Bill Apter is a legendary writer and photographer who covered professional wrestling for nearly 50 years and capped his career with his highly entertaining book, "Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn't Know It Was Broken!"
I recently had a chance to talk with Apter about a wide variety of subjects, including some inside stories about "The Apter Mags", how a Jerry Lawler vs. Andre The Giant matchup nearly got Bill in a lot of trouble with Vince McMahon, Sr., Apter being the first person in the industry to do what are termed today as "shoot interviews" and how Muhammad Ali's quest to take on new driving adventures made Apter fear for his life.
How did the magazines become known as The Apter Mags?
That title was coined by Dave Meltzer from The Wrestling Observer. I used to call him on it and say, "Dave, I work for a publishing company and we have plenty of editors and writers and photographers and art people, so it's not the Apter mags. Stanley Weston owns them and they should be called the Weston mags." Meltzer said to me, "Fans see you at every arena and you are at every federation's TV show either handing out awards or doing commentary. You are the face of the magazines, so that's why I call them the Apter mags."
Shed a bit of light on how the magazines made a concerted effort to hire talented writers.
Peter King and Stu Saks, two writers who eventually served as editor-in-chief of the magazines, came from newspaper backgrounds. Gary Morgenstein, a former editor for Pro Wrestling Illustrated, has written novels and he's been doing playwriting for a long time. In fact, this summer several of the plays he's written were going on at the New York theater festival. The people we hired were legitimate writers. They weren't schlock people, everyone had a good background.
The magazines at one point published a transcript of an interview that Vince McMahon did with CNN in the mid 1980s where it was clear he wasn't going to adhere to a kayfabe world. Was that the first time this type of thing happened?
The very first time we went away from the kayfabe approach was in the early 1970s when I was going around and meeting the wrestlers. I went to meet Bruno Sammartino and when I mentioned working for Mr. Weston, Bruno got very upset and said he didn't want to be interviewed. I asked why and Bruno said a couple of years earlier Mr. Weston put out a story called, "This is your life, Bruno Sammartino," that had a lot of material that wasn't true. I taped Bruno saying this and brought it back to Mr. Weston, who was surprised that Bruno thought there were a lot of inaccuracies.
Bruno had asked me to call him back afterwards because he wanted to know what Weston's reaction would be, so I called him and told him what Mr. Weston said. I then asked Bruno if we could meet up at the Garden next week and talk for about two hours so we could do a Q & A of his life's story. He agreed and Mr. Weston published it. We started doing more of these with wrestlers like Mil Mascaras, so I actually was probably the first guy to go out and do shoot interviews in the magazines in the early 1970s.
Did these interviews respect kayfabe?
There was nothing that they were talking about that would break kayfabe. It was their life story. But they weren't saying, "I worked with this guy." They would say, "I wrestled this guy". Instead of saying "I went to a one-hour Broadway with this guy", they would say, "I wrestled a one-hour draw with Harley Race and unfortunately he beat me." So they stayed in storyline, but the facts about their life were completely true.
It changed my whole relationship with everyone in the industry, because once one of the wrestlers trusts you, they endorse you. It even changed our magazine's relationship with Gorilla Monsoon, who was very standoffish because Mr. Weston had written a story about him that really ticked him off.
Why was Monsoon upset?
Gorilla got mad because a photographer went to his house on assignment from Mr. Weston and Monsoon has a gun collection and there was a picture of him holding a gun and the headline was, "I'd like to kill Sammartino." In their personal life they were very good friends and his family and friends were shocked because even though he was a bad guy, that went over the line.
What was the decision making process as to which wrestlers would be featured on the cover of the magazines? Was the only determining factor which wrestler was going to sell more magazines?
That was not my mentality at the beginning. My mentality was to put people on the cover that everybody knows, but Mr. Weston is a publisher and his business was to sell magazines, so whoever sold the most magazines would get the covers.
How did a wrestler break into getting on the covers? Was there a process where they went from being on a cover of one of the lesser selling magazines as a test and then moved up the ladder if they were successful at the lower level?
It was a situation of whoever was working the main event at the Garden. The magazines' office was in New York, so Bruno was on the cover a lot. In the event of a wrestler we weren't sure of, they would get the small box shot. The WWWF and the National Wrestling Alliance were the big ones for us, so if sales proved out to be better with the WWWF guy on the cover, they got the main spot and then a Georgia Championship Wrestling star would get the small spot. And then we'd put enough cover lines from the AWA and other promotions so we helped all of the promoters who wanted to make sure their product was being covered.
Did the promoters try to get more of their wrestlers on the covers?
Some of them did. Some of them didn't care because the magazines didn't jibe with their local TV, but the wrestlers all wanted to be in the magazines. Captain Lou Albano and Fred Blassie used to joke with me and say, "If I'm not on the cover, I don't want to be in the damn rag!", but they loved being in the magazine. As long as the storyline was complimentary to them, they loved being in the magazine. Periodically, if there was a story that somebody didn't like, just to maintain their relationship with me, they would say Vince McMahon, Sr. didn't like it. Once in a while Vince McMahon, Sr. would call me and would have an issue with a story that was run.
Can you share an instance of this?
The biggest one in history was the Jerry Lawler vs. Andre The Giant story.
Jerry Lawler was a great publicist for himself and he used to send pictures all of the time to get into the magazines. One time Jerry sent us pictures of him wrestling Andre The Giant. I called him and said these are great pictures and I need to talk to the photographer. Jerry and the photographer joked when I said what was the finish of the match? They said Lawler threw Andre over the top rope and it was a countout.
I always brought photos to the magazine headline meeting and when the other editors saw these photos, they said, "What was the finish of the match?" I said Lawler dumped Andre over the top rope and Andre was counted out, so we went with that as the headline.
Lawler later told me he went to the National Wrestling Alliance convention and he got called on the carpet about that. Vince McMahon Sr. owned Andre The Giant's promotional rights, so Vince was initially very upset at Jerry Lawler and Lawler said you have to talk to Bill Apter about this. McMahon then brought this up front of all of the promoters and Terry Funk ratted on Lawler by saying, "It was Jerry Lawler who told Apter."
So now I get a call from Vince McMahon, Sr., screaming at me, saying, "Can you get that magazine off of the newsstands?!" I said we can't get the magazine off of the newsstands. Jerry Lawler and I did not talk for nearly two-and-a-half years because of that. He faulted me and I faulted him and/or the photographer, so we stopped talking.
Did Andre actually get thrown over the top rope? Was that the real finish?
I don't know what the actual finish was. When Andre got booked out, he didn't lose, so Lawler probably lost. But you can't believe the tension and anxiety that caused Lawler, I'm sure, but also for me because I thought by making Vince McMahon, Sr. mad, that was it, that was the end of my career. So we came out with another magazine with a full cover picture of Andre that was titled, "Andre The Giant - wrestling's only undefeated superstar" and that satisfied Vince Sr.
You covered boxing for a long time as well, correct?
I started in 1970 with World Boxing and International Boxing magazines. I was the main photographer. I traveled with Ali and George Foreman.
Any crazy Ali stories?
When I went up to his training camp in Deer Lake, PA, the press was invited on to a press bus. We were going to be going down a very steep, winding mountain and Ali made the bus driver sit down and then Ali drove the bus. We all thought we were going to die because Ali had supposedly never driven a bus that size before.
Just looking over everything you are doing and it is clear Bill Apter is still a very busy man. Tell us what you are working on now.
I'm the editor of 1wrestling.com. I do videos for the website that run through YouTube. I have a staff of great video and writing talent, like Big Ray Hernandez, who is my main video reporter. Fans can keep up with everything I do for that site via my Twitter feed, @apter1wrestling.
I also do a one-man show based on my book, "Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn't Know It Was Broken!" A big part of that show features some of the videos of the Championship Office Wrestling matches we had back in the day where the editors would stage matches in the middle of the editorial department. There is even a clip of Rob Van Dam doing a moonsault off of a Xerox machine.
Besides that, during the days for the past ten years I've worked for a non-profit called Ahedd. The company is headed into its 40th anniversary of helping people with various degrees of disabilities to find and maintain employment. I'm an employment specialist and help people find jobs and retain them.