On the most recent episode of his podcast, "Something To Wrestle With", Bruce Prichard took time to reflect on the life and legacy of Mean Gene Okerlund. Below are highlights
It worked really well for Gene all those years. I think Jesse [Ventura] really did him a favor by giving him that moniker: ‘Mean’ Gene. Overall, when you look at the person that probably got that over the credit has to go to Hulk Hogan because Hulk is the one that made it universal in, ‘Mean Gene, let me tell you something brother.’ People do interviews and they start to go into whatever impersonation they want to do…it’s so easy. It rolls off the tongue and made a hell of a career for Gene Okerlund.
I think that it’s because Gene was the guy standing next to Hulk Hogan for all those years. Gene helped Hulk Hogan, as much as Hulk helped Gene. He was the pitchman. He was the guy that was presenting Hulk Hogan and Hulkamania from the AWA and then seemingly came over with Hulk to the WWF, so it was a package in a lot of respects. They’re just very identifiable with each other.
First of all, they worked together and they were friends outside of wrestling. Going all the way back to Minneapolis, Bobby and Gene were very close friends and then in later years they both lived outside of Tampa, Florida and they were very close. Their wives were close, their families were close, and it was a friendship just garnered over many years, being in the same business and being able to share the same ups and downs of the wrestling business.
Gene Okerlund was able to define that role in every company that he was from AWA, to WWF, to WCW. Gene was the mold. Gene was what everybody aspired to be.
I think the most infamous was the Billy Marin vignettes that they shot out in San Diego, where Gene shows up to work with Billy Martin and Billy is sitting there at the bar absolutely trashed and Gene’s trying to get something out of him, but Gene relished those moments. Gene relished taking the impossible and making something out of it, but that was probably his favorite going, ‘I walk in and this guy is sitting at the bar hammered three sheets to the win. What the hell am I supposed to do with this guy? Just turn the Godd*mn camera on, let’s go.’ That was Gene, ‘Get her done, let’s go. I’ll do it for them.’ I think Gene kind of relished working with those folks and he was again, that conduit to the other side [mainstream celebrities].
Gene loved to sing. Gene was one of those guys at a party when they would play piano that Gene would be right next to the piano player singing songs: absolute classic. He did it at Vince [McMahon] Christmas parties. When the guy would sit down at the piano, Gene would be at the other end singing songs. You’d be at a bar somewhere and they would have a piano and somebody would have a piano and Gene would sing. He was absolutely great, multi-talented.
On The Wrestling Album Gene did Tutti Frutti. On Piledriver, which is the second album, Gene actually did Rock ‘N Roll Hoochie Coo. My friend Joel Watts, who came up with WWF with me produced the video for that and that’s when I actually got to meet and work with Rick Derringer, which was one of the coolest things ever for a 24 year old to be sitting there with Rick Derringer and Rick Derringer playing guitar in slow motion. Just the coolest sh*t. Being around Gene Okerlund and him doing that was crazy because he’s telling Derringer what to do on certain things and it was just classic because again Rick Derringer is a rock n’ roll god….and it was really nice to see Okerlund collaborating with Derringer and Derringer taking the time to speak with me.
I get a phone call one day from Vince. You know, we had 8 hours of television every single week – brand new programming every week, and I didn’t watch every single edition of every single show that came out. On one of the versions of All American Wrestling, Gene apparently did one where he was like, ‘Yeah, how you doing there George? How’s Barbara? Alright. Yes, yes. The bush.’ Something like that, I don’t know exactly what it was, but it was ‘Barbara’ and ‘bush’ in the same bit and the network went f*cking ballistic, absolutely ballistic that Gene Okerlund was allegedly talking about Barbara Bush’s bush is what they said and so on and so forth. It was Gene being Gene just doing his double entendre stuff that he got in a little trouble with.
[Gene handled it] with class. Gene was the first one to lend a hand. He wasn’t fearful of his job. He wasn’t one – like a lot of old timer’s when new talent comes in they get very fearful and protective of their spot. Gene looked at Sean Mooney as an opportunity: more free time for Gene, more time for Gene to do other things. He was there to help Sean every way that he possibly could. From everything I could tell from the outside looking in, it was a great relationship and I relied on Gene to do that and to help the younger talent and these guys get through some of this sh*t and he never failed.
We did pre-tapes and during one of the earlier pre-tapes, I think it was Bobby Heenan and Rick Rude. In the middle of the pre-tape – the SummerSlam sign had been set up and it was like masking tape or something that was holding the sign to the wall – and in the middle of the interview the damn sign fell. Gene just turns around and says, ‘Well f*ck it.’
I laughed my ass off because it’s in the moment live and there’s no way to go back and edit that. It lives forever. It’s one of those classic moments. All I can imagine is Pat Patterson or Jack Lanza being backstage at the time and smoking a cigarette or maybe one of the crew guys having a cigarette and Gene catching it out of the corner of his eye. I don’t know what happened, but that’s probably what took place at that time.
I remember one year for Gene’s Birthday we actually got him a strip o’ gram to come to the studio and they did a strip tease for him and Gene thought it was something else. He was like, ‘Oh, you got me a girl? Thank you very much.’ ‘No, Gene. You can’t keep her. She just has to sit there and she’s gonna strip over here.’ I remember afterwards and he just sat in the chair and she stripped for him probably about 3 or 4 feet away and she came over, put her clothes back on, and gave him a little kiss on the head. He looks at us all like, ‘That’s it? That’s it? That’s all I get.’ It was typical Gene.
Gene’s takeaway was everybody else’s takeaway, but Gene had a front row seat for it. ‘What the f*ck is this?’ When we rehearsed the damn thing I don’t think we had the head on the Gobbledy Gooker, so you really couldn’t understand him and we kept doing it for him, so it was Hector say, ‘Gobbledy Gooker,’ but we were the Gobbledy Gooker damn it. It came off even worse live. Gene had fun with it and he went out and Vince wanted him to do some somersaults and he was like, ‘I just can’t do that Vince. I can’t physically do it. If you want me to take a bump or do a somersault, I’ll never get up.’ I think he did one or two, but it was absolutely horrifying and Gene embodied that moment so much with his reaction to it because it was a, ‘What the fu*k am I looking at?’ You felt it all over him.
Great. Really and truly great. Vince trusted Gene. You could give Gene something and feel confident that he was gonna deliver, so that relationship was one of trust and they liked each other. They had a good time together. They would go out and party together. It was a mutual respect and they genuinely liked each other, so that helped, but most importantly there was respect and trust on both sides. Vince trusted Gene and trusted his judgment and that whatever he was gonna do was gonna be the right thing.
I wouldn’t say panic: sadness, yes. I think from my vantage point and I definitely know from the production standpoint – the guys at the studio – they were really sad. They were upset that Gene left because he was one of the boys. He was one of the crew and he was someone that always hung out with them. We always had a really good time together, so there was just sorrow. It’s genuine sadness when someone that you love is leaving you.
I remember going back to the 25th anniversary of RAW. I remember that evening when Gene was getting ready to go out and talking to him and him just saying, ‘Wow they’ve got so many writers. There’s so many people running around. Remember how we used to do it?’ We kinda chuckled and reminisced a little bit and then he looks at me and says, ‘Bruce, I don’t know any of these guys. I need them to write it down for me now and they’re telling me, ‘Gene you got it.’ I don’t know who the hell I’m talking to.’ That was typical Gene and then he pulled it off like the champ that he is.
The last time that I saw him was this past November in Winston Salem and the last thing I did was kiss him on the forehead and said, ‘I love you Gene and I’ll see you later.’ Had I known that was the last time I was gonna see him, but I’m glad I got to tell him that and we were sitting there at the bar when he was having dinner before we went to go do our show and I invited him to the show and he was tired. I just got up and kissed him on the forehead and told him I loved him.