'Foxcatcher': A Glimpse of the Real John du Pont

Steve Carell plays chemical company heir John du Pont in the highly anticipated film 'Foxcatcher,' which opens this Friday. We take a look at the real man and the madness that led him to murder an Olympic athlete.
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John du Pont Photo

It was an icy January afternoon in 1996, when multimillionaire John du Pont grabbed one of his handguns and drove his Lincoln Town Car to the home of David Schultz, an Olympic wrestler. Once there, du Pont pointed the revolver at his former friend. A champion pentathlete, his aim was deadly. He fired three shots, killing Schultz as his wife heard the commotion from the kitchen and ran to the aid of her husband. 

Du Pont then retreated to the historic mansion on his sprawling Foxcatcher Farm, where he barricaded himself in the library for two days before finally being arrested. His subsequent trial exposed a string of delusional behavior, drug use, and paranoia in the weeks leading up to the killing. In the end, he was convicted of third-degree murder, but the verdict provided little closure as to why du Pont, whose worth had been estimated at $200 million, would kill a former gold medalist.

That mystery is the subject of this month's film, Foxcatcher, which stars Steve Carell as du Pont. Mark Ruffalo plays David Schultz, opposite Channing Tatum as his brother Mark. The film drew critical acclaim recently at Cannes for its portrayal of the strange circumstances leading to Schultz's death and the even stranger life of du Pont himself.

Du Pont and Dave Schultz Photo

Du Pont and Dave Schultz in happier times. (Photo: Bill Fitz-Patrick/AP)

Much of du Pont's biography seems fitting of an heir to a vast chemical fortune. He held degrees from the University of Miami and Villanova, and served in the marines. A sports lover, he helped finance Villanova's $15 million basketball arena and worked as the school's wrestling coach. Despite his good deeds, shades of mental illness peeked through the cracks of his personality. Particularly after the 1988 death of du Pont's mother, Jean Liseter Austin du Pont, reports of John du Pont's erratic behavior grew commonplace. He often claimed to be the Dalai Lama, Jesus, or a spy for the CIA. Known for his obsession with guns, he once showed up to a barbecue with a semi automatic rifle strapped around his neck.

In the mid 1980s, du Pont built a training facility at Foxcatcher Farm and invited prominent swimmers and wrestlers to live and practice there. John Schultz was one of them. The wrestler had won gold in the Los Angeles Olympics, but made unsuccessful bids to compete in Seoul and Barcelona. So when du Pont invited Schultz into the fold, the athlete was happy to move to the estate with his wife and two children. Schultz coached other wrestlers while preparing to compete in the Atlanta Games himself. He was close to du Pont but their relationship soured when Schultz announced he would be taking a coaching job at Stanford following Atlanta.

At his murder trial, experts said du Pont was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed Schultz was out to assassinate him as part of an international conspiracy. The jury took a week to deliver a verdict. Found guilty but mentally ill, he was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison. Even behind bars, du Pont continued to haunt the Schultz family. According to Dave's wife Nancy, the millionaire hired private investigators to follow and videotape her children.

In 1997, du Pont died of natural causes after spending 13 years in a western Pennsylvania prison. He was 72.

"The thing that frightened me for 13 years was John getting out of prison," Nancy Schultz said in an interview. "I don't wish death on anyone, but when he died it was a relief because I knew he would not be getting out. This was a man who could reach out to you from his jail cell and he did."