Gene Okerlund, whose career as a pro wrestling interviewer blossomed from being a last-minute fill-in on Twin Cities television to the face and voice of the over-the-top industry for decades, died Wednesday in Florida.
Okerlund, 76, died in an emergency room of a hospital in Sarasota, not far from his home in Osprey. Son Todd Okerlund said his father had three kidney transplants over the years and “a lot of different issues” leading to his death from natural causes.
While Okerlund moved from Minnesota to Florida back in the 1980s, he would “still come back in the summer to their cabin on Big Sandy Lake” near McGregor, said the son, who made a name for himself as a Gophers hockey player in the 1980s and U.S. Olympian.
Okerlund was described in the WWE’s announcement of the death as “the most recognizable interviewer in sports entertainment history” who did his best to keep order in a suit and tie while wrestling personalities in a dazzling array of outfits went about their verbal and physical antics.
Nicknamed “Mean Gene” by wrestler and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Okerlund’s interview roster included the biggest names in pro wrestling, among them Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan, Randy Savage and Ventura.
“In an interview, I laughingly called him ‘the Mean Gene Hot Air Machine,’ and the ‘Mean Gene’ stuck,” Ventura said Wednesday. “I’m proud that I gave him a nickname that will stick with him forever.”
Okerlund said in a 2015 interview with the Star Tribune shortly after the death of Verne Gagne that he owed his start in the business to the late pro wrestling pioneer.
Gagne’s American Wrestling Association enterprise was based in the Channel 11 studios in Minneapolis starting in about 1960. Okerlund worked at the station in sales and had experience being on the radio.
One day in the early 1970s, the regular interviewer “couldn’t make one taping … so Verne saw me in the hall and said, ‘We need you to do the interviews.’ ”
“I said, ‘Verne, I know zero about wrestling.’ He said, ‘Do you have a suit and tie? That’s all you need.’ There were a few bucks involved, so I dived in.”
Okerlund said his first interview was with Nick Bockwinkel and Heenan, and soon they were being jumped from behind. “I just acted terrified, and Verne brought me back the next week,” Okerlund said.
Okerlund moved on to the WWE family in 1984 and “became a staple on national cable television,” the WWE announcement said of its Hall of Famer.
Along with interviews, he also provided ringside commentary and hosted several shows. His role was often as a prop for the outlandish dramatics that his larger-than-life interview subjects would carry out as Okerlund pursued a modicum of dignity in his suit, bow tie and well-groomed mustache.
“What are you, the head waiter, huh?” went one on-air insult hurled at the dapper Okerlund from a biceps-glistening “Macho Man” Randy Savage, his long locks barely restrained by a headband and his eyes shrouded by giant sunglasses.
“Whether it was Hulk Hogan, ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, the Hart Foundation or Andre the Giant, Okerlund made the stars into superstars,” according to the noted wrestling blog Ring the Damn Bell.
Todd Okerlund remembers his childhood days of watching his father at work in person and believing the wrestlers were “scary guys” only to realize the theatrics involved. “I was like anyone else later asking, ‘Who are these guys?’ ” he said.
He saw his father “as being an entertainer, and that’s what he loved to do. And he had to think on his feet with no script.”
Okerlund proved himself adept as well at carrying a tune, to the pleasure of wrestling fans. The onetime country and rock musician and singer from Sisseton, S.D., sang the national anthem at the first WrestleMania in 1985 and that same year sang “Tutti Frutti” on WWE’s “The Wrestling Album.”
The rival WCW lured away Okerlund in 1993, but he returned in 2002 and appeared on various programs, including the network’s “Legends’ House.”
Okerlund made his final appearance in January 2018 on WWE TV for the network’s 25th anniversary episode.
Ventura said he considers Okerlund “the best at what he did, the best straight man interviewer in wrestling history. … Gene and I had a chemistry between us like no other. … Gene and I had a great rapport.”
Eugene Arthur Okerlund was born in Sisseton and attended the University of Nebraska, where he did a bit of basketball play-by-play and studied broadcast journalism. He and his wife of more than 50 years, Jeanne, have two grown sons. Funeral arrangements for Okerlund are pending.