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The 50 Greatest American Weirdos, Part 2

by Jason Toon

"When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front row seat."
- George Carlin

Every day during Keep America Weird Week, we're counting down the 50 Greatest American Weirdos, the cranks, screwballs, and freaks who make this country greatly strange. We started yesterday with Part 1. Today, we meet numbers 40 through 31…

#40. Crispin Glover: "Unsettling" was not a quality that found young actors a lot of work in the bland era of Ralph Macchio and Andrew McCarthy. But somehow this beatnik-punk performance-art creep has been able to sneak his skin-crawling vibe into a stack of Hollywood blockbusters from Back to the Future to Hot Tub Time Machine, when he wasn't publishing deranged cut-up chapbooks. Swinging a platform shoe at David Letterman was his most famous episode, but his hysterically sobbed cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" is even funnier.

#39. Rube Waddell: This gator-wrasslin' fireballin' hunk of backwoods muscle seems like something out of a W.P. Kinsella novel. The legends about him included his supposed propensity for wandering off of the mound to follow fire trucks (probably not true); opposing fans waving shiny objects and/or small animals to distract him while he was pitching (possibly true); and regularly playing baseball in the Philadelphia streets with kids for hours before turning up at a tavern and working the bar (definitely true). Not only was Rube real, he was real good, setting a single-season strikeout record that stood for over 60 years. But his personal problems - alcoholism, perhaps combined with an undiagnosed developmental disability - cut Waddell's career short after 13 years as one of the biggest gate attractions in baseball, leaving behind 2,316 strikeouts and almost as many stories.



#38. Marjoe Gortner: His first name is an awkward combination of "Mary" and "Joseph": that gives you some idea of the crackpot religious maelstrom young Marjoe Gortner grew up in. By age 4, he was giving holy-rolling, sinner-damning sermons as the star of his preacher father's revival show. For the next 20 years or so, the Gortner family travelled the country saving souls - and selling phony "holy" articles with supposed healing powers. But the hypocrisy got to be too much, and in 1971, Marjoe allowed a film crew to follow the tour, giving backstage interviews revealing the cons and hustles he was perpetrating onstage. Marjoe won the 1972 Oscar for Best Documentary, ended his preaching career, and started a much less lucrative but more honest acting career. To cleanse his soul, Marjoe Gortner had to turn from Jesus to Kojak.

#37. The Ultimate Warrior: Most pro wrestlers are performers. Whatever their ring persona, they know it's just a gig. We're not so sure about the man known variously as Warrior, the Ultimate Warrior, Dingo Warrior, and James Brian Hellwig. The squared circle is too small for this oiled-up face-painted force of nature: his peculiar talents also find an outlet in motivational speaking and inspirational watercolors (as seen above). Warrior also runs a blog, Warrior's Machete, specializing in macho inspirational sermonettes and right-wing screeds delivered "with the chunk-removing force of a Machete swung by a warrior male who believes that, to sever off the unnecessary ambivalence, potentially confusing equivocation and inane relativistic entrenchment, the swing must be carried out with a mighty and annihilating follow-through." That's the kind of weird you just can't fake.

#36. Hasil Adkins: If you think young Jerry Lee Lewis was wild, meet Hasil Adkins, one-man force of rockabilly destruction. Playing primitive guitar and caveman drums at the same time, this West Virginia wildman wrote over 7,000 songs spiked with would-be catchphrases like "gimme that commodity meat". He met a sad but somehow fitting end in 2004, when he was intentionally run over by a scumbag local teenager on an ATV in his own front yard.

#35. Francis E. Dec: So there you are, starting your career as a lawyer in '50s New York, right at the heart of where the American century is unfolding. Then you discover the awful truth about the "COMMUNIST GANGSTER COMPUTER GOD" that is planning "wanton world-wide degenerative ridiculous confusion and destruction of all standards and values" from its base "in the Brain Bank Cities on the far side of the moon we never see." (And pulling the strings in your conviction for forgery and fraud.) You would be duty-bound to spend the next 25 years mailing typewritten warnings to the news media, too. You'll find more Dec than you can possibly stomach at the Francis E. Dec Fanclub, but be warned: it's pretty ugly stuff, including lots of insane racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholic bigotry (the ultimate mental illnesses).

#34. Hedy Lamarr: One of Hollywood's hottest little numbers in the '40s, there was a lot more to Lamarr than met the eye candy. In 1941, she and an avant-garde composer named George Antheil invented an early version of a frequency-hopping communication system later used by U.S. ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis. An implied sex scene in the 1933 movie Ecstasy was explicit enough to get the movie banned in the U.S. - even though the only part of Lamarr you could see was her face. An attempted comeback in 1966 ended amid scandal when she was arrested for shoplifting. Then she became one of the first celebrities to write a frank tell-all memoir, 1967's Ecstasy and Me. It's hard to imagine, say, Scarlett Johansson compiling a similarly interesting CV.


#33. Jim Henson: Yeah, I know you've seen it before. Watch it again. Try to imagine a world without this, and then suddenly: this. Pretty freaky, right? Henson has been so influential that it's easy to forget what a huge leap into bizarreness his post-hippie puppet grotesques really were. Any old nutjob can do something weird off in his own little corner. It takes a real oddball to make weird the new normal.

#32. Ignatius Donnelly: Once upon a time in America, a belief in the lost continent of Atlantis was no bar to holding public office. Ignatius Donnelly served three terms as a Representative from Minnesota (1863-1868), but he was just getting started. Real fame and fortune came with the 1882 publication of Atlantis: the Antidiluvian World. This million-seller brought the idea of a great lost Atlantean civilization into the mainstream. Not content to rest on those briny laurels, his subsequent books expanded the collapse of Atlantis into a comprehensive story about an ancient worldwide meteor cataclysm, and "revealed" that Francis Bacon had actually written the works of Shakespeare. He also dabbled in founding a Utopian colony, wrote one of the first novels about a dystopian dictatorship, ran for Vice-President on the Populist Party ticket, and did about twenty other things that we don't have room for here. Unpeel the onion of any crazy idea or radical current of thought, and you'll probably find Ignatius Donnelly at the heart of it. And we have Donnelly to thank for Aquaman.

#31. Iceberg Slim: Some writers spend their formative years in workshops and MFA programs. Others, like Robert Beck, spend that time pimping and doing time. Compare any of Iceberg Slim's books to the latest prize-winning "literary fiction", and you tell me which one is written better. With an eye for harsh beauty, an ear for ghetto poetry, and a sharp command of character and plot, he sold over six million paperbacks, mostly to black audiences. Thank God the publishing establishment never had the chance to dilute his genius.

Who would you nominate to the honor roll of American weirdos? Come back tomorrow to find out if your favorite nonconformist made the cut of those who have helped Keep America Weird!