The 75 years ago the most famous resident of this part of the county was likely Frank Simmons Leavitt. Have you heard of him? Perhaps not, or perhaps you have, but under a different name. He was a professional wrestler and movie actor known far and wide at mid-century by the name he had used during much of his career in the ring – Man Mountain Dean. In this blog post we will look back at his life, career and time in Norcross.
Frank Leavitt was born in New York City in 1891 (or perhaps it was 1889 – sources differ) and went into the US Army at a young age, serving in Texas, at Fort McPherson in Atlanta and then in Europe during the time the United States was involved in World War I (1917-1918). Leavitt had developed an interest in sports as a young man, playing professional football after his army service and also participating in amateur and then professional wrestling.
The photo below, showing Frank Leavitt ready to wrestle, likely was taken in the 1920s.
His wrestling career had faded some by the late 1920s, and he was working as a policeman in Miami when he met Georgia-born Dorris Dean. After they married there in 1928 she became his manager, and his wrestling activity became more active over the next decade– he had matches in the USA, Cuba, South America and Europe, and made as much as $1500.00 per match (or more) at times. At his wife’s suggestion he took on the name “Man Mountain Dean” for his wrestling appearances.
Leavitt also branched out into acting, initially taking the role of a stunt-double for actor Charles Laughton in a wrestling scene in the movie The Private Life of Henry VIII, which was released in 1933. Over the next two decades he appeared in over 50 movies, including playing himself in the 1938 comedy The Gladiator, which starred popular comedic actor Joe E. Brown. In this movie Brown played a college student who takes an experimental drug and gets super-human strength, and sets up a wrestling match with the famous Man Mountain Dean as a charity event. Unfortunately the effects of the drug are short-lived, and by the time the match occurs Brown’s character is losing his super-powers, leading to unexpected challenges when he takes on the heavyweight wrestler.
Later in his career Man Mountain Dean grew a prominent beard, as is shown in the photo below. He was advertised as weighing over 300 pounds.
Dorris Dean Leavitt’s family had deep roots in Gwinnett County - her ancestor Hiram H. Dean was a settler in the county in the 1830s, owning a large farm near today’s intersection of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Interstate 85, and her grandfather had been a merchant in Norcross in the late 1800s. In the 1930s the couple moved back to her ancestral territory, building a home on a 20 acre plot of land on Buford Highway between Norcross and Duluth.
After moving to Georgia Leavitt tried his hand at politics, running for a seat in the Georgia state legislature from Gwinnett County in 1938. His announcement as a candidate in April of that year garnered a good deal of notice in the press, but after a few months on the campaign trail he grew weary of the verbal attacks he received from the opposing candidates in the race, and withdrew.
When the United States entered World War II he reenlisted the army (at the age of 50), but it was soon clear that at that point he was not up to the physical demands of active duty, and he was discharged. In his later years he was seen around Norcross often, and he took on tasks like refereeing wrestling matches and promoting local theater groups, as well as traveling to Hollywood for occasional movie roles.
Man Mountain Dean is shown in the photo below with his friend Perry Nesbit. The photo was taken in the Norcross area, likely in the 1940s.
Longtime Norcross resident Dodger DeLeon recalled an encounter with Man Mountain Dean when he (Dodger) was a boy. Dodger was visiting the Norcross hardware store one day when Man Mountain Dean and several other locals were there, and some of those present expressed doubt that Man Mountain was as strong as he was portrayed to be in some of his movies. He said he would gladly demonstrate to them that his strength was real, but only if they were willing to place a bet on it. A wager of ten dollars was agreed upon, with the test of strength being whether Man Mountain could bend an iron horseshoe. Once the money was assembled Dodger was dispatched to Lum Howell’s blacksmith shop, nearby on Skin Alley, to fetch a horseshoe, and Man Mountain quickly demonstrated that his strength could straighten out the horseshoe (and he then pocketed the money).
Frank Leavitt passed away in Norcross on May 29, 1953, and is buried at the National Cemetery in Marietta, GA.