Paul Teutul Sr. was one of the most recognized faces in the motorcycle-building industry, and this was made possible through the popularity of his reality television series “American Chopper.” The crowd cheered for him and his son Paulie or Paul Jr., in every bike convention that they participated in, and some of the most high-profile motorcycle enthusiasts around the world ordered a chopper from his New York shop, Orange County Choppers. The business empire that he created from the ground up reached the pinnacle of success, and should have made his family closer and unified than ever, as most of them contributed to the family’s hard-earned triumph, but sad to say, it went the opposite way. Paul Sr. mentioned during the early years of the Teutuls’ success that he would often wonder as to what would be the ultimate cost of that fame.
All about Paul Teutul Sr. and his volatile upbringing
Aside from his amazing bike-building skills, Paul Sr. gained worldwide recognition due to his turbulent relationship with his son, which was witnessed by millions of viewers in their reality TV show. While some insisted that it stemmed from the TV show’s writer’s imagination, those who personally knew Paul Sr. would say otherwise. Some of them weren’t shocked at the level of intensity and ferocity of the fights.
His childhood in a chaotic home
Paul Sr. was born with a middle name, John, which made him an official junior as his father was named Paul John Teutul, but he only found out about it when he applied for a passport. His parents never told him about it, so that they could easily distinguish between father and son; it was quite confusing but he said that was how it had always been with their family. His father was German-Austrian, while his mother was pure Italian, and his grandparents from both sides were European immigrants who lived in New York City before settling down in Yonkers.
Corporal punishment was the norm back then, and his parents took it to the extreme as they used a cat o’ nine tails to beat him and his sisters each time they made a mistake that angered them. He recalled that his stay-at-home mother certainly knew what buttons to push when his father came home from work, and so they ended up receiving more beating. It was always a case of a ‘damn if you do and damn if you don’t’ situation – if he was hit without doing anything wrong that day, his father would just tell him to consider it as punishment for a future mistake.
They invented the word dysfunctional
Paul Sr.’s grandfather was successful, and owned houses in the neighborhood that he’d built with his own hands. His mantra was work, work, and more work, and this was his legacy to his clan. While Paul Sr.’s father was a hard worker too, he wasn’t good in business, and failed twice with his investments. As a result, his father was highly dependent on his grandfather, and that made his mom angry; she hated the control that her father-in-law had over her husband. It created a rift in the family, and his mom forbade them to go near their grandparents, which they often disobeyed, and were caught sneaking to eat with their grandmother who lived a block away.
Their house was a battlefield, a picture of chaos, as he grew up listening to so much yelling and screaming. He and his siblings weren’t close, and didn’t look out for each other because they were all afraid to make a mistake. To make matters worse, his mother was a closet alcoholic, while his father would also drink, although he never once saw him drunk. The vicious cycle in their home was that his mother would drink all night and then fight with his father when he returned from work. When it was daytime, she would be asleep and his father would leave to work only to return home to more fighting with his mother. In 1978, his mother died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Back in the day, 57 in this picture
Posted by Paul Teutul Sr on Thursday, March 8, 2018
Meet the Teutuls
Growing up in such a violent environment, Paul Sr. made a vow that his family life would be different. Despite the miserable marriage that his parents had, he still believed in marriage, and wasn’t deterred at all to build a family when he found the right woman for him.
Paul met Paula
After his nine-month stint in military service with a merchant marine ship called Enid Victory, he reconnected with an Italian high school classmate, Paula Leonardo, and they were married in 1972. While he wanted to settle down and start a family, he continued to mess around for a few years, and did odd jobs. His drinking escalated, and Paul Sr. sported a whiskey buzz while working diligently for Metropolitan Tobacco.
It was also during that time when he learned to ride a motorcycle and was hooked. Paula said that when she met Paul Sr. in high school, he wasn’t as angry then. However, she described him as someone ‘between a lost puppy and the kind of guy you wouldn’t want your daughter to date,’ but he charmed her. They went through many hardships in life, but he never gave up. Back then, she already knew something was wrong with their marriage but couldn’t figure out what it was exactly. She was determined to make it work, however, and took it as her responsibility to fix it.
The Teutul children: Paulie, Danny, Mikey, and Cristin
While Paul was determined to keep his habits from his wife, Paula eventually realized that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her motivation to stay together as a family was their children, and she knew she had to be strong for everyone. At that time they already had three sons, six-year-old Paul Jr, four-year-old Daniel, and two-year-old Michael. Their only daughter, Cristin, arrived in 1982 when Paul was already in his sophomore year in recovery. Amidst the pain and the confusion that she underwent during the early years, she relied on the eldest son, Paulie, and this somehow took away his childhood, even if he was known to have been the mischievous child who could get away with everything. He was popular in school, the captain of the football team, and the creative one in the family who loved tinkering and experimenting, like his old man.
Of the four Teutul children, it was Danny who was the most responsible, and the one who did great in school. Just like Paulie, he was also into football and became a quarterback for the varsity team. Mikey was the laid-back son who was contented to be just a part of whatever his brothers were doing. Cristin was the daughter and sister they all prayed for. The boys complained that she was such a spoiled girl, but in reality, they were the ones who really showered her with time and attention. She was a social butterfly in high school, but studied hard in college and was rewarded with a nursing degree.
How Paul Sr. built his bike-building empire
Looking back, Paul Teutul Sr. never thought that it would have been possible for a dysfunctional family of bike builders to end up as popular TV stars.
Started with a welding shop where he customized his first chopper
With all the booze and drugs, most people in their neighborhood including former teachers voted that Paul Sr. would end up as a loser, if not for the welding skills he developed after the elective course he took up in high school. He initially worked at his brother-in-law’s welding shop, but it went bankrupt. He then worked for a few local shops, but realized that he was the type of person who needed to be his own boss, because he couldn’t take orders. He took a risk by investing in welding equipment, and offered his services around the community from his truck. Eventually he expanded, and opened up a shop that flourished, as he kept receiving work until he met a smart guy named Fred who became his partner – the name of the shop was P&F Welding. Aside from being an expert in steel fabrication, Fred was also into motorcycles, so Paul learned so much from him, working with steel frames and building just about every part of a motorcycle. It was then that he customized his own Harley, and felt great about it.
Paul and Fred had a falling out after their shop burned down due to an accident. When Fred opted out, Paul picked up the pieces and opened up his own shop, Paul’s Welding. Soon, his sons worked in the shop as well, and it was then that he realized that Paulie had a gift for steel fabrication, after he’d finished a vocational course in welding, but all the Teutul children started at the bottom of the company doing odd jobs. The company was renamed Orange County Iron in 1986, after Paul Sr. bought a 7,000-square-foot shop in Montgomery, New York. There was a huge demand for iron-related products, so he expanded again, and relocated to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse to accommodate all the orders that they received. In 2004, the company had another rebranding and restructuring made by his second son, Danny, Orange County Ironworks.
The hobby turned into Orange County Choppers
Paul Sr. and Paulie shared a common interest in motorcycles. When Paul Sr. was caught by the bike-building bug, he took his eldest son with him. At that time, he was already divorced and was living alone in an apartment. When he started building a bike, he would call on Paulie to help him out. Eventually, in 1999, they co-founded Orange County Choppers in Newburgh. Initially, they had a hard time promoting their brand, but through hard work and amazing craftsmanship, their choppers were eventually noticed through word of mouth. While they were slowly becoming recognized in the bike-building industry, it hadn’t translated to profit. They needed a boost, as had happened to Jesse James who paved the way for chopper builders to attract global recognition through “Monster Garage.”
The Teutul’s time to shine came when Discovery Channel offered them a reality TV show of their own, “American Chopper.” After they watched the pilot episode, they couldn’t help but blame each other for doing something that they believed would ruin their reputation and eventually their business – they were annoyed that the producers hadn’t editing out all the fights and intense yelling between father and son in the episode that aired. Paul Sr. threatened the producer that he would go to Los Angeles just to beat him up – the producer said to wait for the result. The next day, they were shocked at the high TV ratings the pilot episode achieved; even the servers of their website broke down, because they couldn’t handle the influx of messages they received because of the TV show. From then on, each Monday night millions of viewers would tune in to Discovery Channel to see their work on building beautiful customized choppers, and at the same time be fascinated with the family drama that rivaled popular daytime soaps.
What had been the ultimate cost of the Teutul fame?
Paul Sr. already knew back then that the kind of popularity and success that his family achieved would surely cost him something valuable. It was just too late when he realized that fame would break his family apart.
— Paul Teutul Sr (@paulteutulsr) February 16, 2022
The very public termination of his eldest son’s services
Discovery Channel executives salivated in their offices when Paul Sr. and Paulie unleashed their infamous tempers in one of the episodes in the sixth season of “American Choppers”, as they imagined the kind of boost it would gain them in the ratings; other members of the Teutul family were worried that it would be the last time they would see the two together.
Many viewers thought that it was scripted, because they found it unthinkable that Paul Sr. would fire his only son, who co-founded the customization shop business that put the Teutul family on the bike-building map. Father and son argued about work attitude and habits. They yelled at each other at the top of their lungs. Paulie Sr insisted that his son Paulie follow his way of doing things such as being early coming to the shop. The son justified his tardiness, as he said that it didn’t matter if he came in late because, at the end of the day, he didn’t go home without finishing his work. The moment that led to his firing was after he uttered the line, ‘the shop would have been burned to the ground without me,’ and then he threw a chair in his father’s office out of frustration. He also reminded his father that he technically didn’t work for him since he co-founded the shop, and so was a business partner.
Lawyers made some modifications to the Teutuls’ contract, so Paulie could still appear in the TV show after he was fired by his father. It allowed father and son to continue working and filming, but never together, so avoiding more problems. However, after that season, Paulie left the show.
Paul Sr. and Paulie filed lawsuits
When the Teutuls’ contract was modified and made Paulie an independent contractor, it also affected the 20% shares that the father gave his son when they co-founded Orange County Choppers; Paul Sr. was given the option to buy him out. In May 2009, he had the shares appraised at zero percent value, and tried to have them returned by his son, but Paulie ignored his demands, which led him to file a lawsuit against his son. Paulie countersued, and to his delight, the lower court ruled in his favor. The case was elevated to the Court of Appeals, and his son won the appeal too – the appellate judge declared that the buyout was invalid.
Mikey tried to fix the rift in the family
After joining the business as the assistant general manager, Mikey witnessed the deterioration of the relationship between his father and eldest brother. He tried his best to fix the problem by mediating between them, but it was futile. He had enough problems of his own to deal with, because he’d checked into a rehabilitation facility to work on his alcohol addiction – apparently, he’d inherited this Teutul problem. Sometime before “American Chopper” ended, Mikey was forced out of the business by Paul Sr., stating that he had been given many options to be successful, but he never did. He later on joined Paulie’s company.
The lawsuits that were filed affected the family in many ways. Paul Sr. didn’t attend the wedding of his son Paulie, even though invited. Everyone thought that the drama between the Teutul family wouldn’t end, but time heals all wounds, and eventually they all moved on. Father and son even worked together in a spin-off series called “American Chopper: Sr. vs Jr.” but never on any bike-build project, to avoid confrontations. It lasted for four seasons, and when they did a reboot called “American Chopper: The Last Ride” in 2020, everyone had mellowed down. Paulie just wanted to enjoy quality time with his father for one last time, so he agreed to everything that Paul Sr. wanted, just as when they’d created their first bike together.