The famed wrestling family's story is the subject of the Zac Efron-led film, 'The Iron Claw.'
It's hard to fathom how the so-called "Von Erich Curse" can be viewed as nothing more than a mythologized idea by ardent wrestling fans and even nonexistent by the family's lone living relative. Tragedy, as much as stardom, has followed the family as far back as the 1950s, when Jack Adkisson started wrestling under the ring moniker Fritz Von Erich.
It was during that same decade when Fritz invented one of the sport's most iconic wrestling moves, the Iron Claw, in which he spread his humungous hand over his opponent's face and squeezed it to oblivion.
That same decade, in 1959, the family suffered its first unspeakable tragedy, when the youngest son, Jackie, died at just 7 years old in Upstate New York after he was electrocuted, fell face first and drowned in a puddle of melting snow.
In the years and decades that followed, pain and sorrow plagued the Von Erichs, and these calamitous events, sadly, would come to define their storied wrestling legacy.
The family's wrestling stardom and tragic events became the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 short-documentary dubbed Wrestling the Curse in 2015. Nearly a decade later, Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White lead a star-studded cast for A24's film on the real-life story of the Von Erich family, aptly dubbed The Iron Claw.
The two standout leads are at the heart of the story, which follows the Von Erich family, led by Fritz (played by Mindhunter star Holt McCallany). Efron plays Kevin Von Erich, White plays Kerry Von Erich, Harris Dickinson plays David Von Erich, and Stanley Simons plays Mike Von Erich. The Von Erich brothers spent the majority of their careers in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW), where they won multiple individual and tag team titles. The family was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009.
With the film's first trailer dropping Wednesday, ET takes a closer look at the real-life wrestling story of the Von Erich family.
Who is Fritz Von Erich?
Long before finding wrestling stardom and becoming the patriarch of a family that churned out wrestling stars, Jack Adiksson was a football star at Southern Methodist University in Texas. The story goes that he briefly played for the then-Dallas Texans of the National Football League.
After football, Jack found wrestling in the early 1950s. According to a 1988 profile of the family in D Magazine, Jack started fighting under the ring moniker Fritz Von Erich and he adopted the role of a Nazi villain. At a towering 6 feet, 4 inches, Fritz was considered a terrifying figure, never mind the eerie persona.
Fritz would eventually ditch the villainous role in the mid-1970s for the "good guy" role. But he kept the name, and his sons would later adopt the famous moniker that would define them as one of wrestling's most iconic families.
Tragedy strikes in 1959
Fritz found stardom in the 1950s (never mind that he got paid only $5 per fight) but the high of highs as a wrestling star paled in comparison to the lowest of lows.
While living in a trailer park in Niagara Falls, New York, his wife, Doris, gave birth to their first son, Jackie, in 1952. But just seven years later, Jackie died after he was electrocuted. He touched a live wire while playing in the trailer park. After touching the wire, little Jackie fell face first and drowned in a puddle of melting snow.
Fritz was not home and away on a wrestling trip when Jackie died, and Doris, according to D Magazine, wanted to die following her son's death. The outlet also reported that the death in 1959 is how Doris would judge time ("It happened nearly 12 years after Jackie died," she will say about some family event).
After the loss of his sons, the magazine reported, Fritz returned to the ring with a vengeance.
Four more sons die 10 years apart
It's between 1984 and 1993 when the family is leveled by one death after another.
David was the second son to die, and it came out of nowhere, too. He died suddenly from an intestinal infection in a Tokyo hotel in 1984. Mike, Chris and Kerry would soon follow.
Mike died at just 23 years old from a drug overdose. D Magazine reported that after he was arrested for DWI, Mike had driven out to the woods and taken a lethal overdose of tranquilizers. Police found his body curled up in an old sleeping bag just a few hundred yards away from the Von Erich home. Police also found a note from Mike addressed to his mom:
"Mom, you have always been wonderful. I am in a better place."
Mike had a big heart. He quietly visited handicapped kids on his free time, and he had reportedly been giving his money to a poor elder woman who lived near him.
"I don't think Mike was ever really sure he felt good enough to take on the Von Erich role," Kerry told D Magazine. "I mean, it churched him up inside that he wasn't as quick or as strong as the rest of us. And after the toxic shock, when he started losing his balance on the top ropes, or missing a hold or something, he thought he had lost part of himself, you know what I mean?"
Chris died next. He was just 22 years old when he died by suicide after a gunshot to the head. Kerry also died by suicide after a gunshot to the chest in 1993. He was 33.
The day his tragic death, Kevin and Fritz spoke to ET after Kerry's death on the family ranch in Texas. In the wake of losing a third brother to suicide, Kevin explained the many hardships Kerry faced in the days, weeks and years leading up to his death. The most distressing issue at the time was the looming threat of a prison sentence, after Kerry was indicted by a grand jury for cocaine possession, therefore breaking his probation following a separate drug charge.
"[Kerry] told me that if he had to go to prison, he was gonna kill himself," Kevin said of their final conversation. "He had seen that he could get as far as he was gonna get with me, so he said, 'OK, Kev. I won't do it. I won't commit suicide. Whatever you say, buddy.' And that's the way we left it right there."
It was Fritz who discovered his son's dead body. Following that horrific moment, Fritz recalled their interaction from earlier that morning, something he says should have tipped him off.
"It was a horrible experience for me," Fritz recalled. "He said, 'I just want to go back to a quiet place to just be alone for a while.' …When he saw me, he grabbed me and hugged me. And I hugged him. I kissed him. He said, 'Dad, I really love you.' And I should have realized that was different. That something wasn't right there."
Despite such tragic history, Kevin told the Dallas Morning News in 2015 that the "Von Erich Curse" is not a thing.
"It's not a curse," he said at the time. "To tell [you] the truth, I may have believed it when it was going on, but I never said it out loud."
For ESPN's 30 for 30 short-doc, Wrestling the Curse, Kevin said that "after all of this I went a little crazy."
"I wanted to die, but I wasn't going to kill myself," he added. "I wanted to go to prison and get in fights, and I wanted to be punished like I had done something. It was stupid."
In 1997, the patriarch of the family died in 1997 from brain and lung cancer. He was 68.
Where's Kevin Von Erich?
Kevin moved to Hawaii with his wife and four children. His mother, Doris, came along as well. She died in 2015.
Kevin and his family announced earlier this year they would be relocating to Boerne, Texas, just northwest of San Antonio.
The Iron Claw, written and directed by Sean Durkin, hits theaters on Dec. 22.
What Kevin Von Erich Says Now
ET spoke with Kevin at the Los Angeles premiere of The Iron Claw just days before the movie hit theaters. Kevin opened up about forming a strong bond with Efron.
"Zac likes to do the things I like to do," Kevin tells ET. "And we're already talking about [taking a] spearfishing trip in Kauai on the Kalia reef. And we'll see about Jeremy and the other guys, but Zac and I got a trip planned."
Kevin also shared the message he hopes fans take from the new film.
"A lot of people are hurting in a bad way and maybe are at the bottom and thinking, 'How am I gonna get out of this?' You know?" says Kevin, a married man and father of four who recently relocated from Hawaii to nearby San Antonio, Texas. "And a man has to fight. Life is hard, and a lot of people have it a lot harder than I have it, but I think that if this would be the kind of movie that could help lift someone up and maybe show them that you can do it. Don't quit. Keep fighting. Keep trying."
The Iron Claw is in theaters now.