Amazing, astonishing, and awesome are a few of the words used when people talk about the Gentle Mormon Giant from Utah. At 6-foot-6, 320-pound Don Leo Jonathan was one of the most luminous stars in professional wrestling’s “television era.”
“Don Leo was one of my favorite men,” avowed Canadian promoter Stu Hart. “(Despite his size), he could do a back flip and somersault and nip-ups like a cat.” Ringsiders from the era of 1950 to 1980 shake their heads, still in wonderment, as they picture Don Leo effortlessly planting foes atop a turnbuckle, and then dropkicking them out into the crowd.
He was born to the job, and became, arguably, the most successful of the second-generation stars. His father, Jonathan DeLaun Heaton, was described by Buffalo publicist Earle Yetter as the “hymn-singing, psalm-shouting Brother Jonathan, who tossed opponents from pillar to post while in the midst of a Bible quotation.”
For a time in the Great Depression, his father ran a gym – “a health-a-torium,” it was called – in Phoenix. There, as a pre-schooler, little Donald Heaton, who was born April 29, 1931, began working out. “My dad gave me an early grounding,” Don Leo states. “He would hold his arm out, and I learned to do a handstand on that arm. I loved tumbling, and he helped me there, too. I just always seemed to have good balance.” Those who recall the 300-plus-pound Jonathan walking atop ring ropes decades later will agree.
One night, when preliminary wrestlers were late in arriving at a show, little Don and a chum were put into the Phoenix ring “to demonstrate holds. People must have liked it, too – I can still remember picking up all the coins they threw. I think we made more dough than the main eventers that night.”
Those of a future generation who thought Jake “The Snake” Roberts was the first of wrestling’s serpent carriers never heard of “Cold Chills,” the seven-foot, de-fanged rattlesnake that Brother Jonathan would bring to arenas. Don remembers sitting at the corner of the ring, and being put in charge of the “box” – a suitcase – in which the snake was kept. At the appointed time, Don would open the case and the snake would slither across the mat and curl up on Brother Jonathan’s chest.
“He (‘Cold Chills’) got barred at the Hollywood Legion Stadium,” Don Leo recalls. “A couple guys got into an argument and one of them grabbed the case, and threw it at the other guy. The snake got out, in the crowd, and all blazes broke loose.”
The handsome man was a cute kid – with his dad making movie appearances as a stuntman, opportunities abounded. Don Leo posed for Walt Disney, then a photographer, and appeared in a few films including a bit part in an “Our Gang” comedy.
After high-school football, Don Leo served a stint in the U.S. Navy and undertook martial arts training and some work as a boxer. He was “discovered” by a Runyonesque New York character, “Goodtime Charley” Friedman, who was barnstorming in the Rockies with Max Baer and Primo Carnera.
Shortly thereafter, the 20-year-old phenomenon was wrestling on national television and in Madison Square Garden. For another three decades, he appeared in main events all over North America and the world including Japan, Germany, South Africa, Australia, et al. His career stretched, literally, from Man Mountain Dean (young Don watched his dad wrestle Dean in a “beard versus beard” match in 1937) to Andre the Giant, with whom Don Leo had an epic series of matches with in the early 1970s.
After retiring from the ring, Don Leo has pursued an active and extremely successful career in underwater inventions and exploration.
One thing for certain: Wrestling fans could always count on him for a great show and, to this day, he remains one of the most respected and revered of all mat personalities.
- J Michael Kenyon