Fred FeeneyFeeney, who has served as a mat official for a quarter-century, has now used his experience and expertise to portray an Olympic referee in Foxcatcher, the new movie about the murder of 1984 Olympic freestyle gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz, now in production.
In December, Feeney put his officiating to work as the main referee in the film version of the 1988 Olympics match between Dave's brother Mark Schultz (played by actor Channing Tatum) and the eventual silver medalist from Turkey, Necmi Gencalp (portrayed by Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov, former American University wrestler who is now an assistant coach at Harvard).
How did Feeney get this opportunity to do what he does best for a big-time movie, and rub shoulders with the likes of Tatum, Mark Ruffalo (playing Dave Schultz) and Steve Carell (cast in the role of John du Pont, owner of the Foxcatcher wrestling facility and Dave Schultz's murderer)?
An officiating career
Prior to becoming a referee, Feeney played football and wrestled in high school ... but the Ohio native had his dream of competing in college deferred by service in Vietnam. He was introduced to the idea of becoming a referee by his wrestling coach and mentor, Bob Triano of St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus, who later coached the now-defunct program at the University of Cincinnati, and officiated at fourteen NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
Fred Feeney (Photo/Kevin Schlosser)Fast forward to today. Feeney is now a respected high school and college wrestling referee, who was also a FILA official until he retired from freestyle and Greco-Roman officiating in 2007. In addition to officiating at the Ohio high school state wrestling tournament, Feeney has refereed at multiple NCAA Division II and III championships, as well as NCWA Nationals and NAIA Nationals. During the regular season, he primarily serves as a dual-meet referee in the Big Ten and Mid-American Conference. In addition, Feeney has worked a number of prestigious events over the years. In December, Feeney officiated at the inaugural Grapple at the Garden event in New York's Madison Square Garden, as well as the 2012 Ken Kraft Midlands Classic at Northwestern University.
Feeney has shared his knowledge as a certified wrestling instructor, teaching two courses each year for the past 15 years, and has written extensively on the mechanics of officiating.
Uniquely qualified for the role
So, how did a real-life ref get to be one in a movie?
"I got an email asking if I'd be interested in playing a referee -- can't remember who sent it," said Feeney. "In addition, there were open casting notices posted at various wrestling forums."
"I drove from Columbus to Pittsburgh to audition. Figured it was a three-hour drive, what did I have to lose?"
Feeney and his wife made the trip to see if there might be roles for them in Foxcatcher. They arrived at the Peterson Events Center at the University of Pittsburgh, where filming was taking place.
"That day, there were about 20 guys who showed up for the referee role," according to Feeney. "I was asked if I had done any freestyle officiating; I was the only one who had."
"Two hours later, I was asked to come back the next day. I show up the next day, and was taken to a room with mats. Reece Humphrey and Andy Hrovat were there, along with Mark Ruffalo. A guy said, 'I think we'll have something for you.'"
While his wife was cast as an extra in an airport gate scene being filmed in a concourse at the Peterson Events Center, "I was told to stand off to the side," said Feeney.
Dave and Mark Schultz after the 1984 Olympic Games"Later, I saw twenty guys in (referee) whites, and thought, 'I should be in that group.' I asked an assistant director, who responded, 'Yeah, you should be a part of this' and takes me down to Jonas (Spaccarotelli), the associate director, who then asked me to show him how a freestyle match would be conducted."
Feeney continued, "Jonas said, 'Tonight we're gonna film the 1984 Olympics.' Then Bennett Miller, the director, said, 'We'll be using you for the 1988 Olympics, which we're filming tomorrow night.'"
"They added, 'You're gonna get a bump-up.' I later learned that meant going from $10 an hour as an extra, to $1,000 a day, with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) membership, and screen credit."
Lights, camera, action!
Fred Feeney was cast in something of a dual role -- playing an Olympic freestyle referee, and serving as a consultant to make sure all aspects of the portrayal of Olympic wrestling and officiating were true to life.
Part of that consulting role was helping to select others to play FILA officials for the filming of the scene where Feeney would play the principal mat official.
"The next day, when I showed up, I was asked to pick a mat chair, and a mat judge," said Feeney. "Then, for the next twelve hours, we filmed one match, between Mark Schultz and the Turk (Necmi Gencalp)."
With banners and signs, Pitt's Peterson Events Center had been transformed into the wrestling venue at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
The filming process was exacting ... and time-consuming. One example: for about an hour, the camera focused solely on Feeney's feet as he worked the match. ("As they were prepping for shooting my feet, I told them, 'I'm ready for my close-up,'" Feeney joked.)
"We'd film something, then come down to matside to watch the film with the director and the actors," according to Feeney. "They really wanted realism ... They had video of the actual match. They were filming it to be as accurate as possible."
"An assistant director told me, 'A hallmark of Bennett Miller is that he'll get it right," said Feeney, referring to the Foxcatcher director whose 2005 film Capote won numerous awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who played Truman Capote.
Feeney's role as a consultant and background as a former FILA referee came into play more than once during the filming. One small example of how Foxcatcher sweated the details: "As I pointed out to the crew, back in '88, at the start of the match, the official would've asked each wrestler to show his hankie that he was required to have tucked inside his singlet. They didn't have any hankies, so the wardrobe guy had to run out and purchase a bunch of hankies."
"Bennett later said, 'You don't know how much you've helped us.'"
The director wasn't the only one to pay a compliment to one of the actors.
"At one point, about one in the morning, after a long day of shooting, Channing and I were standing up on the mat platform, alone. I told him, 'You look like you've wrestled all your life' and he said, 'Thanks, man' and gave me a man hug."
Channing Tatum, carrying a trash bag, plays Mark SchultzFeeney's comment was high praise for Channing Tatum, who had received considerable wrestling training to prep him for Foxcatcher ... and had participated in a number of sports in high school, but not wrestling. About the closest Tatum had come to participating in a combat sport was playing a bare-knuckle streetfighter in the 2009 movie Fighting.
Feeney shared another story about working with Tatum, who was named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive 2012."
"During a lull in the filming, there was a girl in the crowd who asked if she could touch my hands, since they had touched Channing Tatum."
Now that he's played a role in the filming of a major motion picture, is Fred Feeney about to go Hollywood?
"Friends have said, 'You should get registered with an agent to play sports officials in movies,'" said Feeney.
It'll be months before Foxcatcher makes its big-screen debut. While we'll have to wait to see Fred Feeney in that film -- or any others -- we won't have to wait to see him live and in person as a referee for college and high school matches.
Want to know more about the 1996 murder of Dave Schultz? Check out Mark Palmer's five-part series for InterMat to commemorate the tenth anniversary of that tragic event.