credence to establish the young director as one to watch among the up and comers of his generation in the theater.
“I was only twenty-two years old or so, and it was unheard of for a director that young to find success like that. I had another play come in after that, because I guess people felt that I had a lucky streak going. They were good plays and I enjoyed them.”
During this time Matt had a chance encounter with famed French playwright Jean Cocteau while in town. Cocteau wanted to do some of his works in the United States, which had never been done to that point by the artist. He requested for the young director to be involved and Cimber found himself on a flight to Paris to meet with the artist once he had returned home.
“I flew out to France to meet Monsieur Cocteau and his agent. I arrived in Paris at about six o’clock in the morning from New York and was on my way back later that night. So, I never got to see much of Paris, but I came back with the Cocteau plays that really hit it off. I became fascinated with his existential works, because it opens your mind to more creativity.”
This led to Cimber being hired to direct a revival of the play at the Yonkers Playhouse on Broadway by Pulitzer winning playwright, William Inge called Bus Stop. It had moved from Broadway onto the silver screen and made into a motion picture starring Marilyn Monroe. It was announced that Jayne Mansfield was going to come to New York to do a limited release of the play.
It was brought to his attention by her agent, at the William Morris Agency, that she had final approval of the director and cast in her contract. While his resume of work and recent successes preceeded him, Cimber was informed that he would still have to receive that approval, and a meeting with Mansfield was arranged while she was stopping in the city on her way to Europe to do a film with Maurice Chevalier.
“I went to the Drake Hotel on Park Avenue and I sat to wait in the lobby. When Miss Mansfield came through the door she was wearing jeans and didn’t look like publicized images of Miss Mansfield. She was very cordial, and we went up to her room to talk. We spoke abut New York and how she got her first start on Broadway in the play Will Success Spoil Rick Hunter. After sometime, she said she had to get some rest before her flight and as I got to the door of the room I asked her what she wanted to do about Bus Stop, and she simply said, ‘Oh, you direct it.’ Then I asked about the casting and she replied, ‘You can cast it too.’ And that was that.”
Cimber brought together an ensemble of New York actors that would surround Mansfield, and together, they found success in the play. They started to spend more time in each other’s company, and gradually became friendly away from the stage. As things progressed, she invited Matt to come out to Los Angeles to stay with her in her lavish pink mansion, and build his networking connections in Hollywood.
It was at this instant during our conversation that I spoke up and commended Matt on his chutzpah, and for taking the risk to drop everything and just go on a roll of the dice. I have done this as well, and anytime I hear of another that has chosen to “take destiny on the roll”, it makes me feel a kindred moment between us. He was fast to reply with:
“Well, you know, it was exciting. She was exciting. I was always, naturally, a great fan of movies. So it was off to California I went, and saying goodbye to my theater background.”
Their relationship drew them still closer, and on September 24, 1964 the two were married. They continued to work together when Jayne brought to the table the idea of doing a movie version of Matt’s acclaimed play Walk-Up, which was a trilogy about three different couples and families living in a Ney Work City walk-up apartment building. It had found success in Greenwich, NY and she thought it would translate well to film. With the acquisition of a producer, they were filming and had their first big screen release. Cimber gained much notoriety after the film release of Walk-Up.
Later that year the two had a son, whom they named Tony. Sadly, as in many Hollywood marriages during that time, they drifted apart in their career paths, and that led to a rifting of their personal lives as well. The two separated in 1966.
Mansfield died in the early morning hours of June 29, 1967 in a car accident that left her, the driver, and her attorney Sam Brody dead upon impact, after they rear ended a tractor-trailer. She also had three of her children in the back seat asleep, but they all survived with only minor injuries. One of these children was Mariska Hargitay, who later found great fame in front of the camera as well, as Olivia Benson in the hit series Law and Order: SVU. She also appeared as the character Cynthia Hooper on the hit E/R. Jayne Mansfield was only thirty-four years old when she passed away. Like so many of that generation, she was taken in her prime, and way too soon.
Matt took his two year old son and carried on as best he could in the wake of his wife’s death. He was still a parent with all the responsibilities that went along with that, and he went back to work in the movie industry. He found his first controversy in the business with his movie portrayal of the N.Y. Times best selling book that swept the country; Sensuous Female by J. Cimber never thought the film would draw any critical attention, and followed his theatrical teachings to continue ahead with the work. The film version was called The Sexually Liberated Female, and we talked a little about the production of the film and his thoughts on the article about the film in Life Magazine:
“I read the book and saw that it would involve some nudity, which was new at that time. It was definetly not pornographic. I was amazed that the book was a best seller, but that tells you something about America in those days. So I decided to make a comedy out of it. While I was shooting it, Life Magazine came along and followed us all during the filming. This, I guess, was about 1969, so Life was still a powerhouse. In any event, one day after the picture had been released, a friend called me and told me that I should pick up a copy of Life. When I opened it up, the whole two pages, both left and right was a picture of me standing on a hill with a camera shooting this young couple in the distance with their backs to us, who were just lying there naked. Now, the part that really annoyed me was that they had printed ‘California pornographer Matt Cimber’, and today you would rate the film as a light R. But it was revolutionary and it was new, but that hurt me very badly around Hollywood, and limited my choices after that for a short while because people got self-conscious about wanting to use me.”
He continued to work and made several independent films, and other offerings that were later picked up and used as inspiration by directors like Quentin Tarantino. He made several black films at that time as well including the action-motorcycle picture The Black 6 (1973), which starred six of the most famous football players of that time. The line up comprised of “Mean” Joe Greene, Carl Eller, Mercury Morris, Lem Barney, Gene Washington, and Willie Lanier. He also produced and directed The Candy Tangerine Man (1975), starring John Daniels. We stopped to focus on this series of films he made, as well as many of his peers at that time, that have been terribly stereotyped and mis-categorized to represent the hurdles that were unjustly put up against minorities in film during those days:
“I don’t like the expression black exploitation films. That is a white man’s expression. Why? Because we had black heroes, and we were telling that audience that it was okay for them to have them. It scared them I think, the industry.”
He followed that up with another critically scrutinized movie, out of a pair made with Pia Zadora, called Butterfly(1982), which garnered three Golden Globe nominations. Stacey Keach starred in the film alongside Zadora, as well as it being the last on-screen acting role made by Orson Welles. He went to Europe soon after to make a pair of films. It was during this time that things in the States were beginning to swirl on the peripheral of the wrestling word that would land on his doorstep as the venture that most fans of that business remember.
Cimber was approached by Zadora’s husband, Meshulam Riklis, who owned the Riveria Hotel to get involved in a new project that he was wanting to get into. It was a female wrestling program, and he told Matt that the creator thought he could build it up and draw a large audience. He agreed to talk to the man and come on board, even with some trepidation.
“I started to try to make more of a comedy out of it. At that time, you had Hee-Haw, and you had Laugh-In, which were fabulous shows. I thought, if we start making this humorous and go with it…there it is. So that’s how GLOW was built. The characters were all drawn from social elements in our society. We took alot of the brashness out of stuff, and made fun out of almost everything. We managed to insult everybody. (Laughs). Every organization from the NAACP to the Jewish Defense League to a preacher from Tennessee with connections with 7-Up who disliked the character of The Princess of Darkness.”
What really made me laugh during this part of our conversation was that he put the preacher over the edge by having a birthday party for the Devil, complete with birthday candles that couldn’t be blown out. POP!!
For many of us wrestling fans that were lucky enough to grow up during those years, GLOW represented the first real look at what women’s wrestling could be, beyond the limited use as valets, managers, and ring announcers. Though they may have been campy, and their characters indeed over the top at times, those women busted their asses and indelibly left their mark on the history of this business.
After he reached the one hundred show milestone, Matt stepped away from the GLOW brand and left to do other things in 1990. The show, and the Gorgeous Ladies have received a new found fame since the debut of the series. We closed our interview talking about that:
“Now, after Netflix has came along, now they’re all stars. They’re all glamour girls again, ya know. It’s kinda fun and it’s ok. Some of them get out of line a little bit, and I have to take them to task. (laughs). We’ve had huge stories in twenty-seven news outlets including the Washington Post, the New York Post, and the New Yorker, among others talking about the old GLOW and how it inspired this new revival. They’re all going through a wonderful time now and I’m happy for them.”
Before we parted ways, I asked him if he had any stories from the road that really stood out to him and he immediately came to the table with this great one. I’ll leave you with it. I wanna thank Matt Cimber for taking the time to sit and talk with me for this interview. He was openly frank and honest about his story, and that made it so much fun to take in. Until next time, always remember… … Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! I hope you enjoy this little extra road story. Peace.