While many Australians would have heard about the new film Foxcatcher, more often than not it will be because of the film’s lauded performances from Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. But what many Australians don’t know is the bizarre, murderous story that inspired the film.
The true story of Foxcatcher has everything: lust for power, corruption, Olympic champion brothers, a strange millionaire and madness. It’s one of the strangest crimes in American history.
While Australians were celebrating our national day in 1996, the snow was thick on the ground at millionaire John E. du Pont’s luxury, sprawling Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher, when Olympic gold medallist Dave Schultz was murdered.
Here are the details of the events that inspired the Oscar nominated film out now in Australian cinemas.
On the afternoon of Friday, 26 January, 1996, Dave Schultz was fitting his car with a new radio, before picking up his daughters from school. Dave, 36, an Olympic wrestling gold medalist, lived on the grounds of the Foxcatcher estate of eccentric millionaire John Eleuthère du Pont, employed as a wrestling coach.
As he toyed with his station wagon’s dashboard, a Lincoln Town Car pulled up beside him and the driver’s window came down. It was du Pont and he was carrying a .38 revolver.
“You got a problem with me?” du Pont asked Dave before firing at him.
Dave’s wife, Nancy, who he had been married to for 15 years, was home at the time.
She ran out when she heard the shots and arrived just in time to see du Pont fire a third shot into Dave’s back before rushing inside to call the police.
When she came back outside, du Pont had fled and her husband lay dying in her arms.
Schultz, a legend of the wrestling world, had competed at three consecutive Olympics, but was not strong enough to withstand three shots fired at close range.
When news began to break about the shocking murder of an Olympic legend, no one who had worked or trained at Foxcatcher or known du Pont was totally surprised.
The then 58-year-old du Pont was heir to a family dynasty that created one of the world’s most successful chemical companies. The du Pont’s were credited with creating modern staples like nylon, rayon and Neoprene.
Raised solely by his mother on their grand Pennsylvania estate, du Pont grew up in a life of immense privilege but also of intense loneliness and alienation.
He also had a life-long obsession with the Olympics and, having failed in his attempts as an athlete, du Pont turned his energies to coaching his way to Olympic gold.
Having inherited $46 million from his family business in 1985, du Pont returned to the sport he had loved and been forbidden from as a boy, wrestling.
He purpose built what he hoped would become the national wrestling centre and he wanted two people to be Team Foxcatcher’s star athletes: Dave and Mark Schultz.
Brothers in arms
By the mid 1980’s, brothers Dave and Mark were the most successful fraternal combination in wrestling history. Both had just picked up gold at the 1984 Olympics and together were seen as wrestling royalty.
But USA Wrestling did not pay its athletes and it was not uncommon for highly successful athletes to face crippling financial difficulties.
Unlike the events depicted in the film, after Mark had been fired from a coaching position from Villanova University, du Pont approached him to train at the 800-Acre Foxcatcher estate.
Although Mark had some misgivings about his new patron, he agreed.
“I knew something was wrong with him the first two seconds I laid eyes on him,” Mark told The Guardian in 2014.
Reservations aside, the lucrative offer to join Team Foxcatcher seemed a no brainer for a struggling athlete.
The offer of state of the art training facilities, a healthy salary and a private home on a beautiful estate, was beyond any wrestler’s wildest dreams.
After enjoying some early successes, Mark encouraged Dave to join him at Team Foxcatcher.
Dave was a living legend of the wrestling world, his calm, warm demeanour an anomaly in a sport filled with hot heads. He took up the job as coach and athlete alongside his brother.
“(E)verybody loved Dave’ recalled Mark in the interview.
Nancy had said that training at the estate was considered wrestling “utopia”.
However, the golden opportunity for Mark and Dave would come at a devastating price, as their benefactor would begin to lose his grip on his sanity.
After the death of his mother, du Pont lapsed into intense alcohol and drug abuse and his behavior became increasingly erratic.
He would regularly drive inebriated around his estate crashing into things and had an obsession with guns.
At his 50th birthday he inexplicably began firing off an AK-47 and once ordered treadmills removed from his gym because he was afraid they would take him back in time.
So bizarre was his behaviour, Steve Carrell, who received an Oscar nomination for his potrayal of du Pont in Foxcatcher, said the real life stories about the millionaire couldn’t be used in the film because they were too outlandish to be believed.
And, according to former Foxcatcher wrestler Greg Satell, it became an open secret amongst the athetes that du Pont was “insane” and a “ticking time bomb”, but it was in no one’s interest to reveal the issues.
In the months leading up to Dave’s murder, du Pont’s behavior deteriorated further.
One such story saw du Point kick three African American wrestler’s off his estate saying ‘black was the colour of death’.
He was also reported to have pointed a gun at the chest of wrestler Dan Chaid.
Even though du Pont was obviously troubled, everyone feared the consequences of his generosity disappearing.
“Nobody wanted du Pont’s largesse to end, so we laughed it off and let the pangs of unease subside” Satell told Forbes.
Ironically, Dave was the only member of Team Foxcatcher willing to confront du Pont about his addictions, being the closest thing du Pont had to a friend.
But he himself had already decided he didn’t want to to be a part of the team anymore.
Before his murder, du Pont had grown deeply upset at Dave’s decision to leave Foxcatcher to take up a coaching position at Stanford University after the 1996 Olympics.
He made sure Dave was dead before he could ever leave.
After murdering Dave, du Pont barricaded himself in his 44-room mansion for three days, prompting an intense standoff with the police, who would eventually draw du Pont out of his home by shutting off his house’s heating system.
At his trial, du Pont pleaded not guilty ‘by reason of insanity’ and was diagnosed by the defense’s expert psychiatric witness as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Ultimately, he was found guilty of third degree murder and was sentenced to a maximum 30- year sentence.
In the wake of the murder, the Foxcatcher facility was closed and the Pennsylvania estate sold off.
Dave had a public memorial and was described as the man ‘with 10,000 best friends’ and received a tribute at the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta.
Mark eventually gave up wrestling and took up mixed martial arts. After many years he said he became reconciled to his brother’s violent death. He now works as a motivational speaker.
Nancy eventually won a $35-million dollar wrongful death suit against du Pont and started a wrestling foundation in her husband’s name that provides support to many of Team Foxcatcher’s former members.
In 2010 du Pont died alone in his prison cell. He was 72.
In the Foxcatcher film, directed by Bennett Miller, Dave Schulz is portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum is Dave Schultz, Sienna Miller portrays Nancy Shultz and Steve Carrell is transformed into John du Pont.
Foxcatcher is in Australian cinemas nationally. Read The New Daily’s review here.