William “The Great John L.” Clark (1925–2005)
William “The Great John L.” Clark was a stuntman, wrestler, and actor. He appeared in Breaker, Breaker!, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and TV’s The Munsters. He was born and raised in Kentucky and made movies in California, but he lived in the Arkansas towns of Jonesboro (Craighead County) and Mountain Home (Baxter County) in the 1980s, becoming well known by schoolchildren for putting on shows with his pet mountain lion, Honey.
William Clark was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on March 26, 1925, to Curlin Henry Clark and Hattie Elizabeth Clark. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade to begin boxing training. In 1940, he won the Indianapolis Flyweight Championship. Clark still boxed while he served in World War II in the U.S. Navy, but after the war he took jobs driving taxi cabs and delivering meat. In 1951, he got married and began wrestling, or “wrassling,” as he always pronounced it. He mostly wrestled under the name The Great John L., inspired by John L. Sullivan, the legendary boxer of the 1800s, but also used the names Bill “Hangman” Clark, John L. Sullivan, Johnny Ringo, the Kentucky Assassin, and Skull.
Under the name The Great John L., Clark played a wrestler in an early episode of The Munsters (Episode 8, “Herman the Great”), in which Munster patriarch Herman wrestles under the alias of “The Masked Marvel” to raise money for son Eddie’s continued education. After playing similar bit parts in episodes of TV shows Burke’s Law, It Takes a Thief, and the George Peppard vehicle P.J., Clark had a more prominent role in director Don Taylor’s 1977 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he played Boarman, who terrorized Michael York. Earlier that year, he played arm-wrestling toughie “Kaminski” in Breaker, Breaker!, one of the first films to star Chuck Norris. Then in 1978, he had a role in the screwball comedy Zero to Sixty starring Darren McGavin.
After another string of bit roles in episodes of Little House on the Prairie, Archie Bunker’s Place, and Michael Keaton’s short-lived sitcom Report to Murphy, Clark moved to Arkansas, where he put on shows for schoolchildren in which he wrestled his pet mountain lion, Honey. He played the villain so that the children could root for Honey, since, as he told the Long Beach Independent Telegram in 1974, “I just look like a mean ornery cuss, and people seem to like to watch me lose.” He made headlines when he and Honey showed up at a town hall meeting to protest an ordinance to keep people from owning mountain lions as pets. Clark wanted to prove that citizens of Jonesboro had no reason to fear Honey or his other two mountain lions. Clark later moved to Mountain Home and opened Bill Clark’s Karate Studio, which hosted at least one “Ozark Feud” karate championship.
Clark was a devout Christian and believed he had been healed by a faith healer. His faith seemed to even be on his mind in his novelty song “The Great John L.’s Challenge” when he recommended that anyone who faced him in the ring would need a “prayer meeting.” Despite bragging that he was “the meanest, nastiest cuss that ever walked in the ring,” he was described by others as a soft-spoken family man who was devoted to his eight children. Clark’s face, with a handlebar moustache and bald head, was instantly recognizable to youngsters from his Bell potato chip commercials, in which he had no lines but merely munched some chips.
In March 1988, he moved back to California, where he became embroiled in a legal battle to keep his large feline pets. His neighbor in Hesperia, California, complained to authorities that the cats represented a hazard. The San Bernardino County Department of Health Services declared that he could not keep the cats on the property, despite Clark not being told of any restrictions when he applied for special permits to keep the animals. After moving in, Clark was told he needed 100 percent approval from all his neighbors before being granted permission to keep the mountain lions in the large cage he had built. He was ultimately permitted to keep three of his pets, while two were sent to live with his brother in the nearby town of Baldy Mesa and one was sent to live in a kennel. In the summer of 1990, one of the mountain lions, Tiga, died of unknown causes.
John died in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties) on November 6, 2005, and is buried in Fayetteville’s Fairview Memorial Garden.
For additional information:
“California Not Accepting John L.’s Cats.” Baxter Bulletin, December 13, 1989, pp. 1A, 2A.
“Cougar at Council.” Pittsburgh Press, June 20, 1984, p. 2.
Duke, Shearlean. “‘Meanest Cuss’ Is Real Softie.” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1974, Part IV, pp. 1, 18.
Rosen, Stephanie. “Great John L. Can’t Pin Hesperia Lion Foes.” San Bernardino County Sun, July 29, 1990, pp. 1, 12.
“The Great John L.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0478351 (accessed June 24, 2022).
Little Rock, Arkansas
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