The result was nostalgically unforgettable when Boy Meets World fused with professional wrestling in 1995 and ’96. Here’s how Big Van Vader, almost by fate, became the father of a school bully on this beloved family sitcom.
Boy Meets World vs. Big Van Vader
Boy Meets World was a wildly successful American family sitcom that ran from 1993 to 2000.
Starring Ben Savage as Corey Matthews, Rider Strong as Shawn Hunter, William Daniels as Mr. Feeney, Will Friedle as Corey’s older brother Eric, and (now famous wrestling fan herself) Danielle Fishel as Topanga, the show told the story of a boy named Corey Matthews coming of age.
It’s become a genuine part of the zeitgeist now, what with the theme song and Mr. Feeny. Not to mention the recent sequel/spinoff series “Girl Meets World,” which focused on Corey and Topanga’s daughter.
Ask ten wrestling fans about it, though, and odds are their minds will all go to the same place: Big Van Vader.
Big Van Vader, real name Leon White, made three appearances on Boy Meets World. In his debut on the show, which originally aired on May 5th, 1995, we saw the big man come in as part of a wrestling-themed episode.
In the episode, the main protagonist of the show Corey Matthews was drafted onto the school’s wrestling team simply because he slotted right into the final required spot on the team in a weight class no one else fit.
He had seemingly scored the golden ticket, not even needing to wrestle because no one else was in his weight bracket.
In typical sitcom fashion, that would soon change, and Corey would have to fight for his spot. This takes us to the professional wrestling climax, where Corey needed to wrestle a challenger in the squared circle.
Here is where we would first learn that Frankie Stechino Jr., as played by Ethan Suplee, is the son of Big Van Vader.
“We [had] this character of Frankie Stechino,” said Michael Jacobs, the show’s creator, when asked by WWE.com why they brought in the larger-than-life wrestler. “We all sat around the table going, ‘This guy looks like a wrestler … this guy’s father was a wrestler!’ And it sparked all of our imaginations.
“We were talking about, ‘Who does he look like?’ and, ‘Who does he resemble?’ And we all said, ‘Hero or villain?’ Everybody around the table said, ‘Villain!’ So we hit on Vader.”
The big man was a perfect fit for the show, with Jacobs saying, “We wanted [a character] who is just this loving father who moonlighted as a villainous wrestler.
It was this oddball, very funny, very loving blue collar relationship.”
Jacobs continued, “It was funny because there was absolutely no continuity whatsoever on Boy Meets World. None.
“So what we came up with was, ‘Okay, they have absolutely no money. Frankie lives on the wrong side of the tracks, utterly and completely, but his father is the world champion.’ So somehow, nobody caught us on this.
One of the best moments of that first appearance saw Vader challenge Mr. Feeny to a “Loser Leaves Town” Texas Death Match. Unfortunately, that match never occurred.
Vader would return two more times during the show’s run, on January 19th, 1996, and again on November 15th, 1996.
It was always a treat for younger wrestling fans at the time to see Big Van Vader in all his glory on this show. He was intimidating and played a scary villain in the ring, yet Vader worked perfectly in his role alongside the rest of the Boy Meets World cast.
In his second appearance, we saw Vader get called into the school office because of his son. He’s dressed in a suit, and his tiny wife is there. It all fits perfectly within the show’s context while also feeling like an extension of his wrestling character.
“[Vader] meshed right away,” said Michael Jacobs.
“There was memorizing lines, and they were different kinds of lines than just grabbing a mic and vamping on, ‘Here’s what I’m gonna do to this guy.’ It was really this father who had to learn how to be a real parent to this very troubled kid, and the audience bought it immediately, which added to Vader’s confidence.
“Once he got over the initial, ‘What is this and what is it going to be?’ he took to it very easily. He was absolutely a natural entertaining presence.”
A lot of the humor written for Big Van Vader in Boy Meets World played against his imposing image and the “dopey” history written for his son Frankie on the show.
Television is filled with funny feeble-minded characters, and Vader’s appearances touched on that, but he was also a good father, really trying to raise his son right.
The writers did a great job of softening the edges of Frankie Stechino Sr. enough to give Leon White something substantial. The young actors on set did the rest.
“His persona on television struck a little fear into the hearts of the kids on the show for about six seconds,” said Michael Jacobs in that same WWE.com interview.
“But kids are the first to see right through you. They realized that this was a very good guy, and there was a lot of clowning around.
All the kids on the set just tagged up and went after him, so they probably made his life a little bit of hell.
Vader’s final appearance on the show is where things got super interesting.
In the episode, if “The Mastadon” (Vader’s wrestling persona on the show) defeated Jake the Snake, he’d get a WWF Championship match against Shawn Michaels in Madison Square Garden.
At the same time, Frankie Jr. is growing sad about the disconnect between him and his father. He wants to be a poet, which doesn’t exactly fit in an 11-time World Heavyweight Champion’s home.
Thankfully, Corey is a big fan, and he gives Frankie Jr. a note about The Vader Bomb to pass onto his father to show he has an interest in his dad’s life.
This quickly spins into Frankie, Shawn, and Corey accompanying Vader to the ring for his #1 Contender’s Match as special advisors. We’re talking full-on kayfabe here, brother.
The whole sequence is fascinating. Filmed at a house show using WWE cameras, Bruce Prichard does the introductions as Brother Love and then does commentary over each of the segments.
It goes from looking like a sitcom to 1996 WWF television back and forth, as Corey and Shawn try and take a page out of “The Flintstones” book and be in two places at once by rushing from the match to Topanga’s Sweet 16 birthday party, where Corey has promised a special dance with his girlfriend.
The episode ends with Corey and Topanga finally having that dance in a WWF ring, while Vader shows his son his new move: The Vadersault. The final shot was amazing.
Big Van Vader on Boy Meets World – Looking Back on His Three Appearances
The three Boy Meets World appearances for Big Van Vader are genuinely a snapshot of professional wrestling before the attitude. Here you had this giant, imposing man showing a more gentle, human side. He fit into the family sitcom world seamlessly.
Leon White sadly passed away on June 18th, 2018. He left a significant impression on fans the world over through his work in the ring and his appearances in shows like Boy Meets World.
“He was one of the kindest people I have ever met,” Will Friedle, who played Eric Matthews, said at the time. “Thank you for teaching me how to wrestle and ‘make it look good for the cameras.’ Rest well, sir.”
Ethan Suplee, who played Vader’s son on the show, sent out a simple message of “Sad to learn of Leon’s passing. RIP Vader.”
Although Leon White only appeared in three episodes of Boy Meets World, they still resonate with fans.
When asked why he thought that was, creator Michael Jacobs said, “The thing was, the character worked.
There was a moment between Vader and William Daniels, who played Mr. Feeny. It worked because the audience recognized that there was such a sweet soul in this father who wanted this relationship with his child to be right. I think that the teacher in Feeny understanding that helped push that along.”
“Cory Matthews,” Jacobs continued, “the lead in the show, saw through Frankie the same way Frankie saw through his father. So all of those metaphors were in story and they all worked for us — it was always a goodhearted show.
“The aspiration was to show that in any relationship at all, that love under the same roof is something that is devoutly to be wished.”
That’s really it. Vader’s appearances on the show told a charming, well-meaning story about a father and son finding a connection.
We’ll never forget when Boy Meets World found out what time it was.
Watch Big Van Vader on Boy Meets World:
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- Leon White (Vader) and His Horrible Rookie Mistake Against Bruiser Brody
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