The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Vincent ‘Don Vito’ Margera, reality TV star turned sex offender, dead at 59

He was fat. He was slow. He was often intoxicated, and/or appeared to have a speech impediment. If it was an act, it didn’t seem like it. And if he was in on the joke — which ended in 2007, when he was found guilty of molesting two teenage girls and legally barred from portraying his reality TV “character” — it didn’t seem like it.

Now, Vincent “Don Vito” Margera — the uncle of “Jackass”-affiliated prankmeister Bam Margera and the heel of his nephew’s MTV reality show “Viva La Bam” — is dead at 59. Margera battled liver and kidney failure in his final years, as his family told TMZ, and died Sunday.

“He struggled with kidney and liver issues for a while, and he put up a good fight,” his sister-in-law April Margera told CNN. “But he died this morning at 6:45 a.m. at Chester County Hospital in West Chester, Pennsylvania.”

“RIP Don Vito,” Johnny Knoxville, the closest thing to an A-list star that came from the “Jackass” franchise, wrote. “You will be missed.”

Others offered measured praise — or outright criticism.

“Don Vito died?” one user wrote on Twitter. “No loss. Too bad it wasn’t before he touched kids and whatnot.”

“I thought Don Vito died like 7 years ago,” another wrote.

This wasn’t just humor or hyperbole. In the wake of his sex crimes, Margera was barred, by a Colorado court, from playing the character of Don Vito — so named for his mumbling, a la Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” The problem: Vincent Margera was Don Vito, and Don Vito was Vincent Margera. It’s a question as relevant to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as it is to “Keeping Up the Kardashians”: How can one stop playing oneself?

Before the rise of reality TV, Vincent Margera would likely have lived and died quietly in the Philadelphia suburb where he lived for decades. But his nephew, skateboarder Bam, rose to prominence as a member of MTV’s “Jackass” crew. Known for its cast’s irreverent, ridiculous — and sometimes dangerous — shenanigans, “Jackass” proved an incredibly popular MTV series and feature-film franchise. Bam’s spinoff, “Viva La Bam,” hit the air in 2003. And in this spotlight, Don Vito became a star — or, depending on one’s view, a black hole.

There is nothing new about less-than-beautiful characters getting abuse from those whose names are at the top of the marquee. Moe slapped Curly; Seinfeld put Newman in his place. But on “Viva La Bam,” the routine humiliation dumped on Don Vito, an obese middle-aged man who appeared to have issues with alcohol and a less-than-gentlemanly view of women, by his photogenic young nephew always seemed cruel and unusual. It wasn’t clear that Vincent/Vito really understood what was going on.

In one representative episode — “Destination: Mexico,” which aired in 2005 and does not hold up well — Bam and company depart for sunny south of the border, leaving Don Vito in snowy Pennsylvania.

Bam: We’re going to Mexico. You guys wanna go?

Vito: We’re going to Mexico.

Bam: You’re not going.

Vito: I know Mexican.

Bam: It’s not Mexican, it’s Spanish. And you don’t know Spanish.

Vito: I know uno, dos, tres, cuatro.

Bam: That’s not going to do any good and I don’t feel like spending my vacation bailing you out of a Mexican prison.

Vito: [unintelligible outburst] … I should get to go!

Bam: How bad do you want to go?

Vito: I want to go bad because I like the senoritas.

Bam then tells Vito he will give him a Hummer if Vito can master 10 sentences in Spanish.

Vito: What are you going to do if I don’t learn the Mexican people language?

Bam: You are going to be my pet Mexican.

Vito: A pet Mexican? What the hell is a pet Mexican?

Bam: You’ll find out.

The episode concludes when, after several embarrassing attempts to learn 10 Spanish sentences, Don Vito fails. In the final minute of the show, Bam crowns his uncle with a sombrero into which he pours salsa. Bam and his crew then dip tortilla chips into the salsa and eat it off of Vito’s head.

MTV is no stranger to poor taste. This episode, and many others, likely would have disappeared among the network’s many “spring break” adventures and other questionable programming. However, in real life beyond reality TV, Vincent Margera inhabited “Don Vito” all too well. In 2006, he was arrested after allegedly groping three girls — two 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old — at an autograph signing in Lakewood, Colo.

“This man was out of control during this public event,” prosecutor Jim Stanley said. “He was so intoxicated that he peed his pants while with these children.”

Margera’s defense was curious: His attorney argued her client was merely inhabiting the poorly-behaved Don Vito when he transgressed.

“Fans came to see the crazy, outrageous, profane uncle,” Pamela Mackey, Margera’s lawyer, said. “That’s who they wanted their picture taken with. Fans expected to see Don Vito, not Vincent Margera … You may find the behavior vulgar and disgusting, but it was done to amuse, to entertain, to get a laugh.”

A jury, not convinced, found Margera guilty of two counts of sexual assault on a child. When the verdict was read, Margera collapsed in court. His words were chilling.

“You might as well kill me now!” he shouted.

Margera, who could have spent six years in jail, faced a somewhat bizarre sentence. He had to register as a sex offender and spend 10 years on probation — that was routine. But to avoid jail, a judge ordered that Margera could “no longer be Don Vito” for a decade.

The victims seem satisfied with the verdict.

“I’m glad we haven’t dropped as a society to where touching young girls is entertainment,”one victim’s grandmother said at the time.

Margera appeared to comply with the ruling. Scenes in which he appeared were reportedly cut from a subsequent “Jackass” film. Between his conviction and his death, he largely disappeared from press reports.

In comments posted to YouTube in 2012, Bam Margera angrily addressed what appeared to be civil claims filed against his uncle. There was no point to pursuing such actions, Bam said. Vito was broke.

“Guess what, lady?” Bam said. “Vito doesn’t have any f—ing money. He has a red Ford Ranger and that’s it.” (Bam Margera was not immediately available for comment.)

Vito, however, said he had no regrets.

“He said to me last week that he wanted everyone to know it was a good ride,” sister-in-law April Margera told CNN. “He enjoyed himself and wanted to thank all the fans. He went through a lot, especially with the Denver stuff. He wanted everyone to know that he never did that.”