In the early 1980s, Mick Foley spent countless weekends driving 700 miles round-trip from SUNY Cortland to the Pittsburgh suburb of Freedom, Pennsylvania — often sleeping in his car — to learn the ins and outs of pro wrestling from veteran grappler Dominic DeNucci.
"I'm not a dabbler," Foley says with a laugh.
Three decades later, Foley — a Ward Melville High School alumnus and 2013 inductee into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame — no longer morphs into maniacal souls like his WWE personas Cactus Jack or Mankind.
Yet, he still painstakingly gets into character, becoming the jolliest elf of them all before, during and after December in his mission to get others to suspend disbelief for an emotional high.
Foley, 49, has long been a yuletide fanatic, sporting a year-round Christmas room in his Smithtown home and penning a pair of children's Christmas books to go along with his New York Times bestselling efforts.
But a post-wrestling career documentary project has turned into an extended journey to channel Kris Kringle, with the guidance of Foley's personal Santa, formerly known as Frank Pascuzzi, who plies him with equal parts advice and barbecue.
A wrestling fan's film
Foley will be at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington on Dec. 2 for a screening of the recently released "I Am Santa Claus," the debut documentary of New Jersey filmmaker Tommy Avallone. Avallone, 32, grew up watching wrestling with his grandfather and has always spliced pro wrestlers into his movies, which include the 2012 comedy "Mancation," starring Danica McKellar, Joey Fatone and pro wrestling veteran Tommy Dreamer. But he didn't know how he would include a wrestler in a documentary about the real lives of Santas in the months when they're not being Santa.
Then Dreamer told Avallone about Foley's appreciation for Christmas, and in late 2011 Dreamer began calling Foley to gauge his interest in being Santa. Before long Foley was making round trips to Philadelphia to be fitted for a Santa outfit.
At first Foley wasn't sure the project was right for him. But he still vividly remembers an autograph-signing session in 1999 at a Massachusetts shopping mall while he was in his heyday as the leather mask-wearing Mankind. A woman brought her 3-year-old son, Antonio, who needed to wear a mask because of severe burns. That his favorite wrestler also wore a mask made Antonio feel better, and before long he was sitting on Foley's lap for the duration of the appearance.
Foley said his two take-aways from the experience were: "I feel like Santa Claus" and "I want to feel that way again."
Avallone's cameras were on hand when Foley eventually made his St. Nick debut on Dec. 2, 2012, at Santa's Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire. The park already was hallowed ground for Foley; his parents started taking him there when he was 3 or 4, and Foley has taken his children — three sons and a daughter — there at least once a year since 1996.
But Santa's Village got even more special when a timid, doubting child walked up and gave Foley one chance to channel the magic.
"He came in and he tugged on the beard, and his eyes lit up," said Foley of the white locks he spent hours dying the day before. "And my immediate feeling was, 'I'm going to be doing this for a long time. I need to do this every year for as long as I can.' "
That moment cemented Foley's passion for the project. Not only did he help with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000, but he ended up getting involved in the postproduction process, earning producer status along the way.
"I live right outside of Philadelphia," Avallone said. "Foley, who was in Brooklyn at a WWE event, was like, 'I'm in Brooklyn, any way I can come and edit all night?' And I had to work the next day, but when someone like Mick Foley asks you to sacrifice, you do it, because no one sacrifices more than Mick."
Foley's participation ended up shifting the direction of the 90-minute film — which was originally intended to be more about so-called "Santa wars," or Santas arguing about the politics of the best ways to portray Mr. Claus — to focus more on how Santas balance December bliss with the other 11 months: Among the stories, which feature Foley and four other Santas, an emotional Santa Jim managing a long-distance relationship with his boyfriend and a somewhat despondent Santa Randall nervously waiting for a holiday season gig that will allow him to get out of his daughter's basement and into a mobile home.
Officially Mr. Claus
And then there is Copiague's former Frank Pascuzzi, now known as Santa Claus. Really.
He has legally changed his name to Santa Claus, and now longs to get out of the business of designing fire sprinkler systems so he can move full-time into selling his Santa's BBQ — including a concoction of pulled pork inside fried ravioli that has been known to draw euphoric reactions from first-time samplers at parties and catered events.
"That is one of the reasons why I cook," Santa said. "I love being Santa, I love putting smiles on people's faces, bringing them back to their childhood. But one month [per year pursuing a passion] is not enough."
"I Am Santa Claus" debuted in October at the Hollywood Film Festival. Foley and Avallone are still thrilled by the positive reaction they received from director Kevin Smith of "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob" fame after the screenings.
But they already were emboldened after showing their movie to documentary maker Morgan Spurlock, who took on an executive producer role to shore up parts of the film and help with distribution. "I Am Santa Claus" was released on Blu-ray and iTunes on Nov. 11 and will debut Nov. 25 on Netflix.
Foley predicts success, but regardless, his designation by Santa as a "Santa Ambassador" — complete with a cookie-stained scroll presented to him — makes the journey well worth it. The idea of the term Santa Ambassador is to keep the magic alive, even for children who get old enough to be realistic about one man in a red suit navigating the planet to deliver toys to every home.
"Everybody has the idea of Santa in their head, and in their heart," Foley said.
That thought process extends to Foley's family. When his sons Mickey, 13, and Hughie, 11, found out earlier this year that the Santa Claus who arrived at their home on Christmas Eve in 2012 was actually a guy from Copiague who changed his name, they initially were distraught.
"Everything that you want Santa to be, he is," Foley said he told his sons, who are now looking forward to Santa's next Christmas Eve visit.
Foley watched his 20-year-old daughter, Noelle, cry during an "I Am Santa Claus" screening over the plight of Santa Jim, who had to spend the holidays away from the love of his life.
Afterward, Foley admitted his daughter confided that Santa Jim was her favorite Santa.
Santa/dad/ambassador Foley thought that was adorable.
SEE MICK FOLEY AT 'I AM SANTA CLAUS' SCREENING
A screening of "I Am Santa Claus" will be held Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., in Huntington. The cost $10 for members, $15 public (includes reception). For more information, visit cinemaartscentre.org, call 631-423-7610 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: The documentary is rated R and not recommended for children.