Hack-Man Verne Gagne returns to screen in 'The Wrestler'

Last updated 26 January 2012

Verne Gagne returns to screen in 'The Wrestler'

By Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune

January 25, 2012

The Minnesota sports icon will make his first public appearance in 15 years at weekend showings of the 1974 film that he produced and headlined.

Long before Mickey Rourke resurrected his acting career, there was a film called "The Wrestler."

Local legend Verne Gagne pitched a Hollywood friend on the idea that professional wrestling might make good entertainment. After assembling more than a dozen investors, Gagne had a deal. He hired a writer, engaged veteran TV actors Ed Asner and Elaine Giftos and, because he was writing the checks, put himself into the starring role.

The irony of wrestlers acting is not lost on Greg Gagne, Verne's son and himself a former grappler.

"My dad used to say, 'Everyone calls me an actor but when they see this movie, they will know I'm not,'" Greg Gagne said.

Both Gagnes will appear this weekend when "The Wrestler" -- presented by longtime family friend Rob Chapman -- is shown at the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis. Verne's visit for weekend matinees will mark his first public appearances in 15 years.

Gagne, 85, suffers from dementia and now lives with his daughter Beth and her husband, Will. In 2009, he was involved in an incident at a Bloomington health care facility in which a 97-year-old man was pushed, fell to the floor and later died. No charges were filed, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman saying, "Mr. Gagne simply lacks the capacity to intend the consequences of his action."

Nonetheless, Greg Gagne said, no other care centers would take the elder Gagne as a resident.

"He's still physically fit, he goes for walks, he's cheerful," Greg, 63, said over lunch at Pepito's, next door to the Parkway.

In the movie, Verne Gagne plays an aging wrestler (he was 47 in 1974) who feels pressured to retire and give the championship belt to a contender named Billy Taylor (played by Gagne's friend and rival Billy Robinson). Nearly 20 wrestlers from the old days populate the movie -- either in dramatic roles or in film clips of matches.

Big local news

The movie opened Feb. 19, 1974. Channel 11 covered the black-tie gala live, and newspaper coverage was extensive. Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar declared that Verne Gagne was the best thing in the movie, a hero who attacks evil and stands up for everything good. Klobuchar, it should be noted, was in the film as a cynical newspaper reporter unimpressed by the reality of wrestling. Shot locally, the film was budgeted at about $450,000 and grossed $2 million, according to news stories.

Greg Gagne, like his father before him, laments the current state of wrestling. He worked for WWE, the sport's leading organization, several years ago as a road agent and trainer.

After six months, Gagne got a call from Stephanie McMahon, the daughter of WWE owner Vince McMahon Jr.

"She said she'd gotten complaints about how some of the guys were being coached in their drop kicks," he said. "I told her, 'Look, Stephanie, I made my living with the drop kick. If you want to let me go, let me go, but don't tell me we're teaching the drop kick wrong.'"

The drop kick defined Verne Gagne's sense of excitement as a high-flying young wrestler in the 1950s. He finished opponents with his signature "sleeper" hold, but it was his athletic skill and speed that made him one of the game's biggest names.

Growing up the son of a wrestler made Greg a target of tough guys eager to prove that his old man was a phony. The two would wrestle on the floor of their Lake Minnetonka home until Greg cracked Verne's rib: "Mom said, 'No more wrestling in the house!'"

Greg never wrestled in high school and played quarterback at the University of Wyoming. But after assessing his pro football chances, he went to work in Verne's training program. He quit the ring in 1991 and booked matches for several promotions for a while. Over lunch he spins tale after tale of backstabbing intrigue and double-crosses that infect the wrestling promotions' front offices.

"I love the sport," he said. "I wish I could be a part of it again."

For this weekend, at least, he will be.

"Verne's hand is not steady enough to sign a lot of autographs," Greg said. "But he can shake hands and smile and say hi to people."

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