Bobby Heenan, as he got older, used to joke that he spent his entire adult life trying to get people to hate him, and when he looked back, he said that he realized that he failed miserably.
Of course, nearly everything Heenan, the man of a joke every 20 seconds, would say, was more to get a laugh. It was how he got through life, but unfortunately, in a cruel irony, throat cancer robbed him of his speaking ability, but not his brain. In the end, the jokes were probably there every 20 seconds in his head, but because of his being unable to talk, there was almost no audience left for him except his wife, Cindy, that could still understand his faint attempts at talking. Toward the end, one of Heenan’s best friends, Baron Von Raschke, remarked to her, “Cindy, you know you’ve become one of the funniest people I know.”
Heenan passed away on 9/17, at the age of 72, exactly 36 years after the day that Ric Flair, who Heenan called one of the three best wrestlers he ever managed (along with Curt Hennig and Ray Stevens), won his first world title. It was not a surprise, and he outlasted his own predictions, given that in the summer of 2015, after Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper had both died, he mentioned to Mike Tenay about what a terrible year it was in wrestling, saying “Dusty, Roddy Piper and me.”
Tenay was Heenan’s best friend in wrestling from shortly after the death of the person who he would always say was his best friend in wrestling, Gorilla Monsoon.
“Gino was my favorite,” he’d tell Tenay. “You can never take that top spot. But you’ll always be No. 2 to me.”
Heenan often talked of the death of Joey Marella, the referee who was Monsoon’s son, as one death that affected him badly.
Another would have been the death of Curt Hennig.
“Curt idolized Bobby and Bobby loved Curt,” remembered Tenay. “Bobby and Curt would play off the other. It was magic seeing Bobby Heenan and Curt Hennig together.”
Tenay and Heenan were traveling companions during the heyday of Monday Nitro in the late 90s, when they worked together. Tenay described his after-the-show exploits with Heenan, in rent-a-cars, hotel bars, airports and 7-11s as akin to having a favorite movie and watching it over-and-over again, and never getting tired of it.
After every Nitro, no matter the city, the pattern was to leave the building, get off on the first exit and head to a convenience store. Heenan would get out of the car first, grab a six pack and some snacks and head to the cash register.
Tenay would get out of the car a little later, so they wouldn’t come in at the same time and people wouldn’t think they were together. Tenay would grab his stuff, and get in line behind Heenan.
When Heenan would get to the cash register, it was show time.
“The area right around the cash register was such fertile ground for him,” Tenay said.
He’d find something, like a rack with some key chains. Heenan would then fall and knock over the rack. The stuff would fly everywhere. Heenan would then get all apologetic and try to put everything in its place, only, like you’d see in a comedy sketch on television or in the movies, in trying to put stuff back, he’d knock something else down and make more of a mess.
The person behind the cash register would react in different ways. Usually sympathetic, sometimes mad that this customer who was making a mess, but was seemingly trying to clean it up, and felt bad, but kept making it worse.
“He’d say he was so sorry, get up, and then knock over the Bic lighters and now they’re flying.”
At times, the clerk would just tell him nicely, or not nicely, to leave and they would clean it up. Sometimes they wanted him out so badly they wouldn’t even ask him to pay. Then he’d back up, always knowing where the newspaper rack was, and would knock it over, grabbing one of the newspapers on the way out.
Tenay would watch all this with a straight face, and after Heenan would leave, would to the clerk and say, “Can you even imagine people like this?”
The airport was another place he’d like to put on a show. Often, they’d be there early in the morning to fly back home, and the airport would be relatively empty and if someone was cleaning up, Heenan was ready. He had a knack for being able to walk near the cord of a vacuum cleaner or sweeper, and get his leg tangled in it. Then he take a bump, and it would be the spot where he’d wake up after being put in the sleeper by Greg or Verne Gagne in a weasel suit match, and wake up, with the suit already on him, look in the mirror, freak out, and try to get up, and slip and slide and fall down all over the ring. People at the airport would see it, not realize he was putting on a show, and be scared that a lawsuit was about to happen.
In hotel bars, every night, Heenan would be near the bowl of chips, and by the end of the night, somebody would have it poured over his head. Tenay noted that was his role many a night. Not everyone was so good natured about it. Heenan did it once to Gene Okerlund, who was so upset, that the two of them weren’t on speaking terms for 18 months.
Raymond Louis Heenan was born November 1, 1944, in Chicago. He never knew his father, or that his father’s name was Robert Heenan. He was raised by his mother, his aunt and his grandmother and his father was never talked about.
As he got older, in his 50s, he started to get more and more curious about his father. He started investigating and found out his father’s name was of all things, Robert Heenan, and that at one time he printed the racing form in Chicago, and later ended up in Las Vegas.
He had two brothers who lived in Las Vegas that he never knew about. One worked not far from the Showboat Hotel, and in the early 80s, would drive by the hotel and often see the marquee for the AWA shows in the building and see the name Bobby Heenan, and find it a funny coincidence, given that was the name of his brother and father.
His brother, the other real Bobby Heenan, had no clue about his namesake. He was a teacher at Bishop Gorman High School. He was likely there at the same time Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta were high school classmates.
By the late 90s, for six months, wrestling personality Bobby Heenan was trying to investigate and find his father, and in doing so, came to the conclusion that he had an actual family in Las Vegas. He would go back-and-forth on whether or not to act on it. Tenay lived in Las Vegas with wife Karen, and they both pushed him to go to the house he thought they lived in because they felt he needed those answers.
So one day, while he was in Las Vegas visiting the Tenays, he got in his rental car and drove to the address where he thought his brother lived. He got to the house, parked his car and sat in front of the house. He waited and waited and wouldn’t get out of the car. Then he decided this was a silly idea and left.
Then he changed his mind again and went back. He and Cindy stayed in the car and finally, he came up with his plan. He told Cindy to go to the door and say that she was lost and needed to find an address, see if they would invite her in, and if she got inside, to look and see photos in the house and see if they looked like him.
She got invited into the house and was looking at all the photos. Then she got her information and left. She got back in the car. She told Bobby that they looked like him and she thought it was legit. Then both of them went to the door, apologized, said it was just a ruse that she was asking for directions, and they said they think they are related. After talking, they found out they were, and he had himself a new family.
While Heenan was known as “The Brain,” he joked that he dropped out of school in eighth grade because he needed to work to help support his family. He started going to wrestling in the late 50s in Chicago. At one point he got a job carrying ring jackets to the back. He later became a driver for The Sheik.
The Sheik had so much heat and drove a big Cadillac, and figured that if fans would spot it, they may deface it or wreck it. Heenan’s job was to drive the car and let Sheik out to where he could walk to the building, and then park it far away. Then, after the show, he’d get the car, drive back to the building after the show, and pick Sheik up. After he’d done that a few times, he went through the glove compartment, and found the car registration, and learned that Sheik was Ed Farhat.
Eventually his family relocated to Indianapolis. They lived near Dick the Bruiser, who along with Wilbur Snyder, owned the Indiana territory. He befriended Bruiser and became his gofer, and convinced Bruiser to let him into the wrestling business. He started as Ray Heenan, but Bruiser said he didn’t like that name, and also felt that Heenan was too small to be a top wrestler, so made him a manager. He started out as Ray Heenan, but Bruiser decided he didn’t like the sound of that name.
He renamed him Bobby Heenan, because he said that Heenan reminded him of Bobby Davis, who was considered the best manager in the business in the late 50s.
Bruiser had him do the talking for a masked heel tag team, The Assassins, a knockoff of the more famous tag team of that era that used the same name. The team was John Hill & Joe Tomasso. He managed them in 1965 and 1966 as they battled the area top stars like Snyder, Bruiser, Yukon Moose Cholak and Luis Martinez.
He quickly became known as “Pretty Boy Bobby Heenan,” from Beverly Hills, CA.
Hill would work on-and-off for Bruiser over the years under names like Guy Mitchell, The Stomper, The Strangler, Jerry Valiant and even Guy Heenan and Jerry Heenan, as Bobby’s brother.
“We would go to the matches periodically,” said David Letterman in an interview with Bob Costas in 1989. “They always had a big Thanksgiving card. Even then I thought it was a real touch of genius (for) Bobby Heenan to be introduced as being from Beverly Hills. You couldn’t have said anything more irritating to those people.”
His act of being a rich playboy type from Beverly Hills, who would insult the audience by calling them “humanoids” and “ham and eggers,” stayed fresh for decades. He had the ability to do certain gimmicks, like the weasel suit match, or work in a tag match where the babyface team consisted of a top star and a midget, where of course, he’d get pinned at the end by the midget, which should work once. But he’d do them all the time, most of the time they drew big crowds, and in the building, they always worked. The idea in those days was that you protected the manager, where the faces wouldn’t get to him for a long time, because once they did it would kill their heat, but Heenan could bleed for Bruiser & Crusher every month in Chicago, and he was working that city on-and-off for decades.
“Bobby Heenan was a one-of-a-kind multi-talented human being that will never be topped or duplicated in our lifetime,” said Les Thatcher to the Charleston Post-Courier, who was working in Indiana when Heenan was starting out. “He should automatically be inducted into every Hall of Fame and place high on any top ten listing, and his name will be mention in any conversation involving greatness in pro wrestling. His passing is leaving a great void in the wrestling world. But for me, I will always remember with fondness the young man that worked at the Ford dealership and carried jackets who became my friend all those years ago.”
After they left, in 1966, Heenan started managing the new top heel tag team, The Devil’s Duo, of Angelo Poffo (the father of Randy Savage) & Chris Markoff.
It was Bruiser who convinced Sam Muchnick to book Heenan in St. Louis in 1968, and it took a lot of convincing, since Muchnick tried to run wrestling like a sports event and the idea of a manager who interfered was the kind of gimmickry that he hated. Muchnick gave it a chance and the Blackjack Lanza/Heenan duo was a big success at the box office.
In what may have been Lou Thesz’s last major program in St. Louis, Lanza piledrove him on television after Heenan distracted him. This set up a Kiel Auditorium match on September 7, 1968, with Pat O’Connor as referee. Thesz had just come off an appearance on “The Tonight Show,” which was the type of mainstream publicity very rare for wrestlers of that era. Heenan tripped Thesz and Lanza was able to hit a kneedrop and O’Connor counted to three. There was almost a riot, as fans stormed ringside. O’Connor ended up changing the decision to a DQ win by Thesz, which led to Lanza vs. O’Connor, a show that didn’t draw well. But the duo was successful enough that Lanza became a headliner, including two NWA title matches with Gene Kiniski in early 1969, and later matches against the biggest stars of that era like Jack Brisco, Dory Funk Jr., and of course, Bruiser.
Heenan said he would always get to St. Louis, find Muchnick, and tell him, “`Sam, I’m getting color (blood) tonight,’ I’d say that at every show.” Muchnick, who barely wanted a manager there but saw how good Heenan was, was a promoter who only wanted blood used sparingly and for a reason. While other promotions used blood to get fans up at every show, he didn’t like that, and the last thing he wanted was for a manager to bleed, which Heenan, of course, knew.
He did it to get a rise out of Muchnick, joking that Muchnick would so emphatically shake his head and say “No!” that his jowls were flying every which way.
At the same time, Jim Raschke, who would go on to become one of Heenan’s best friends, also started appearing in St. Louis. He had started doing the German gimmick as Baron Fritz Von Raschke in Montreal, and had moved to Detroit to work for The Sheik.
Muchnick wasn’t about to let him to called Fritz, given Fritz Von Erich was not only a huge drawing card in St. Louis, but was one of his close friends. So he was originally brought in as Baron Von Raschke, which lasted exactly one show, as Muchnick said not to call him Baron, noting “He’s not a Baron. He played football and wrestled at Nebraska.”
The Fritz ended up being dropped and he was Baron Von Raschke everywhere for the rest of his career, but in St. Louis, he was simply Von Raschke.
Heenan loved to tease him about it, and would call him “Vaughn” like it was his first name, for years.
“He was a great friend and a superb manager, the cream of the crop” said his pal Vaughn, who in later life her just called Pal, because they would joke that Wally Karbo, who worked in the AWA office, would always call everyone Pal. “He was great to work with and a great worker on his own. This business is about timing and he had timing in everything he was doing. It was fun to be on the road with him and a delight to be around.”
He became a national star when he was paired with Lanza, and was regularly on magazine covers, with his face and blonde hair covered in blood from matches against Bruiser and The Crusher.
“There’s a case to be made that Bobby The Brain Heenan is the best all-around performer in wrestling history,” wrote Chris Jericho after his death. “From a commentating standpoint, the best, from a managing standpoint, the best, from a promo standpoint, the best, from a wrestling standpoint, he could work better than 90 percent of the boys.”
In the ring, Heenan would emulate his style after Buddy Rogers and Ray Stevens. While he would always say that he couldn’t pick between Stevens, Curt Hennig or Ric Flair as to who the best wrestler he ever managed was, at other times, when asked who the best wrestler he’d ever seen was, would always say Stevens was the best all-around, and Red Bastien was the best working babyface.
Later in his career, when he became better known for his television comedic timing in working with Monsoon on Prime Time Wrestling, people who saw the show, and others in wrestling who were around him on the road and saw his ability to find humor in almost everything, thought he should be a stand-up comedian.
Few knew it, but Heenan tried it, and in his own words, he wasn’t very good. He noted that he couldn’t do stand-up, that he needed people or situations that he could respond do, but couldn’t go out and do material. He performed in a club owned by Ray Combs of “Family Feud” fame, who he had become friends with when Combs appeared at WrestleMania and the Survivor Series in 1993.
If Heenan’s act was copied from Davis, it was Jim Cornette, who grew up adjusting the rabbit ears of his television set to get Bruiser’s wrestling from Indianapolis as a kid, who saw Heenan as what a manager was supposed to be.
“He formed in my mind as a fan and performer what I thought a manager should be,” said Jim Cornette. “Best ever. He was even better than me when using my own gimmick.”
Heenan always said that his most fun period in his career was the mid-to-late 1970s, working in the AWA, with people like Stevens, Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby Duncum, Lanza, Crusher, Larry Hennig and Von Raschke.
At one point, Heenan managed both the AWA champion, in Bockwinkel, and the tag team champions, in Lanza & Duncum. In 1979, he decided to leave the AWA with Lanza and head to Georgia, to work for Ole Anderson, even though Bockwinkel was still the champion. He returned later that year, after Anderson had fired him, just weeks after telling him to settle down in Georgia and he had a job for life. Bockwinkel and Heenan, due to their long run together and success, are likely to be remembered as the greatest wrestler/manager duo in wrestling history.
He first met Tenay in January 1993, when Tenay was a national wrestling radio talk show host and both were on the same flight from Sacramento to Las Vegas, after that year’s Royal Rumble. They met again when Heenan was a guest on Tenay’s “Wrestling Insiders” show before that year’s WrestleMania in Las Vegas.
They did a show the night before WrestleMania, and Tenay asked him about the AWA, Billy Robinson and Verne Gagne, and Heenan immediately blew him off. Tenay immediately figured that he didn’t like that period of time, not realizing it was the marching orders from Vince McMahon that nothing else ever existed.
During a break, he explained the situation.
“I can’t make any money talking about Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson,” he said. “I’m a representative of the WWF. I have to talk about WrestleMania.”
“He was 100 percent a company man,” said Tenay. “He knew he was on the show to sell PPVs and he was telling me in a direct way. We’re not making any money talking about Billy Robinson and Verne Gagne. We have to talk WrestleMania. I thought he hated talking about the old days, but the reality is he loved talking about the old days, but he was just being business.”
Unlike most who left the AWA, and for that matter the WWF, Heenan might joke about them, but he would never in public run down Verne Gagne or Vince McMahon. Even as others would do so, long after he was done working for either, his motto was he worked for both for many years, and he felt it would reflect negative on him to run them down after he worked so many years for them. However, his tenure at WCW did change that motto.
While his public claim was always that he came to WCW because they offered him insurance, and he could then get his needed neck surgery, the real reason was that his WWF contract as an announcer for $275,000 per year had an option in it and if renewed, his money would increase to $350,000.
McMahon, even then, was a thing about age of the people on television. Heenan was close to 50, and McMahon felt that was too old for television, that and the size of the contract. He was going for a youth movement, and dumped both Heenan and Okerlund, who both went to WCW, and had great success there, and it extended both men’s career.
But Heenan was drinking heavily as the years went on in WCW. He never wanted to be in creative, but he had great experience in territories and had seen them up and down. Even though WCW was riding high, he could see mistakes being made left and right. There were things being done that he felt would kill the company and he wasn’t happy broadcasting them and watching the arrogance and stupidity going on all around him.
In 1998, when he would go out of his way to promote Bill Goldberg so heavily, it was because he sensed Goldberg was the savior who was allowing the company to still draw while making mistakes that should be killing them. When they beat Goldberg at Starrcade 1998 in Washington, DC, he and Tenay, driving from the arena, both were talking about what a huge mistake was made and that the place would be going down. It started declining fast a few months later.
It wasn’t hard to know nights that Heenan was on the air lit up. The company was unhappy with him, but didn’t replace him. Finally, he no-showed a Nitro, calling in sick. That led to his being replaced.
He would always joke that Vince Russo thought they needed a new young look, and replaced him with Mark Madden, although that’s not exactly how it really went down.
It did bother him that when he was in WCW, he didn’t endear himself to Eric Bischoff because he refused to knock WWF or McMahon on the air, but that all the people who did knock McMahon and WWF ended up being brought back while he wasn’t, except for a few cameo guest appearances over the years.
Through all his health issues, he retained his sense of humor, and also took it as a learning experience, as it taught him who his true friends were. He was hurt at some people who thought they were his friends, who never contacted him after he started having his health issues in 2002. But he also recognized the ones who did, even when they knew that they really could no longer have a long conversation with him.
Although he was one of the greatest all-around personalities in the profession, he would still make fun of himself, with the idea that he had very minimal job skills.
Once he got a government form to fill out and it said Occupation, and he wrote, “Wrestling manager.” It then said, Job skills, and he wrote, “Trip, distract and pass Knux.”
And he looked at it and said, “That’s the only thing I’m qualified for in life. What other possible job could I ever have?”