Dave Draper, bodybuilding’s ‘blond bomber’, dies at 79

Dave Draper, bodybuilding’s ‘blond bomber’, dies at 79

Draper, who was also a skilled woodworker, became one of Schwarzenegger’s training partners and built some furniture for his home in Santa Monica

Dave Draper. Credit: IMDb Photo

Dave Draper, a popular bodybuilder of the 1960s who won three major titles before dropping out of competition at age 28, died Nov. 30 at his home in Aptos, California, near Santa Cruz. He was 79.

The cause was congestive heart failure, his wife, Laree Draper, said.

Draper — who stood 6 feet tall, had a 54-inch chest and competed at 235 pounds — emerged as a force in bodybuilding in 1962 with his victory at the Mr. New Jersey competition. He soon moved to Southern California, where he continued to sculpt his body at the Dungeon, a gym on the fabled Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, and at Gold’s Gym, in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles.

He loved lifting weights for its physical and spiritual benefits. But he disliked the preening and posing required of bodybuilders at competitions and exhibitions.

“For a reasonable season of my life, it seemed like the thing to do,” Draper said in an interview with T-Nation, a strength-training and bodybuilding website, in 2009. “But competition stood between me and the relief of hoisting the iron — the private exertion, the pure delight and the daily fulfillment of building muscle and strength.”

Despite that ambivalence, Draper, who became known as the Blond Bomber, was a star on the bodybuilding scene of the 1960s. He was named Mr. America in 1965 and Mr. Universe in 1966 — before Arnold Schwarzenegger had arrived from Austria — and won the Mr. World title in 1970.

“Dave trained harder than anybody else and always wore jeans to the gym,” Frank Zane, a three-time Mr. Olympia, said in an interview. “He loved to train, and he was very strong. He just didn’t like competing.”

Draper’s spectacular physique found an occasional home in Hollywood. He had roles in sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies (as Dave Universe, a date for Elly May Clampett) and The Monkees (as a character named Bulk). He was also in a few films, including Don’t Make Waves (1967), in which he played Sharon Tate’s boyfriend.

“In Austria, I kept his cover of Muscle Builder magazine on the wall above my bed for motivation,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement after Draper’s death, “and when I saw him starring in ‘Don’t Make Waves,’ I thought, ‘My dreams are possible.’”

Draper, who was also a skilled woodworker, became one of Schwarzenegger’s training partners and built some furniture for his home in Santa Monica. “I learned his heart was as big as his pecs,” Schwarzenegger said.

Even as he was competing, Draper was abusing alcohol, marijuana and angel dust. (He said he also used steroids, sparingly, under a doctor’s supervision.) He continued to have problems, chiefly with alcohol, until 1983, when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

Laree Draper — who met her future husband at a gym in Capitola, California, near Santa Cruz — attributed his alcohol and drug use to the tensions brought on by competing and dealing with the demands of Hollywood.

“He got caught up in it, and I guess he couldn’t handle it,” she said in an interview.

David Paul Draper was born April 16, 1942, in Secaucus, New Jersey. His father, Dan, was a salesman; his mother, Anne (Simsek) Draper, was a homemaker.

Dave Draper, who did not excel at team sports, got his first set of weights at age 10. By 12, he was aggressively working out with barbells and dumbbells.

“They were my solid steel friends that I could trust,” he said in his book A Glimpse in the Rear View (2020), a compilation of columns from his website. “When the going got tough, when I kept missing the baseball, and when girls were far too cute to talk to, the weights were there and they spoke my language.”

He bought his gear at Weider Barbell in Union City, New Jersey — part of Joe Weider’s empire of muscle magazines, fitness equipment, supplements and competitions — and at 19 became the weekend manager of a gym in Jersey City. He also got a part-time job in the Weider Barbell warehouse, where he worked out with the other shipping clerks. Weider, who was known as the Master Blaster, gave Draper his Blond Bomber nickname.

“He had the fire in the belly, don’t kid yourself,” Weider told GQ magazine for a profile of Draper in 2000. “He wouldn’t have gotten the kind of body he did without hard work.”

After winning Mr. New Jersey, Draper moved to Santa Monica, where he continued to work for Weider. As Draper’s profile in bodybuilding rose, he appeared on the covers of magazines published by Weider, like Muscle Builder and Mr. America, and in ads for his equipment.

Reflecting on his victory in the Mr. America event, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, Draper wrote that he took pride in being a “muscle-building original.”

“I invented, improvised and rooted about, along with a small, disconnected band of rebels with a cause: to build solid muscle and might through the austere, hard labor of love — the lifting of iron,” he wrote in a column included in A Glimpse in the Rear View.

In 1972 Draper sued Weider for not paying him for his endorsement of Weider’s gym and bodybuilding products. He settled for $17,500 before the jury was to deliver a verdict.

Draper did not stop lifting weights until a year before he died.

Once sober, he was hired as a special programmer at a gym in Santa Cruz. He married Laree Setterlund in 1988 and opened two World Gyms with her in the 1990s, which they owned and ran into the 2000s.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sisters, Dana Harrison and Carla Scott; his brothers, Don and Jerry; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His daughter, Jamie Johnson, died in 2016. His marriage to Penny Koenemund ended in divorce.

In one column, Draper contemplated what his life would have been like without weightlifting. The thought, he said, was unbearable.

“No sets? No reps? No cunning determination of how to bombard the delts or blast the biceps?” he wrote. “Days on end without pursuing extreme pain through maximum muscle exertion?” He added, “Full body, full strength, full breath and fulfillment are lost, gone, no more: nary a remnant to remind, disappoint or shame. Shoot me!”

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