“Mean” Gene Okerlund, the most iconic interviewer and one of the most well-known announcers period in the history of televised pro wrestling, passed away at the age of 76, WWE announced on Wednesday morning. No cause of death was given by WWE, although Okerlund’s son Tor later told the Associated Press that his father had “just kind of went from bad to worse” after a bad fall a few weeks ago. Okerlund had been in bad health on and off for decades, requiring three kidney transplants before the last one finally took in 2004. “I had a hereditary kidney disease, and I was on dialysis,” he said in the finale of Legends House, a WWE Network reality show that aired in 2014. “My wife, God bless her [breaks down], stepped up to the plate, and gave me a kidney, and I’m here today. Very simple.” Away from the wrestling business as in it, Okerlund was a survivor.
In his life in wrestling, Okerlund was best known for being able to add to stand-up interviews through his reactions to the wrestlers, both in terms of his reliably in-character facial expressions and his quips. Okerlund’s superpower, which was no small thing in his job, was his imperviousness to cracking up on camera. Even in one of the few times fans saw him break, when a bad take of a pre-tape at SummerSlam ‘89—the sign behind him fell down and he yelled out “fuck it!”—ran by mistake, Okerlund almost immediately regained his composure. Somehow, as the extended version of the blooper on YouTube shows, he momentarily resumes what he was supposed to say.
“Gentlemen, as you know, The Ultimate Warrior,” he begins, only for the sign to fall as Vince McMahon, off camera, says “Nice move.” Okerlund yells, “FUCK IT!” at that point but then, like either a glitching computer or a true professional, somehow finishes his original sentence, saying “...has publicly stated…” before finally giving up and joking about the situation. “Dammit, who put that [sign] up? Is that $200 an hour?”
All of which is to say that Mean Gene could make anything work. Case in point: For weeks in 1990, a giant egg was present at every WWE TV taping, and the subject of constant hype about who or what might be inside. The popular scuttlebutt at the time was that it was recently departed WCW star Mean Mark, who ended up debuting on the show as The Undertaker in a slot as Ted DiBiase’s mystery partner. (Recently, on his podcast, longtime wrestling insider John McAdam recounted that, as far as he knew, that rumor was actually true, with The Undertaker scheduled to kick out of the egg like a monster until someone in the promotion realize that would traumatize children.) When the egg finally hatched, though, it revealed the Gobbledy Gooker—that is, veteran wrestler Hector Guerrero in a turkey suit. Confused fans in Hartford instantly started booing, loudly. The resulting segment is terrible, both in concept and execution, but it’s infinitely watchable thanks to Okerlund playing it completely straight while conversing with a gobbling man-turkey before finally accepting his dares to dance and do—well, attempt—a cartwheel in the ring.
Okerlund’s real strength, though, was getting major storylines and angles over. During some of the wackier periods for WWE that work included getting cursed to sweat black ooze from his possessed hand, but stuff like that wasn’t the norm. As much as we remember Mean Gene as charming and funny, his finest moments were arguably with the most serious storylines. Perhaps the ultimate masterpiece of early 1990s WWE storytelling was Earthquake breaking Hulk Hogan’s ribs, complete with a brilliantly sad music video teasing Hogan’s retirement. Okerlund’s contribution to the bit came during the weekly “WWF Update” segment, where he recounted his friendship with the Hulkster while seemingly on the verge of tears. “If there’s ever a time that Hulk Hogan needs your help, it’s now,” he begins. “I developed a friendship with the Hulkster, I’m proud to say that he considered me a friend of his. A lot of great years…[sniffles]…please write to him…let’s go to the graphic…please write to Hulk Hogan at this address…I can’t do this.” Longtime fans and viewers of the company’s home videos knew that Gene had even trained and teamed with Hogan for a one-off match, and so it was completely credible that Okerlund would be that overcome with emotion, especially given his performance.
Of course, he was also hilarious, as his interactions with Bobby Heenan and others show. Personally, I’m partial to Gene suggesting on a 1995 WCW late night marathon that the entirety of Papa John’s was owned by some guy named Ron, just because it’s so weird. More famously, there are moments like his attempts to engage a donut-eating Don Muraco and the Hogan training montage, as well as his random non-sequitur one-liners delivered to imaginary people off camera. It’s all memorable, up to and including Ric Flair’s manager, Woman, gently caressing Gene during every Flair interview.
Okerlund’s reputation took a temporary hit in the mid to late ’90s, during his time with WWE’s rival WCW, which was owned by Turner Broadcasting. Mean Gene quickly became the star of WCW’s scammy pay-by-the-minute 1-900 number hotline. (If you’re too young to remember 1-900 numbers: It was a sleazy hustle used mainly for phone sex and uh information, especially about wrestling.) About a year into Okerlund’s run, the plugs for the hotline started to get especially misleading, most famously on February 4, 1995, when Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell passed away. It was bad enough that the evening’s shilling was built around finding out who died. More specifically, though, Okerlund touted the “death of a 45 year old former heavyweight champion.” With Ric Flair having “retired” three months earlier, Bob Backlund having just been WWE Champion again, and the slightly older Terry Funk and Harley Race both recently disappearing from TV without explanation, the inference was clearly that it was one of them. Even worse, according to Wade Keller in that week’s Pro Wrestling Torch, the Blackwell news was delivered as a throwaway at the end of seven to eight minute call.
That followed Okerlund around for a while, especially since WWE parodied him with a “Scheme Gene” character in early 1996. But by the time WCW closed and Okerlund returned to WWE, he was so lovingly embraced as a nostalgia figure—and so willing to satirize the old carnival barker hotline host image—that the stain didn’t stick to him much past the ‘90s. Since his 2001 return to the WWE fold, he was pretty much a constant in some form. If there was any kind of nostalgia-tinged programming, he was there, whether that meant hosting programming on WWE’s original video on demand service, appearing on Monday Night Raw’s “old-school” nights, dropping in for a completely random early ‘90s-style “SummerSlam Report” in 2014, doing DVDs, helming the WWE Vintage Collection show for international markets, Legends House, or who knows what else, Mean Gene made his presence felt.
“They say never meet your heroes,” the former WWE international department announcer Arda Ocal (there, he was “Kyle Edwards”) told Deadspin. “But that absolutely did not apply to Gene. He was the nicest human, went out of his way to give me advice and words of encouragement. He consistently went to bat for me and I’ll always be grateful. Every time I saw him I would yell ‘PUT THAT CIGARETTE OUT!’ And he would laugh slowly, smiling and shaking his head before telling us a ton of incredible stories. God bless Mean Gene.”
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.