My Surreal Time on ‘Foxcatcher’ Farm: John du Pont’s Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy
In an exclusive interview, former ‘Team Foxcatcher’ wrestler Michael DiCandilo opens up about his experience and how the Channing Tatum film blurs fact and fiction. Spoilers!
Filmmaker Bennett Miller’s saga Foxcatcher bears the tried-and-true Hollywood disclaimer “based on a true story.” It offers a haunting exploration of the corrupting power of the American Dream through the story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).
After winning the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, the Neanderthal wrestler is barely scraping by on $20 speaking gigs and Cup Noodles, and eager to distance himself from the legend of his older, more amiable brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic champ. Schultz finds himself seduced by the wealth of demented aristocrat John du Pont (Steve Carell)—a reclusive, self-described ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist who gets off on “leading men and giving America hope.” He allows Schultz to train at his state-of-the-art facilities at Foxcatcher Farm in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, and even invites Dave to help coach Mark. Eventually, du Pont becomes consumed by paranoia and guns down Dave in cold blood.
Michael DiCandilo, 45, was captain of the Marple Newtown High School wrestling team, and a member of “Team Foxcatcher” from 1986-1988, training at Foxcatcher Farm under the watchful eye of du Pont. After reading a story I wrote about du Pont, and seeing himself in a news documentary embedded in the piece, he reached out to The Daily Beast to share his experience with John du Pont, Mark Schultz, and Foxcatcher for the first time—including Schultz’s highly publicized objections to Miller’s film. This is his story in his own words.
I grew up in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, in a residential neighborhood just 30 seconds from Foxcatcher Farm—this beautiful, sprawling 1,200-acre estate. The estate was always closed off to the public, and it was an unwritten rule that you could never enter Foxcatcher Farm without permission.
Since the third grade, I’d been a wrestler. In my junior year at Marple Newtown High School, I started to really do well and caught John du Pont’s attention, since he had been following the papers. And by the time my senior year rolled around, John had started up the Villanova Wrestling program.
One day, in December 1986, John showed up to my match dressed in his “Team Foxcatcher” outfit. He immediately caught my eye because he had the blue-and-yellow outfit with “Foxcatcher” emblazoned all over it, and was an odd-looking guy who was not much to look at, and who always sat in the corner. He had a gimpy leg that gave him a constant limp, and was always getting surgeries on his left knee; it looked like he could topple over at any second. I ended up beating the kid, and John came up to me after the match and introduced himself, and said he was interested in talking to me about going to Villanova for wrestling. Of course I was interested. After that, he started showing up to all of my matches.
Then one night it’s around 9:30 p.m. and I’m getting ready for bed. I’m 17, so I’m still living at home with my Mom and Dad. The phone rings, and it’s John. He starts rambling on and on about the program for an hour and a half. Now, I’m still a senior in high school and interested in attending Villanova for wrestling, so I listened to him. The problem was that he started calling all the time, sometimes as late as midnight. Some of the calls would last 20 minutes, and some of the calls would be 2 hours. I later found out it depended on how drunk he was. He’d talk about his the program at Villanova, but then it extended to birdwatching, his relationship with his Mom, and America. He always talked about how, “America needs to get back to what it was,” and how it’s “the greatest country in the world” and “my parents made their fortune on the backs of patriots.” It soon became evident that John was a very lonely man, and I don’t think he had any other intentions than just wanting somebody to talk to. I almost felt bad for him.
After about two weeks of these late-night phone calls, he invited me up to Foxcatcher and a week after that I began training at Foxcatcher with other Foxcatcher wrestlers like Rob Calabrese and Mark Schultz who ended up being coaches at Villanova. One Saturday morning, John invited me to go check out a freestyle wrestling competition in Michigan. I said, “OK, but I need to be home that night because I have class on Monday.”The next day, I drove up to Foxcatcher in my ’76 Toyota Corolla that just about started. I walk into John’s mother’s house and I see Mark Schultz asleep on a lounge chair. John eventually comes down, wakes up Mark, and off we go. Now in the movie, they show John’s helicopter landing in the front yard, but it really landed on a pad adjacent to the house by a big, aluminum hangar he’d built that housed the tank you saw in the movie along with several antique cars. So John drives us down and we get out of the car at the landing pad and I caught a whiff of his breath, and it reeked of Scotch, which was his preferred drink. It’s six o’clock in the morning, by the way, and John tells us he’s going to be the pilot. Thankfully, he was just kidding.
I’d never been in a helicopter before and I had the headset on and everything. It was awesome. We’re flying over and John points out my house and says, “Hey Mike, isn’t that where you live?” So the pilot hovers over my house, and my Dad comes outside to get the paper and sees the helicopter descending down to him. The trees are bending over sideways. He looks up, and sees me waving back at him.
We got to the Philadelphia International Airport in 4 minutes (it was a 40-minute drive), and landed right on the tarmac, and there’s John’s Learjet. I walk onto the plane, and inside it’s nicer than my house. As we’re flying, a stewardess comes out and serves us anything we want to eat—sausage, scrambled eggs, pancakes, beer, and wine. A limo picks us up at the airport, we go to the wrestling tournament, watch it, get back in the limo, and get back on the plane. On the flight home, John had a surf ‘n’ turf dinner prepared for us. I’m sitting there drinking a Heineken and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be drinking this… I’ve gotta make weight!’ Plus, I’m still a senior in high school, so this is about as illegal as it gets from a recruiting perspective. But I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Then things began to get a bit strange.
His drug use didn’t happen until after I left, but I’d always get calls from John to come up and visit the house since I lived closeby and could be there in a few minutes. One day, I get a call saying, “Mike, you’ve got to help me… there’s someone who’s trying to kill me.” I said, “What?” He said, “There’s people who are after me and you need to get to the house right now.”
I walk into his house, pass all the photos hanging on the wall of him posing with foreign dignitaries and leaders like Anwar Sadat and George H.W. Bush, and John was the worst I’d ever seen him. His feet were up on the table, and he had an opened bottle of J&B Scotch there. He hits a button and all the windows go down. He says, “I’ve talked with the FBI and I need them to come here and search the whole house. There are people after me.” I made up an excuse, and left.
Another time, he called me over and claimed that his house was full of bugs, and that he needed an exterminator to get them all out, but he had a personal maid who cleaned it every day and the place was as clean as could be. And yet another, he called me distraught and I arrive at the house and he’s piss drunk. His foot is up on the table with the tiniest scratch on it. He was convinced that he was cut really badly and needed medical help. All he needed was a Band-Aid. So we got in his Lincoln Town Car and he made me drive him to his family’s hospital—the Alfred I. duPont Hospital For Children, all the way in Delaware. I sat in the waiting room while he got fixed up, brought him home, and then left.
I’ll never forget the day when we were training at Foxcatcher and all of a sudden John walks in in a full police uniform with his bright, fluorescent orange Asics running shoes on. And he has a loaded gun on his hip. He begins to tell us, “I’m the honorary chief of police of Newtown Square,” and then pulls out his gun to show it to us and starts waving it around, saying, “The safety’s off don’t worry about it!” He wanted everybody to know that he was in charge, and an important guy.
He’d also have major mood swings where he would kick everyone out of the wrestling room. It almost seemed like he was sick of people at times.
One summer night, a few wrestlers and friends were hanging out at one of the cottages on John’s property. John saw lights on at the cottage and decided to stop by to say hello—or so we thought. So, he walks in and we all greet him. It was obvious that John had "had a few,” and was slurring his speech. He noticed my best friend sitting in a lounge chair in the corner. I immediately started to introduce him: “Hey John, this is my best friend”—when all of a sudden John rears back and smacks my best friend square across his face. Not just a tap, a full-blown smack that knocked my best friend back down into the chair. He was stunned. John proceeds to lean over him and says (in a loud, obnoxious voice), “HI, HOW ARE YOU?” with this big, demented smile on his face. All of us just stood there in shock. Then, my best friend goes to stand up again and John starts to rear back again. At this point, we all jumped in and grabbed John and pulled him away, and John retreated back to his car and drove off.
Now, John smacking my buddy, a gentle stranger to John, is one thing. But I have serious issues with the scene in the movie Foxcatcher where John smacks Mark. That never would have happened in a million years. Mark would have torn John up and ripped him to pieces.
Mark Schultz, from a wrestling perspective, was off the charts. The movie doesn’t do him justice in that department, either. In the movie they made Mark look like a total monster who always had this big scowl on his face. I found Mark to be a very approachable guy who seemed to be a happy person. I could tell that Mark was tolerating John, and just didn’t like him. John would ask him a question and Mark would always reply dismissively. I don’t think Mark respected John because, from a physical perspective, John was frail, and John not only never earned anything, but everything he ever gained in his life he did so by throwing money at it. I can understand Mark’s other objections to the movie Foxcatcher, too. They made him seem like a meathead, sensitive, fragile guy, but Mark Schultz was not a fragile guy; he was a rock. And the sexual overtones in the movie are awful. It made it look like Mark and John were almost getting it on, and that is wrong—and untrue. If I were Mark I’d be pissed, too. Here’s a guy who’s as macho as it gets, and you put that out there? Mark wanted to be a world champion and win, and he viewed John’s facility and money as a means to that end. That was it.
As for me, after my freshman year, I had my elbow operated on and was redshirted, but started to feel like I wasn’t of any use to John. He had lost a ton of weight, his personality had changed, and he was not the guy he was when I first met him; he was on a downward spiral. It was the summer of 1987 and the Villanova Wrestling program got dropped. I began to stay away because I’d heard a bunch of rumors about homosexual stuff and his “Foxcatcher Five” move—where he’d grab a wrestler’s junk—which Mark details in his book. None of that stuff ever happened to me, but I didn’t want anything to do with it.John was always eccentric and weird, but nobody ever thought he was capable of doing what he did to Dave Schultz. He wanted to be a leader of real men, but that was never going to happen.