"Playboy" Gary Hart, one of the most successful managers in pro wrestling history, passed away Sunday at the age of 66 in Euless, Texas.
Hart, whose real name was Gary Richard Williams, had just returned from a wrestling reunion over the weekend in Allentown, Pa., when he died at his home from an apparent heart attack.
Hart was regarded as one of the greatest managers of all time, and for a span of nearly 30 years managed such names as The Spoiler, Bruiser Brody, Great Kabuki, Great Muta, Terry Funk and Abdullah The Butcher, as well as such tag teams as Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, and The Missouri Mauler and Brute Bernard.
Hart also played a pivotal role in some of wrestling's most famous angles, including the Dusty Rhodes babyface turn in Florida in 1974 when Hart managed the villainous Pak Song, and serving as booker for a classic 1982 cage match in Dallas that involved Ric Flair, the Von Erichs and The Freebirds.
Hart, who began his career in 1963 as a wrestler based out of Chicago, was a major figure in a number of territories throughout the country. He later turned to a more successful role as a cocky, well-dressed manager who would do most of the talking for his heel charges.
His greatest success, though, came as a booker and creative force during the glory years of the Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling, a position he held from 1979 to 1987. He is credited with helping create the classic feud between the Von Erichs and The Freebirds that set the territory on fire.
"I spent a lot of time on the road with Gary Hart," 16-time world champ Flair said Monday. "He was a big part of that angle and success (in Texas)."
One of Hart's last major high-profile stints was as leader of the J-Tex Corporation in the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling in 1989 when he managed a stable that included Muta, Funk, Buzz Sawyer, Dick Slater and Dragonmaster in a feud with Flair and Sting.
Hart, who had made a name for himself working as a manager for promoter Jim Barnett in Australia during the late '60s, was brought into the Carolinas in 1970 at the behest of veteran Mid-Atlantic star Rip Hawk (Harvey Evers).
"I brought him in right out Australia, and I had to talk like hell to (promoter) Jim Crockett (Sr.) to get him in here. It all worked out. It was good for everybody," said Hawk.
"Gary was a great manager," Hawk added. "He always had his brain working. He could get on the mic and do anything. He knew how to handle the people and he knew how top control the wrestlers he was with. He had a lot of good ideas."
Hawk, 77, last saw his former manager last August in Charlotte when Hart inducted Hawk and late partner Hanson into the NWA Legends Hall of Heroes.
It was Hart who NWA Legends Fanfest founder Greg Price first talked to about the Hall of Heroes concept.
"I talked with Gary a bunch about it, and he loved the idea from the beginning. It was different because they are the true legends, instead of the legends who are on top now. He loved the idea as far as honoring Rip and Swede, and the history that he had with them, and the Crocketts. He always spoke highly of the Crocketts and about how first-class they were and how well they always treated him. This area meant a lot to Gary Hart."
Former Mid-South Wrestling owner Cowboy Bill Watts, who called Hart one of the greatest minds in the business, credits the manager with helping jump-start his Oklahoma-based territory in the early '70s. Hart had been sent to Watts by Texas promoter Fritz Von Erich as part of his commitment to helping an early partnership that included Watts, Von Erich, Verne Gagne, Danny Hodge and Leroy McGuirk.
"Gary and I just clicked right off," said Watts. "He wore quality handmade suits and alligator shoes, and that was an era where managers dressed on the cheap because they always had junk thrown at them and stuff thrown on them. But Gary had first-class, handmade suits, like you'd see on a banker, and sharp shoes to go with them. And he had a way of talking to people that really hit all their hot buttons, because he could get so down and dirty."
Along with The Spoiler (Don Jardine), "who never really had made any money before," said Watts, the two popped the territory.
Watts also said Hart worked well with promoters.
"Gary was always extremely flexible in that he knew different ways to take things that would work out and still protect the man he was managing, along with his gimmick and longevity. I knew I could go to him to get ideas about where we wanted to go. And that was huge, because when you had the burden of booking and running a territory, sooner or later your mind went dry because you had done everything and had repeated it. You had to have new ideas."
Hart proved just how valuable he could be while Watts was booking Florida in the '70s.
"We had billboards around town with Pak Song Nam's army and a bounty on Dusty Rhodes and Jack Brisco. That's when Dusty Rhodes truly became 'the American Dream' - in the feud with Gary and Pak Song. Gary is the one who positioned that. He was phenomenal. In Georgia, he managed Dick Slater and Bobby Orton Jr., who were an awesome tag team. He also managed Maniac Mark Lewin, who was a phenomenal worker and had that new gimmick, and then he managed Kabuki. And, of course, he was booking for Fritz when he positioned The Freebirds' feud with the Von Erich boys. The kids got so hot after that."
"Gary was a dear friend and a stand-up guy," said Watts. "He would always tell you exactly what he thought. He wouldn't back down from anybody."
Watts related a story where Hart even stood up to the imposing Abdullah The Butcher in Atlanta. Watts had asked Abby to do an angle that the "madman from the Sudan" didn't particularly embrace.
"I was getting ready to can his (behind) when Gary Hart walked over," said Watts. "Now Gary had no official status. But he walked over and cussed Abdullah out right to his face in the vernacular of the ghetto. They had started together under (Detroit promoter) Bert Ruby years earlier. But Gary told him off and said if he wasn't going to do things right, get the ---- out of here. I was just shocked that he would talk to him so strongly, because Gary was never known as a tough guy. But for somebody like that who didn't have an ax to grind to come to my support like that, it said a lot."
Hart survived a 1975 plane crash in Tampa that claimed the life of wrestling star Bobby Shane. The same plane that had been piloted by Buddy Colt, who was badly injured in the crash, had been flown to Atlanta to Jacksonville to Tampa by Watts.
"Buddy was a student pilot, and I already had my instrument rating," recalled Watts. "I was coming down anyway, so I flew his plane for him. It was the same plane he crashed later that night in Tampa Bay where Bobby Shane drowned, and Gary, Buddy and Dennis McCord were injured. They were lucky to get out alive because they had to swim to the beach. Gary lost his sight in one eye in that crash."
Hart had joined fellow Texas mat personalities Skandor Akbar (Jim Wehba) and Bill Irwin over the weekend at a wrestling-themed event in Pennsylvania. He also had been working on the final touches of an autobiography, whose working title is "My Life in Wrestling: With a Little Help from My Friends," that is expected to be published later this year.
Hart hadn't been home long after being picked up at the airport Sunday when he collapsed.
"Jason had just gotten to the house, and said his dad was acting like he was trying to clear his throat. He was shaking real hard, and he was having the final moments of a heart attack."
"Gary hadn't been sick," added Watts. "He was trying to talk me into coming to some of these fan deals and meeting him there. He'd call me about every two weeks, and we'd just talk. He was a great guy."
In recent years Hart had become a regular at fan conventions and other related nostalgia gatherings, and had provided a major voice in DVDs about the World Class years.
"From the little time that I was around him, I know he really enjoyed the fanfests," said Greg Price. "He liked doing that stuff and being around the fans, reminiscing about wrestling. Gary Hart was one of the most intriguing men I ever met.
"The times that I got to know him and spend with him just confirmed whatever I ever though about the guy - about how smart he was and how on top of everything he was. When I watched him manage, he was like the consummate professional. And when I met him and got to know him, that just confirmed everything I ever thought about him. He was probably one of the coolest guys I ever met."
Hart indeed wore many hats. He was booker in charge of the first Starrcade in Greensboro, N.C., in which Flair won the NWA world title from Harley Race.
"A lot of people talk about Gary and World Class, but they forget that he was so much more for so many years before that," said Price. "He's what WWE now calls creative. He was creative at a time when the business was much more protected and much more structurally relaxed. It's completely different from what it is now."
Price says he'll have fond memories of the colorful manager.
"Gary Hart was like the best uncle you could ever have. He was that 'Uncle Gary' to a lot of people. I know Kevin Von Erich still refers to him as 'Uncle Gary.'"
Hart, who described himself as "a kid from Chicago who worked very hard to make it in wrestling," will be remembered as someone who changed the landscape of the wrestling business. Even WWE acknowledged his contributions to the business in a note on the company's Web site.
"Gary Hart will live on in the hearts and minds of his friends, family, and fans and colleagues."