Ron Lester has perfected his “I am a former fat guy” spiel. The actor better known as Billy Bob, the morbidly obese offensive lineman in the 1999 hit movie Varsity Blues, is wandering the floor of the Dallas Fort Worth Auto Show promoting a movie that might never get made. But he’s got his shtick down pat. His aw-shucks smile appears whenever a stranger inevitably gushes, “You look great!” The self-deprecating jokes come easy. And he keeps the business cards that feature before-and-after photos at the ready.
“I love fans. They don’t blow up my phone,” says Lester, who once tipped the scales at 508 pounds. “They’re respectable, or they don’t believe it’s me.”
Lester, who weighs in at 198 pounds today, is here to pitch Racing Legacy, a faith-based NASCAR drama he wrote. To raise awareness, and hopefully some funding for the project, he has wrapped his 2001 Chrysler 300M in elaborate vinyl decals transforming his everyday car into a rolling billboard for the movie. “It’s totally ridiculous,” he says, gazing at the vehicle.
Foot traffic inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center is slow this afternoon, but Lester, an opportunistic salesman, pounces when he spots a woman photographing his car. “Have you seen Varsity Blues?” he asks her. She looks perplexed. “I’m Billy Bob!” Lester blurts, grinning and pointing to the windshield where his royal blue no. 69 jersey from the movie hangs.
“Oh my God,” she says, feigning an openmouthed knee-buckle. “You’ve changed.”
“A lot has changed,” he says.
Lester is nearly unrecognizable in his new body. Maybe it’s the plastic surgery, but he looks young for 43 years old. Lester had six inches of skin removed from each side of his face after losing the weight. He’s undergone 17 surgeries in all to remove excess skin. He wears a black button-down short-sleeve shirt and heavily distressed Royal jeans with unsightly white stitching on the seams; Red Wing boots add an extra inch or two to his 5-foot-10 frame. Aside from a few specks of gray, he has a privileged head of hair — full on top, tight on the sides, and spiked in front. He reeks of Burberry cologne.
“You got Paul on there,” she says, noticing Paul Walker’s face decaled on the rear driver’s-side door.
“I’m dedicating the movie to Paul,” Lester says of his late Varsity Blues costar.
“Are you doing car wraps now?”
“No,” Lester says, sounding crestfallen. “I’m doing a movie.”
Once she departs, he sits on the front grill of a Jeep to rest his feet. It’s a little past two in the afternoon. Only eight more hours of hustling. He sips his soda, then sighs.
“I need to become famous for something else.”
What happens to a man who loses more than half of himself? Ron Lester has searched for the answer since December 2000, when he underwent Roux-en-Y gastric bypass surgery with a duodenal switch.1 Since he realized in the third grade that his massive girth could draw laughs, Lester knew his fate was as the funny fat guy. When he moved to Hollywood — a town where funny fat guys can become millionaires — he was an overnight success. There was one problem, though: His moneymaker was slowly killing him. With a family history of heart problems, the 500-pound Lester wasn’t long for this world. Surgery saved his life. It also ended his career.
A shrinking man with loose skin greeted casting directors expecting the funny fat guy, and Lester struggled to score roles post-op. Now living in Dallas nearly 15 years after his glory days, he is left to ponder whether choosing life was the right decision.
“Am I alive? Yes. Am I happy? No. Did I throw away my career to be skinny? Yes,” he says. “I wouldn’t do [the surgery] again. I would much rather have died happy, rich, and kept my status and gone out on top.”
Lester was raised in a trailer park in Kennesaw, Georgia, a city that became infamous when it introduced a law requiring its citizens to own guns. His father was an independent truck driver. Lester’s mother, his best friend, painted and sculpted. As a kid, Lester was fascinated with baseball and explosives — one of his favorite pastimes was assembling a model toy car and then blowing it up with an M-80.
He struggled at North Cobb High School and was held back three times. He didn’t graduate until he was 21. But before that, he found his calling in film class. “Ron knew it all,” says Cliff Biggers, a teacher at North Cobb. “I thought it would be much more likely he would go into film production. I did not know he had an interest in acting.”
But Lester was a natural in front of the camera, and booking jobs came easy. He was discovered on the set of a Formula 409 commercial in Georgia, where he was plucked from a sea of extras and elevated to a principal character. From there, he traveled the standard route for a young actor and comedian: sets at local dives, stand-in work, a feature in a country music video, and finally a move to Los Angeles in 1995. A friend from Georgia invited Lester to stay in the massive downtown loft she lived in with her boyfriend Christopher McQuarrie, the soon-to-be Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects.
“When he first came out, as a housewarming present, he brought me a mason jar full of moonshine that had been distilled on a radiator of a Ford F-150 somewhere in Georgia,” McQuarrie remembers.
Lester’s Southern-boy demeanor worked to his advantage. “He was such a character and completely alien to anything else anyone was doing in Los Angeles,” McQuarrie says. “We had a pretty good idea he was going to take off. His determination, his personality — you just had a feeling when you met him that things were going to be all right.”
In the few weeks Lester lived with McQuarrie, he booked stand-up gigs at the Ice House, Laugh Factory, and Melrose Improv. A spot with the heralded improvisational sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings soon followed. Movies were the logical next step, and he nailed his first audition, landing the role of head fry cook Spatch in the Kenan & Kel tween comedy Good Burger. Released in July 1997, the film took in $23 million against a $9 million budget. More important, Lester impressed the film’s young director, Brian Robbins, who kept him in mind while casting his next movie, Varsity Blues.
“Ron really is a sensitive, sweet guy. Billy Bob as a character was such a sensitive soul. He was Billy Bob,” Robbins says. “There was no second choice.”
Set in the fictional town of West Canaan, Texas — where football, a voice-over tells us, is a way of life — Varsity Blues was envisioned as Porky’s meets Friday Night Lights. The plot merged clichés from the sports and teen genres: After star quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) hurts his knee, can backup Jonathon Moxon — a.k.a. Mox (James Van Der Beek at the height of Dawson’s Creek hysteria) — stand up to his immoral coach (Jon Voight), stay true to himself, win the big game, and get the girl (Amy Smart)? (Yes, yes, yes, and of course.)
When audiences first saw Lester in Varsity Blues, he was driving a pickup truck, dipping a folded pancake into a jar of peanut butter, and chasing it with a swig of maple syrup. Other than Lester’s distaste for peanut butter, Billy Bob wasn’t much of a stretch. Lester owned a pickup truck in high school and got hammered at wild house parties, but at heart he was a sensitive mush — just like the character. Convincingly portraying a football player was a greater challenge.
“Ron’s weight was a major concern,” says Mark Robert Ellis, the film’s football coordinator. “I usually double all these guys because I can’t let the actors take the big, big hit. I knew I couldn’t find a football player in Texas [Lester’s size]. I found a big kid and then built a fat suit for him to double Ron.”
Filming in the oppressive Austin heat wasn’t easy. During the three weeks of two-a-days, Ellis protected Lester by making sure he took enough plays off, drank plenty of Gatorade, and always had an ice towel nearby. Still, Lester tore a patellar tendon, jeopardizing the film’s climactic scene.
“The biggest problem was, when it was time for him to get that close-up right before the hook-and-ladder play,” Ellis remembers. “Getting him into that three-point stance was the hardest thing to do. He could make the catch on the hook and ladder. He had good hands, was a good athlete; he just had all that weight.”
The dramatic interplay was more in Lester’s wheelhouse, particularly the scene where Billy Bob contemplates suicide. Wracked with guilt over disappointing his coach (and, in retrospect, possibly suffering from post-concussion syndrome), Billy Bob sits on the back of his pickup with his football trophies, a bottle of tequila, and a Mossberg 12-gauge pump shotgun when he’s confronted by Mox.
“Championship trophy. Steelers. We were 9. Remember this shit? Playing Pee Wee?”
“Yeah,” Mox says. “It was fun.”
“No, it wasn’t. I remember being yelled at.” Billy Bob throws the trophy. “Too fat, Billy Bob!” Bang! “Too slow and dumb!” He pulls the pump handle. Bang!
“It was great,” Robbins, the director, says. “I remember that night shooting that scene, and you don’t do that once, you do it over and over again from different angles. And he was just able to deliver that performance over and over again, and those were real tears and real emotion coming out of him.”
Lester drew on pain from his personal life, thinking of his late father and his sister Linda, who died at 35. He also pulled from his own struggles with suicide. Inconsolable after Linda passed, he had put a loaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. “God,” he says, is the only explanation.
“I actually have the bullet, still. It’s not a dud; it’s live. It just didn’t go off,” Lester says. “I was kind of dreading [that scene] because I knew where I’d go. But I’m an actor and I’m making a commitment to the character. To do that, you have to go 100 percent and just hope you pull yourself out of it.”
Varsity Blues is probably remembered best for three things: Ali Larter in the whipped cream bikini, “I don’t want your life!” — and Billy Bob. Lester agrees, for the most part.
“I don’t mean this in an ego way, but I have never met anyone who has seen the movie who hasn’t said to me, ‘You stole that movie,’” he says. “In fact, there was a point where Paramount was getting complaints from Van Der Beek’s people that I was stealing the movie from him.” As far as Van Der Beek’s signature line, Lester isn’t impressed.2 “The accent, the way it’s delivered, it bones me, it bends me over and bones me bad.”
Paramount thought Varsity Blues was a potential sleeper when it was released on January 15, 1999. The movie debuted at no. 1, earning more than $52 million domestic in its run. And with its successes, Lester quickly joined an enclave of Young Hollywood, with a penthouse apartment in Koreatown. Nights at Jerry’s Deli with Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, and Wilmer Valderrama followed, along with $1,600 sushi dinners with Melissa Joan Hart and friends at Yamashiro. His career kept rolling, too, with a recurring part on Freaks and Geeks and a starring role as Michael “Sugar Daddy” Bernardino in the WB ensemble Popular. Lester banked $35,000 an episode — but money alone couldn’t make him happy.
He says the set of Popular was as cliquey as the high school depicted on the show and that there were times — like when he wasn’t invited to a nightclub outing with the cast — that made him feel like the uncool fat kid all over again. One night he vented to Kutcher and Valderrama. “Ashton goes like this: ‘It’s a job. If you walk away friends, it’s a plus,’” Lester says. “There is not one moment where that thought process would’ve been introduced on the set of Varsity Blues. It was a family, and it was kind of like a drug. Every project, every TV show, every movie I’ve done, I keep hoping to relive the camaraderie we had on Varsity Blues.”
But there were moments of tough love even on the set of Varsity Blues. At one point, Paul Walker and Eliel Swinton, the former Stanford strong safety who played running back Wendell Brown in the movie, told Lester he needed to lose weight. “It was like, ‘Dude, I hate to be that guy, but you’re not healthy, bro,’” remembers Swinton, Lester’s roommate during filming and still a friend today. “We went to Sam’s Warehouse and I just remember him buying an extreme amount of junk food.’”
To this day, Ron Lester has a complicated relationship with food. “Can I get some mayonnaise?” he asks a waiter. Lester sits in the W XYZ Bar of the Aloft hotel in downtown Dallas, drinking a gin martini. An Angus burger and fries rest on his plate. “I’m a dipper, bro,” he says later, dunking a fry into the watery mayo. “You want a fry and dip?” Lester eats all his fries, but only a small bite of the burger. He takes the leftovers home in a doggie bag. With only one quarter of his stomach remaining, he can’t handle much more than that. If he overindulges, the food settles in his esophagus. His limit, he says, is a Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. “When I’m done eating that — no fries, no soda — I feel uncomfortable.”
Still, he frequents fast-food joints. The next day at the car show, I see him digging into a bag of McDonald’s fries. Earlier in the day, he picked up Jack in the Box. “Sometimes it’s just to have the taste,” he says. Certain eating habits are strict. He avoids milk shakes and cereal and can’t drink certain kinds of alcohol, like beer. He definitely can’t handle a Billy Bob shot.3
Lester says nervousness caused him to overeat when he was a kid. A typical after-school snack was a half loaf of bread and a half gallon of milk. He hid cookies in the bathroom. Food was a coping mechanism — he ate when he was sad, happy, or bored. When he was living in Los Angeles, Lester mapped every drive-thru within a 12-mile radius of his house. He knew which restaurants were open until 10 p.m. and which were 24/7 joints. And there were epic binges, of course. Once, he sat alone in his room at the Plaza hotel devouring three steaks, a plate of creamed spinach, two loaded potatoes, dessert, and three bottles of wine.
By the second season of Popular, the weight had slowed Lester down. His breathing became heavy and labored. He’d lost 40 pounds that summer at a $20,000 “fat camp” at Duke University, but gained it all back, plus an extra 20, upon returning to L.A. He tried every diet.
“Jenny Craig is a liar,” Lester says today. “Weight Watchers is just nothing but a whole bunch of women complaining, then measuring food, and then coming back and complaining the next week. Horrible food, by the way. I remember when fen-phen came out, I tried it. That was a good one. Then of course you had the chips made with that oil [Olestra]; it gave you a leaky ass. That’s fun.”
His breaking point came while shooting a scene for Popular parodying Madonna’s video for “Music.” The plan was for Lester to play the Ali G role of chauffeur, but he couldn’t fit behind the steering wheel. For nearly an hour, the crew tried everything, even ripping out the front seat and replacing it with an apple box, to no avail. Lester left the set in tears. The next day he saw a segment on Entertainment Tonight about Carnie Wilson’s August 1999 gastric bypass surgery. He was determined to change himself.
Within a week of making the decision, Lester says, he was in New York consulting with surgeons. The next day, December 21, 2000, he was on the operating table, but there were complications,4 his heart couldn’t handle the trauma, and he flatlined. He never saw “a light” while he was under. He thought he was trapped in purgatory.
Over the next month and a half, Lester lost 100 pounds. To celebrate, he decided to play one last funny fat guy. As Reggie Ray, a fat, dumb football player — essentially, a Billy Bob sendup — in the spoof Not Another Teen Movie, Lester saw his chance to retire the act. It would be his last role in a major studio motion picture.
While not subjected to the cruel weight-shaming and body-type expectations faced by their female counterparts, there’s limited room for overweight actors in Hollywood. Casting directors always need an oafish henchman or a massive offensive lineman or a pratfalling buddy. But those roles are rare, and rarely leads.
Upon losing the weight, Lester entered a wider pool: He was just another good-looking and talented guy competing against thousands of actors for the same “normal-size” roles. “It was definitely a big transition,” says his former agent Karen R. Forman. “I think he didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.”
At first, Lester thought his talent would translate regardless of his size. After all, he was the same actor, remarkable body transformation notwithstanding.5 But as the awkward auditions piled up, Lester realized his career had gone into free fall.6 At one point, he joked about showing up for auditions in a fat suit. “It’s an emotional roller coaster, because you’re not just learning how to be a new person,” Lester says. “You’re in an industry where it’s about [your] image.”
Lester’s size had been his identity, his currency — and in Hollywood, that is everything.
“Hollywood is a very fickle and strange place,” Brian Robbins says. “I remember joking with him: ‘Don’t get skinny. You’ll lose your weight and your career.’ I didn’t really mean it.”
Lester chased women to fill the void. A virgin until 30,7 he was already making up for lost time. In addition to indiscriminate flings, there were a few serious relationships, including a woman with a giant butterfly tattoo he married after dating for only one month and a girlfriend from the Flagstaff, Arizona who dumped him after seeing his chest. “I can’t be in this relationship because all I see is your skin,” she told him. Distraught, he considered suicide again after the breakup.
“That turned into a disaster, and after four weeks it fell apart,” says Lester’s friend Damien Lewis.8 “He’s so quick to jump into something. He feels like if he locks her up and gets married, there won’t ever be that sense of abandonment he’s felt so many times.”
Lester was dealt a more devastating blow in early 2006, when his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Putting his career on hold, he left Los Angeles immediately and for the next year he spent countless nights in her Georgia hospital, spending precious time with his best friend. His mother died in March 2007. Lester stayed in Georgia afterward.
“I threw away my career to save my life, and if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have been around long enough to be there for my mom,” he says. “To me, that’s the payoff. Yeah, it sucks. I’ll totally call myself a has-been. I don’t care. Let’s just be realistic: I filled a niche. I was the funny fat guy.”
Memories of a recent audition keep him raging. “I walk in, they have my head shot as of now, and they actually made the comment, ‘Oh, you’ve lost a lot of weight.’ Motherfucker, where have you been? I’m VH1’s top celebrity slim-down! I beat Jared [Fogle]! What, did you think I was going to walk in and be 500 pounds again? I’m not Carnie Wilson. What the fuck!”
Lester arrived in Dallas last February — true to form, for a girl. After meeting her on the dating website Plenty of Fish, he left Georgia and proposed to her within a month. The couple split in December, and he now lives in a studio in uptown Dallas. But Lester thinks of it as a business move, as well; he sees Dallas as the perfect place to get Racing Legacy off the ground.
Inspiration for the project hit Lester after seeing a friend’s 13-year-old cousin race Legends cars — 5/8th-scale replicas of cars from the 1930s that can hit 100 mph9 — at the Dixie Speedway in Georgia. He started writing the screenplay in September 2010. At the time, he was contemplating suicide again. “When I was writing this movie, I had a .45 on my desk. That first draft saved my life,” he says. “I was at such a low point in my life again, but I was distracted by what I was writing. Then when I wrote it, I forgot about [suicide].”
Racing Legacy is the story of a teenage Legends racer who loses his dad and goes to live with his uncle, a disgraced former NASCAR driver. Lester hopes to play Uncle Roger, a hard man — neither funny nor fat. He has high hopes for the cast: He wants Tim McGraw for the dad (“We’ve talked to his management and agent in Nashville,” Lester says); Robert Duvall for the grandfather (“I got a producer who worked with him on Get Low — apparently, he likes the idea”); and Stephen Baldwin as the heavy (“I think it would be fun to work with him”).
Then there’s the price tag. At a projected $25 million, Racing Legacy doesn’t fit into Hollywood’s $200 million tent-pole-or-bust ideology. Even Ron Howard struggled getting the Formula One period piece Rush to the starting line. “Twenty-five is realistic,” Lester says. “I have explosions, car wrecks, I’m going to need stunt drivers. I have to rent racetracks, there’s insurance, and then there are the names I want to use. Those names alone are half my budget.”
He’s filmed an effective sizzle reel.10 But at the moment, there is no funding or director attached.
“This movie may never get made,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m counting everything on Racing Legacy being made. It’s not about getting my career back. I don’t care about being famous. I don’t even care about going back to Hollywood, man. C’mon, man, I turn 44 this year, let’s be realistic.”
What’s worse, Lester’s early career earnings are gone.
“I lost every penny,” he says. “I’ve invested pretty much everything into getting this movie made. My [former] business manager was stealing from me, so I took all my money and put it in mom’s name. When she was dying of ovarian cancer, I wasn’t thinking of bills and didn’t realize that her name was on the account. Then on the night she died, I lost everything. When a person dies, they close the bank account because the money in there goes to paying taxes and hospital bills first, and then the family gets what’s left and that’s part of the inheritance. I lost a little over $300,000 in one night, and my mom.”
Lester is positioning Racing Legacy as a “faith-based” film, a choice informed by his own religious awakening. Born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, he avoided organized religion for most of his life. But upon moving to Dallas, he began attending Elevate Light, a nondenominational megachurch in nearby Frisco. Then last September, he wound up in Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s Sunday school class.
“Next thing you know, I’m getting baptized,” Lester says. “They take me in the back, do their whole confession thing, prayer, they put you in these scrubs, and you’re walking out to this pool in front of the congregation. It’s like waist-deep, enough to dunk you in. Here’s Jase, wearing his camouflage waders up to his chest as if he was out hunting. He says his thing he always says,11 and the next thing you know he’s dunking me in the water. The water was so freaking hot.”12
Marketing Racing Legacy as “faith-based” seems a shrewd business move here in the Bible Belt. At the auto show, he meets a woman who works in a church group that doubles as a production company. Lester leaps into pitch mode, playing the sizzle reel for her and her husband while breezing through the plot. “Single mom?” the woman in cowboy boots asks about the main character’s upbringing. “Yeah, single mom,” Lester confirms. He shows off his car. “You won’t miss me driving around Dallas,” he jokes for the 50th time today. Then they exchange information.
Lester is upbeat afterward. “You don’t know who knows who,” he says, beaming. It’s the happiest he’s looked all day. At this point, Ron Lester’s reclamation project comes into focus. It’s not his career he’s trying to save. It’s his life.
Racing Legacy may not get the financing it needs or attract the cast Lester wants. But it offers something that’s been missing. He promises the suicide attempts are behind him. He started therapy earlier this year. And he loves teaching — two acting classes full of eager, paying students. There’s still a chance, however small, that he becomes famous for more than just Billy Bob. He’s still auditioning, still hunting for gigs. Though recently, he made one major change to his process: He took Varsity Blues off his résumé.
Thomas Golianopoulos (@Golianopoulos) is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to the New York Times, Wired, the New York Observer, and Spin. Previously he wrote about a tragic day in Buffalo.
Illustration by PJ McQuade (@LandoMcQuade).