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A Jackass grows up (sort of): Bam Margera's back from the bottom

The West Chester native is mostly sober now, much thinner, and rekindling an affair with his first true love, skateboarding. Phoenix, the son he's expecting with wife Nikki, isn't named after the bird that rose from the ashes, but it fits.

When Bam Margera's best friend and fellow Jackass star Ryan Dunn (in painting, right) died in a fiery crash in West Goshen Township in 2011, he went into a deep, downward spiral.
When Bam Margera's best friend and fellow Jackass star Ryan Dunn (in painting, right) died in a fiery crash in West Goshen Township in 2011, he went into a deep, downward spiral.Read moreCHARLES FOX

One night in the future, when everyone's asleep, a boy named Phoenix Wolf Margera might slip into his parents' room with a camera, tiptoe toward them, and unleash a host of horrible but mostly harmless pranks on the man he calls Dad.

Bam Margera knows there is no dad on Earth who deserves payback more than he does.

"I was kind of hoping it would be a girl," he said last week on his 38th birthday of the son he's expecting in December with wife Nikki.

Rounding the bend on middle age and fatherhood, the former star of MTV's hit shows Viva La Bam and Jackass said that feeling ready to face both milestones is something of a miracle.  Yes, the purple Lamborghini still sits in the driveway, but there's a Bentley beside it with a backseat. It has excellent safety features.

Margera is mostly sober now, much thinner, and, thanks to a vision quest of sorts in Spain this year, is rekindling an affair with his first true love, skateboarding. Phoenix isn't named after the bird that rises from the ashes, but it fits.

"I never thought I would do yoga, but now I'm the first one at the yoga studio with all the soccer moms," he said at the kitchen table of one of his two Chester County homes. "I never thought that I would be that dude, but I am."

For a long time, Margera was the dude you figured would die young, like his best friend and fellow Jackass, Ryan Dunn, killed in 2011 at 34 in a fiery crash after a night of drinking.  Margera turned to food and alcohol to deal with Dunn's death — pints of vodka and Gatorade, food binges followed by purges — all while still getting paid to injure himself.

Margera went from Brandon to "Bam" thanks to a grandfather who noticed how much the boy ran into walls. Team sports, uniforms, and coaches weren't his thing, and when Margera first picked up a skateboard as a teen, he figured he'd never put it down again. His earliest stunts appeared in videos for his brother's alt-metal band, CKY, and got noticed by MTV. His crew was teamed up with other wild men, like Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O.  Jackass was born.

Margera and Dunn were featured in the first episode on Oct. 1, 2000, riding — crashing, rather —  shopping carts.

"I want you to punch me in the face one second prior to takeoff so it softens the blow," he tells Dunn.

Margera spent the 2000s in the limelight on the channel and later on the big screen for the Jackass trilogy. He never cared where the day took him or whether the sun came up, a heavily tattooed Peter Pan who amassed a phone-book-thick cache of medical records from pranks that ended badly.

"Broken ribs suck real bad. I broke eight of those things," he said. "Broke my foot in three different spots, and the broken tailbone was the most painful, because you can't do anything for it. Every moment hurts. That was unbearable."

Unlike skateboarding, where the object is to land the trick, Margera said, Jackass was all about failing miserably. Big disasters meant laughs. Serious pain was part of it, but for Margera, it often went darker. When the crew dropped him into a pit of live snakes, he was genuinely terrified, crying like a boy facing his worst fear.

"The dumbest move I ever did was to tell them I'm terrified of snakes," he said. "All that means is, 'Let's get snakes on Bam.' "

Alcohol seemed to help with everything for a while, Margera said, from the nerves to the pain to the grief he suffered from Dunn's death. Somewhere along the line, he became a guy who drank all day with people he didn't really like.

"It took me four beers to even feel normal. People go to rehab because drinking made them lose their job and their wife. My job is to do dumb, jackass s–, and the more shots of Crown Royal I'd do, the braver I'd be. Drinking helped me get paid," he said. "I've come to terms with the fact that it doesn't take drinking to be funny, but it took me a long time to figure that out."

Margera's solo show, Viva La Bam, was set almost entirely in Chester County, in and around "Castle Bam," his medieval-like compound, and also at his parents' home. His family was in the cast, as was Dunn, who was like a brother anyway. The two met when they were 15 at West Chester East High School and were nearly inseparable thereafter.

Chaos reigned for five seasons. Margera's parents, April and Phil, took the worst of it.

"We brought Hollywood to West Chester," Bam said.

Though the show vaulted him to fame, Viva La Bam helped kill the one thing that brought him peace — skating.

"When we first started [filming], I was skating five hours a day," he said. "Then, when you have 40 people waking you up at 9 a.m. and showing up at your house to film you — crew, best boy, dolly — it became, 'Bam, we can't spend two hours filming you try to land one truck for one second of screen time. We need to get dialogue.' "

The most disturbing video of Margera is the most real, filmed by TV news crews near the Route 322 bypass in West Goshen Township on June 20, 2011, hours after Dunn's Porsche left the road and burst into flames. Dunn, Margera's red-bearded jester, and Zachary Hartwell, a production assistant on the movie Jackass Number Two, died at the scene.

Margera is seen crying by a guardrail, hugging his now ex-wife, Missy Rothstein. He speaks to a reporter on the scene, barely.

"He was the happiest person ever," Margera said of Dunn between sobbing. "The smartest guy. He had so much talent." When asked how he could get through it, he said he couldn't.

In the aftermath, Margera emptied more bottles than he could count. He'd sign off on bar tabs that climbed into the thousands in West Chester for his entourage. He'd vomit most of the food he ate there, only to get home and eat an entire frozen pizza while it was still frozen. None of it made him feel better and nothing made him stop, not even a diagnosis of early pancreatitis.

Margera would wake up in the morning and try it all again, an unfunny Groundhog Day. His weight ballooned to 230 pounds. That made skating difficult, but, even worse, it made skating embarrassing. So he stopped.

"I didn't know what I was doing for a long time, but I went into a deep downward spiral once that happened," he said last week of Dunn's death. "Waking up instantly to a beer was normal for a long time."

Margera's marriage to Rothstein, a childhood friend, was chronicled in the MTV series Bam's Unholy Union in 2007. They divorced in 2012. His drinking had a lot to do with that, he said, but they remain friends.

In 2010, Margera got hit with a baseball bat outside a bar he owned in West Chester. In 2015, he got beat up by Icelandic rappers at a music festival.

The last time people saw Margera on television was on VH1's Family Therapy With Dr. Jenn in 2016. The show was a guided tour through rock bottom, including an over-the-top scene with Margera's name on a tombstone that deeply affected his mother.

The show paid well, Margera said, and, unlike other interventions that flamed out, it also woke him up. Five years, he said. That's how many he thinks he lost in limbo and under the influence, wasting away in the bars in West Chester with people he didn't really know.

"I have completely cut back," he said. "I've been taking this medicine that makes you not want to drink. When I first started taking it, I went to the bar and they asked me, 'What do you want to drink?' and I said: 'I don't want beer. I don't want red wine. I don't want whiskey. Just give me a ginger ale.' "

In his kitchen, a note from a blood-testing company lists all the things he should be avoiding —  alcohol, obviously, but cough medicines, too.

"Just be happy," someone wrote on the paper.

Margera said skating today feels the way it did when he was 16 and driving a carload of friends to South Philly to skate under I-95 at FDR Park. He credits it all to Spain.

He went there to work with a filmmaker and to learn to skate again in a place where fewer people would recognize him. Word trickled back to the United States that he was skating well and feeling healthier, and, instead of just tabloids, skating publications began checking in on him. His longtime sponsor, Element, released a new line of skateboards with his logos on them.

"Welcome back, Bam," the company said in a statement.

He also has teamed up with a  friend in Estonia to sell jewelry he designs himself, mostly pendants and rings. He's filming again soon with the Jackass crew. Last month, he appeared on a Vice episode of Epicly Later'D. The show, a series of profiles on skaters, was created by Philly photographer Patrick Dell.  Margera said he may be doing more with Vice.

He's also a prolific painter. Both of his homes are filled with hundreds of canvases, some stacked like playing cards on the floor and most of them unfinished.

Before Phoenix Wolf arrives, Bam has to go to Pittsburgh, Idaho, California, and back to Spain.

"You can skate spots for days that aren't even in magazines yet," he said of his time in Spain. "I came back with about 40 new moves. It took about two months to get my muscle memory back, just to learn all my tricks again."

Over at Bam's castle, a few miles away from where he lays his head, friends Chad Ginsburg and Matt Deis greet him with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" in the kitchen. Both men are in CKY with Margera's brother, Jesse, and the castle has become the band's unofficial headquarters as it prepares to tour for its new album, The Phoenix.

"Bam's got his fire back," said Ginsburg, 45.

Margera said he doesn't spend much time at the castle, though he was to have a birthday bonfire there later that night. Too many memories, too many crazy times, to call it home. The place has a Disney Haunted Mansion vibe, along with a mural of Osama bin Laden in a Sixers uniform on one garage door. It's not baby-proof.

Usually when Margera goes to the castle, it's for the indoor skate park out back that Amish carpenters helped build.

"I try to skate about three times a week," he said.

Margera said he isn't so sure he wants his son to get into the prank game, for the benefit of both. But Phoenix Wolf, he said, will probably be on a skateboard early.

Either way, Nikki said, the baby's kicking a lot.