Exclusive interview: Sgt. Slaughter on becoming the face of G.I. Joe
There are few Superstars in history tougher than WWE Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter; hisBoot Camp Matches against the likes of Iron Sheik and Pat Patterson defined “hardcore,” and his controversial turn as an Iraqi sympathizer at the height of the Persian Gulf War pushed the envelope long before WWE’s Attitude Era. Yet, as rough-and-tumble as he was in the ring, Sarge was perhaps just as intimidating — if not moreso — on another battlefield entirely.
In 1985, the former U.S. Marine drill instructor made history as the first real-life personality to become part of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero franchise, appearing in the wildly popular cartoon, the Marvel comic books and, of course, the expansive toyline. This began a longstanding tie between G.I. Joe and sports-entertainment, bolstered recently by The Rock’s starring role in the G.I. Joe: Retaliation feature film.
With Slaughter returning to animation as a hard-nosed but sensitive counselor on WWE Network’s “Camp WWE,” WWE.com caught up with Sarge to discuss his original foray in the voiceover booth, his decision to leave WWE to team up with Duke, Snake Eyes and the rest of the Joes, and his legacy as A Real American Hero on several fronts.
WWE.COM: How did your relationship with G.I. Joe come about?
SGT. SLAUGHTER: Hasbro approached my attorney and suggested that they would like to talk to me about being the first and only real-life character in the G.I. Joe animated series and toy line. So I had a meeting in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and just before we left the meeting, I said, “I appreciate you letting me come in and talk to you, but just remember, I’m the real G.I. Joe.“ They all kind of stopped and looked around. At the time, I had a camouflaged limousine and we drove that right in front of the offices there, and had American flags on the fenders. After I said that, I got in the limousine and drove off.
WWE.COM: So they got the message!
SLAUGHTER: They did. About halfway back, we stopped and had some dinner, and my attorney called his office. We had gotten some calls — you know, cell phones weren’t really big back then — and [Hasbro] wanted to go forward with it. So we were really happy with it.
WWE.COM: Was WWE happy as well?
Vince wasn’t really happy with my decision, but he shook my hand and we parted ways.
SLAUGHTER: So I, of course, went to Vince McMahon and told him the good news. He said, “Well, that’s great, Sarge, but I can’t let you do it because we have another toy company involved, and working with Hasbro would be a conflict of interests.” I was let down on that, so he came to me later and said, “If you really want to go, you go ahead and go. You’ll always have a spot here.”
WWE.COM: That must have been a tough decision to make.
SLAUGHTER: I had to give that a lot of thought, because we were really doing some great business with WWE then: Two shows a night and we were just selling out all over the country. We were working up to WrestleMania 1, so I sat down with my family and talked it over, and decided I could always be a wrestler, but I couldn’t always be the first real-life character in G.I. Joe. Vince wasn’t really happy with my decision, but he shook my hand and we parted ways.
WWE.COM: A lot of fans may not realize that’s why you were absent during that time.
SLAUGHTER: For the first six WrestleManias, while I was with Hasbro, I couldn’t be at any of the shows. And that hurt seeing the success that was going on, but I was being very successful too, with Hasbro.
WWE.COM: Your first G.I. Joe action figure debuted in 1985. What do you remember about that?
SLAUGHTER: What’s interesting is that the first figure of Sgt. Slaughter, you couldn’t buy. You had to earn him.
WWE.COM: That’s right! You needed to send in your proofs of purchase.
SLAUGHTER: You’d do the five proofs of purchases and send them in. There was even a number that kids could call, telling them a secret code [good for one proof of purchase]. To the surprise of both myself and Hasbro, they backordered so fast. So a lot of kids were waiting at their mailboxes for quite a while to get their action figure.
WWE.COM: Do you remember what it was like seeing the figure for the first time?
SLAUGHTER: It was quite small, you know? And very movable. I got a whole box of them, so I was giving them out to people — fans, relatives, and I was even going around the rings and handing them out at different indie shows. I ended up with the AWA and they allowed me to promote G.I. Joe. The next thing I know, they’re all gone. Trying to get more was like pulling teeth because they were so backordered.
But it was really fun to see yourself [as a toy] with your gear on, ready to go, jumping into the Triple T Tank ready to take on Cobra, and to see so many displays around the country at department stores and toy stores.
WWE.COM: And your figure was always in high demand. It was reissued so many different times in the 1980s.
SLAUGHTER: They put me with different groups: The Renegades and Slaughter’s Marauders. Of course, they basically just changed my colors [for each figure]. But Hasbro did a special thing in 2010 when they sold figures at San Diego Comic Con, which was the only place you could get them.
WWE.COM: And it came with a custom G.I. Joe Championship!
SLAUGHTER: It became a collector’s item quite quickly. Of course, they’re all collector’s items. I wish I had them all, but there was an unfortunate flood at a friend’s house where I was storing a lot of my things and they got ruined. But just to know that you’ve been a part of it for so long makes you feel really special.
WWE.COM: Every Joe was qualified to be a drill instructor, but on the cartoon, your character was the toughest of the tough to be able to train these guys. What was it like to actually see your cartoon character in action for the first time?
SLAUGHTER: He was a lot tougher than I thought he was gonna be, and it made me feel proud that they decided to go in that direction with the character. I think I was at one point third or fourth in command [later in the series]. But just to be that high up in the ranking, and to be a part of it for so many years, that’s something that will live forever. It’ll never go away.
To be a real-life version of G.I. Joe, that made it more special, because children and adult fans could see you and know you were the real thing. The real guy.
WWE.COM: When you signed on to be part of G.I. Joe, did you have any idea it would go on to be as big as it was throughout the years?
SLAUGHTER: Just like with WWE and WrestleMania and all the pay-per-views, I knew it was going to be special. When I saw the first action figure and I saw the first animated episode I was in, I knew it was going to be really special because it was so well done. It was done with great technology. And just like how WWE presents its Superstars, G.I. Joe was larger than life. To be a real-life version of G.I. Joe, that made it more special, because children and adult fans could see you and know you were the real thing. The real guy. That made it even more special. I use special a lot, but it really was.
WWE.COM: Kids could actually meet their favorite cartoon character when they met you.
SLAUGHTER: I remember going to Japan one time and I went into a store just to see if the G.I. Joe line was there. There was a huge display there, and I saw a little boy with my Triple T Tank in his hand, and he was looking at it. So I went up behind him and I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up at me, looked at the box, looked up at me again, dropped the box and he ran. I went behind a pillar that was there in the store, and he brings his mom and says he just saw Sgt. Slaughter. She’s shaking her head like “no,” and saying, “I don’t think so.” He was saying, “Yes! Yes! I saw him! He was here!” Finally, she went away, so I snuck back around and tapped him on the shoulder. He slowly turned back around and looked at me, and I shook his hand. I took him over to his mom and, of course, it made her feel pretty good.
WWE.COM: Do you have any other favorite memories of your time as a G.I. Joe?
SLAUGHTER: One time down in Florida, I went to a children’s care center, and there were about 10 or 12 children in this room. I remember this one little boy had a helmet on and he was hanging on to a chalkboard. I walked in, totally in character, and he turned around, looked at me and gave me a hug on my leg. He was probably about 4 or 5, maybe even younger. The whole room got quiet. I picked him up, and he was smiling and touching my face. A couple of the nurses came over and I said, “He’s a nice little boy.” One of the nurses said, “You don’t understand. He’s never walked before.” That was a pretty special thing to have happen, not only for me, but for him and everybody there.
WWE.COM: These days, you’re continuing to make people smile as a counselor on “Camp WWE,” which brings you back into the voiceover booth. What’s it like for you to play a new animated version of the Sgt. Slaughter character?
SLAUGHTER: The first [version of the show] we did was actually aimed toward a younger audience. It just didn’t fly. It was good, but it wasn’t what they wanted. So we went back in and did the new ones, and all of a sudden I’m seeing these different lines and I said, “Whoa! Big change!” It’s definitely not a family-friendly show.
WWE.COM: Did you know the series was going to be hilarious when you were recording the voiceovers?
SLAUGHTER: I remember the first time working with [creators Seth Green and Aaron Blitzstein], I would read a line, and I would hear Seth and Aaron start laughing. They were being entertained as I was reading the line.
One time Seth was laughing, and he was catching his breath, but he said, “You don’t know when you’re writing this how it’s going to sound. When you hear the voice, it’s just incredible to hear how it sounds. It’s 10 times better than I could have ever imagined it.” So you’re proud of yourself knowing that this is something that’s the first of its kind. Here I am, just as I was in 1985 when I was the first real-life G.I. Joe, being in WWE’s first adult animated series. I’m entertaining myself.
WWE.COM: What do you think of the positive reaction “Camp WWE” has been getting?
SLAUGHTER: I wasn’t sure how the public would react. But to hear that it’s getting a good reaction and seeing how those characters are coming across is a great feeling. In the booth, you only read your lines, so you don’t know how these lines are going to be put into the show. Seeing me [in the first episode] take my mustache off, getting in a bubble bath and humming, I didn’t expect that.
WWE.COM: Finally, we have to ask: Is knowing really half the battle?
SLAUGHTER: [Laughs] Knowing is half the battle. And now you know!