Mean Gene – A Tribute to a Very Dear, Close, Personal Long-Time Friend

Mean Gene Okerlund passed away on January 2nd, 2019 at the age of 76. It was a loss not only to the fans of professional wrestling but to those who knew him well. Herald Tribune writer Scott Lockwood put it sweetly and perfectly: “It was the voice. And not just any voice. It was a loud, yet smooth, tone that many grew up listening to for decades.” Mean Gene was the voice to a generation of wrestling fans.

Farewell to our very dear, close, personal long-time friend, Mean Gene Okerlund
Farewell to our very dear, close, personal long-time friend, Mean Gene Okerlund

Eugene Arthur Okerlund was born December 19th, 1942 in Sisseton, South Dakota. It was a small town with a population of about 2,500.

Before finding his voice on the stick in professional wrestling, he formed a band called Gene Carroll and The Shades when he was in his late teens. He was the singer and songwriter in the group. Gene Carroll and The Shades released two singles, one in 1959 with the tracks “Red Devil” and “Do You Remember” and again in 1962 with the songs “Is It Ever Gonna Happen” and “Holly.”

Here is Mean Gene singing the song “Is It Ever Gonna Happen” from 1962 with his band Gene Carroll and The Shades:



 

With those songs from his early days, you can already hear the iconic voice that he is known for as he sings. Just amazing.

Of course, we’d later hear Mean Gene’s singing chops again in 1985 when he was the first ever person to sing the National Anthem at WrestleMania doing so at WrestleMania I. As the story goes, the celebrity singer didn’t turn up and Gene stepped up to do the job. The fact that he was unprepared to do this is evident in the fact that he asks the crowd for help at the start and can be seen reading lyrics from a card in his hands. To have done this in front of almost 20,000 people on short notice took a lot of valour. But Mean Gene did it!


Fun trivia- The identity of the celebrity singer originally booked to sing at WrestleMania who didn’t turn up has been kept a secret all these years.


Later that year, he lent his voice to Little Richard’s iconic track, “Tutti Frutti” on the then-World Wrestling Federation’s first album release, “The Wrestling Album.”



 

Gene Carroll and The Shades played parties throughout the Midwest and the Dakotas, and in 2009, his band was inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association’s Hall of Fame.

Okerlund married his sweetheart Jeanne in 1964 and they remained married for 54 years. It’s not often you hear people in the business having successful marriages like this. They had two sons, Todd and Tor.

His son Todd starred on the University of Minnesota ice hockey team from 1983 to 1987. Todd also played on the 1988 United States Olympics team that competed in Calgary. He played four games with the NHL’s New York Islanders but a chronic knee injury ultimately forced his early retirement.

Gene studied broadcast journalism and landed his first job on air on the popular Omaha radio station, KOIL. He later moved to Minneapolis where he worked for a local television station’s front office.

Before Mean Gene got his start in professional wrestling, there was a promoter by the name of Fred Kohler who promoted matches in Chicago, Illinois for close to 40 years. This was the only wrestling on Chicago television for many years and he was responsible for such talents as Verne Gagne and promoter Jim Barnett. In 1964, he sold part of the promotion to Dick the Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder, who were running wrestling in Indianapolis. The next year, Bruiser, Snyder and Verne Gagne bought out Kohler entirely. From there, they co-promoted Chicago, where two tapes were now coming in for Chicago viewers- one from Indianapolis, and another from Minneapolis.

Lanny Poffo, who honors Okerlund in the penultimate episode of The Genius Cast podcast, talks about this time in wrestling history.

“Gene Gagne had the superior tape [at the time],” Poffo explains. “He had better wrestlers, he had better athletes. Now, Bruiser and Snyder, they were fantastic athletes and had respectable programs, but Verne Gagne had excellent athletes all around. Even matches like King Kong Bundy versus Irving The Bedridden Jew, Kenny Yates, mismatches like this featured very good wrestlers that happened to be enhancement talent, while Dick the Bruiser used to just beat up members of the audience it seemed. When I was at school, my classmates used to make fun of me for this [type of cartoonish programming]. With Verne, it was more respectable.”

At the time, Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association had Marty O’Neill as an announcer. He was a portly, short man with glasses, had a great personality and a hell of a voice and he was just terrific on the stick.

“But then,” Poffo continued, “all of a sudden, O’Neill drops dead of a heart attack or something, and guess who gets a break? Mean Gene. Of course, he wasn’t ‘Mean’ at the time.”

Being the true gentleman that he was, Okerlund always kept a spare suit in his locker room or dressing room at the studio where he worked, and when he got the call from Verne Gagne in 1970, he was ready to go.

Verne had gotten to know Okerlund through his work at the local television station in Minneapolis at the time and he always found Okerlund likable. With O’Neill’s sudden death, Verne needed a replacement and Okerlund was the perfect man for the job.

Gene left his office job behind for good and joined the AWA where he worked for 14 years.


Listen to Lanny Poffo’s poignant tribute to Mean Gene Okerlund on the penultimate episode of The Genius Cast:


Mean Gene Okerlund during his AWA days
Mean Gene Okerlund during his AWA days

During his time with the AWA, Okerlund was given the nickname “Mean Gene” by Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. This was meant in irony as many wrestlers and promotion staff considered Okerlund the friendliest person in the game.

In 1984, Okerlund joined the expanding World Wrestling Federation where he’d stay for 9 years as their top interviewer, and as host of WWF shows such as All-American Wrestling and Tuesday Night Titans. This is where he etched his place in the hearts of fans around the world.

Mean Gene was a consummate gentleman, forever poised, and even when interviews veered off in a direction he didn’t anticipate, he never missed a beat!

Cream of the Crop – Mean Gene makes history with The Macho Man Randy Savage in one of the greatest promos in the history of professional wrestling:



 

I dare say, if you were to have another interviewer next to Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, and so many other iconic talkers of the past, I don’t think they would have gotten over as much as they did. The relationship with interviewer and wrestler is much like a dance — just as important as the one that takes place in the ring. Okerlund was the perfect dance partner. His body language, eye contact, the way he followed the lead of who he was interviewing and how he reacted so naturally in an engaging, entertaining way made him such a key ingredient in so many interviews fans look back on nostalgically today. He would also break the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera, making it feel as though he was in the living room with viewers across the world.


Some more fun trivia- Off-camera, Okerlund was very close friends with Hulk Hogan, The Iron Sheik, and the late Bobby Heenan. Mean Gene actually served as best man at the Iron Sheik’s wedding!


Related: The Iron Sheik: The King of Heat on Twitter


As poised as Mean Gene always was, he was a part of two notable bloopers. At WWF SummerSlam 1989, Okerlund was set to interview WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion “Ravishing” Rick Rude and Rude’s manager Bobby Heenan prior to Rude’s title defense against The Ultimate Warrior when the SummerSlam backdrop fell backward. The shot of the SummerSlam backdrop falling can be seen in the video induction of Mean Gene at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony in 2006. Okerlund then turned around and said, “Fuck it!” along with some other words with no audio. The cameras then cut away to a live shot of the crowd, with play-by-play announcer Tony Schiavone and color commentator Jesse Ventura attempting to restore order. After a short while, Okerlund’s interview with Rude and Heenan went as planned.

According to a shoot interview with Okerlund conducted by RF Video, the SummerSlam 1989 blooper was actually taped beforehand. Okerlund explained that the wrong tape was aired during the live broadcast. Meanwhile, a frantic Vince McMahon was on a headset instructing Jesse Ventura to cover for Okerlund. Ventura instead made fun of Okerlund’s on-air gaffe and jokingly regarded Okerlund as a “troublemaker.” One can easily imagine Vince in Gorilla position going, “GOD DAMNIT! FINE THAT MAN!!”

Okerlund also made another unscripted gaffe when on live television near the end of the 1992 Royal Rumble pay-per-view where he, while doing his interview, famously turned towards someone off-camera and said, “Put that cigarette out!” then went right on with his announcement.

One of my personal favorite Mean Gene moments comes from Survivor Series 1990. I’m going to take an excerpt from an article we have up here on Pro Wrestling Stories entitled Survivor Series 1990: WWE’s Memorable Thanksgiving Misfire. The whole piece is well worth the read.

“The then-WWF was heavily hyping an unhatched egg on television broadcasts leading up to the Survivor Series 1990 pay-per-view. Curiosity was building and, funny enough, this became the most anticipated part of the evening. What was in the egg?

‘Things are really heating up,’ Mean Gene Okerlund hyped up to the crowd.

As the fans waited in anticipation, Mean Gene continued his buildup. ‘You know when it’s so hot so long, that means that the incubation is all over and that means all of us are looking forward to seeing this giant egg. Wherever this egg comes from, that had to hurt!’

Okerlund’s comedy hour continued. ‘Oh, this cracks me up! I can begin to see it cracking now. Everybody has speculated as to what might be in the egg. Is it a dinosaur? Is it a rabbit? Balloons? Is it the Playmate of the Month?’

The crowd roared with excitement, if only for a moment.

The world soon found out that it wasn’t a Playmate. No, it was none other than the Gobbledy Gooker, one of WWE’s worst failed gimmicks of all time.

The moment the ‘bird’ emerged from the egg, apathetic boos emanated from the crowd. It wasn’t the sort of boo that could cause a landslide but more of a, ‘Did you seriously try to insult our intelligence by thinking this would entertain us?’ – if that thought could make a sound.

Mean Gene went on to interview the Gobbledy Gooker, but by this point, the crowd had lost interest. All that said, Mean Gene kept it together and quite honestly was the only thing about that segment and likely was the reason the fans didn’t riot.”

Mean Gene loved clowning around with his long-time friend, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

In Lanny Poffo’s tribute to Mean Gene, he shared one of his favorite memories of him.

“I remember Bobby Heenan had a great rapport with Gene because they spent a lot of time together in Minneapolis. [When filming promos for the various markets], they did a little thing for the amusement of the boys insinuating that Bobby Heenan was having an affair with the Fabulous Moolah.”

Poffo reenacted how this played out:

HEENAN: “In Scranton at the CYC, we’re going to have a big thing…”

MEAN GENE: “What were you doing there with Fabulous Moolah?”

HEENAN: “I didn’t do anything! What have you heard?”

“Trust me,” Poffo explains, “I’m not giving it justice. You had to be there. My explanation of what happened isn’t as good or hilarious as what happened. But they were working the boys. But, of course, anybody who was anybody knew that Bobby Heenan and the Fabulous Moolah were not creating humpage! It was just stuff that- you know, it was long and dreary unless you made it fun and they made it fun.”

Mean Gene Okerlund and Bobby Heenan with Heenan giving Okerlund bunny ears behind his head
Mean Gene Okerlund and Bobby Heenan loved clowning around and lifting the spirits of everyone, even after the cameras stopped rolling

Related: The Death of Bobby Heenan: Remembering ‘The Brain’


After appearing at SummerSlam ‘93, Mean Gene left for World Championship Wrestling. He had claimed to RF Video that he had not actually been on speaking terms with Vince McMahon for the last few years of his contract with WWF and wasn’t actually offered an extension.

WWF’s loss was WCW’s gain and he remained with WCW until 2001.

Always the neutral commentator throughout his career, Vince Russo changed all that when he gave Mean Gene the “dirty old man” gimmick in WCW where he would stare at the breasts of the women he interviewed and he would make inappropriate, lustful comments toward WCW interviewer/announcer Pamela Paulshock. This wasn’t to every fan’s taste, but it showed Okerlund could play versatile roles on air.

After WWF purchased WCW in 2001, he soon later rejoined his old promotion.

His first assignment back with WWF was the Gimmick Battle Royal during WrestleMania 17 on April 1, 2001, along with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. He would go on to host WWE Confidential in 2002, which lasted for two years.

Gene also hosted WWE Madison Square Garden Classics, a weekly series, airing on the MSG Network, featuring classic WWE matches that took place at Madison Square Garden from the last four decades. He was also the host for the WWE Classics On Demand Hall of Fame section, which took a look at a different WWE Hall of Famer each month.

Okerlund was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 1, 2006, by Hulk Hogan and during his acceptance speech, he quoted a Bob Knight speech where he requested to be buried face down upon his death so that his critics can, “Kiss my ass!” The crowd and his peers absolutely loved that one.

Mean Gene would, of course, go on to be a part of much other WWE programming including the original animated series WWE Story Time and the WWE Network’s show “Legends House.”

He made an appearance at the WrestleCade 2018 weekend event that took place November 23-25, 2018 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This was his last public wrestling appearance.

Mean Gene at WrestleCade during the weekend of November 23-25, 2018. This would be his final public appearance.
Mean Gene at WrestleCade during the weekend of November 23-25, 2018. This would be his final public appearance. [Photo source: @chadjourn on Twitter]

Okerlund’s health had been deteriorating for many years. A heavy drinker for most of his adult life, he had received three kidney transplants. His first was in 1995 and his second in 2004, which he received from his wife, Jeanne. After his third, he spent a lot of time at home on a dialysis machine.

Lanny Poffo, who had visited Okerlund’s home at the end of November to record an interview for The Genius Cast, said, “To be honest with you, [Gene] was laboring. He didn’t seem healthy to me. We didn’t talk for more than fifteen or twenty minutes before I cut [the interview] short because I just didn’t want to do that to him. I love him too much. And he was starting to labor. As great as he was, and he was still great, he just wasn’t as great as he was [in the past].”

The cause of death for Mean Gene Okerlund, according to his son, Todd, was that he had taken a fall a few weeks prior and it just went from bad to worse.

Mean Gene died on the morning of January 2nd, 2019. He was 76-years-old.

Social media blew up after news of his passing and fans and peers alike shared moving condolences and memories of Mean Gene.

Hulk Hogan said, “He was the best partner I ever had. We never rehearsed or did anything scripted from a writer. Gene would ask me “hey big man what do u want to do?” I would always answer “just follow you brother” and it worked from 1980 – 2017. RIP my brother HH”

While Vince McMahon wrote, “It was impossible not to crack a smile whenever “Mean” Gene Okerlund entered a room. He was the voice behind so many of WWE’s most iconic and entertaining moments, and the WWE family will miss him immensely.”

In an interview released in 2016, Kevin Nash shared with Sean Oliver of Kayfabe Commentaries, “Gene was a man’s man. Wasn’t afraid to have a double scotch while waiting for a kidney transplant!”

He then goes on to share that his absolute favorite plane ride in recent memory was when he got to sit next to Mean Gene flying back from WrestleMania to Atlanta where the two started drinking from 9 am and then again in the Crown Room airport lounge while waiting for their next flight in Atlanta. Nash fondly remembers the two of them sharing stories, drinking their drinks, and then going their own way to their destinations home. He talks about how, despite having a good amount of drinks with his friend, Gene never slurred. “He was always a consummate gentleman.”

And a consummate gentleman he was.

Being the avid drinker, the guys in the back came up with a drink in honor of him called “The Mean Gene Okerlund” consisting of 2 1/2 ounces of vodka (Sid’s Handcrafted Vodka is recommended). Fill a tumbler with fresh ice, add the liberal amount of vodka, and enjoy responsibly! Okerlund actually talked about this very drink in an episode of Legends House on the WWE Network.

Mean Gene, we raise our glass to you! You will forever be cherished and missed.

JP Zarka
JP Zarka is a teacher, musician, producer, former co-host of The Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo podcast, and editor-in-chief of ProWrestlingStories.com. Originally from Chicago, he has called London home for the past ten years. He can be reached on Twitter @jpzarka or @pws_official.