My Lunch with Lanny: Interview with Wrestling Legend Lanny Poffo


By: Scott Muller

I was a huge wrestling fan growing up. Unlike “hardcore” wrestling fans, I was a bigger fan of more creative gimmicks and characters. One wrestler that I remembered from my days of watching WWF (now called the WWE) in the 80s and 90s was Lanny Poffo. When he started in WWF, he was a poem-reciting good guy nicknamed “Leaping Lanny.” It wasn’t until 1989 that Lanny Poffo would earn his most memorable role: that of snobby, intellectual The Genius. In that role, he would main event arenas (including the historic Madison Square Garden) and take on the likes of The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan. He would appear on Regis and Kathie Lee. His vignettes with fellow wrestler Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig would go down in wrestling history as some of the most entertaining.

I got a chance to briefly meet Lanny at a charity event a couple years ago. I learned he lives nearby me in Florida, so I reached out to him and asked if he wouldn’t mind doing an interview over lunch. I figured there’s already My Dinner with Andre (a non-wrestling artsy-fartsy movie from the 1980s) and My Breakfast with Blassie (a parody of My Dinner with Andre featuring wrestling manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie and whack-a-nut comedian Andy Kaufman), so why not do My Lunch with Lanny? He agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history…

Scott (NHQ): I’m here with Lanny Poffo and I guess we’ll start with when your career began. Some folks may not know you came from a wrestling family. Your father (wrestler and wrestling promoter Angelo Poffo) wrestled; your big brother (WWE Hall of Famer Randy “Macho Man” Savage) wrestled. When did you start?

Lanny Poffo (LP): I started in 1973.

NHQ: So when it came to wrestling, was it something you wanted to do because your father did it? Or did he want you to do it because he did it?

LP: I really wanted to be a welfare recipient.

NHQ: A noble goal.

LP: Yeah. It was. But then I decided to try to make it on my own with a lot of help. And I never became a self-made man by the way.

NHQ: So was there anything else, other than welfare recipient at the time, that you were interested in pursuing? Or was it pretty much from the get-go, wrestling was the way you were going to find your fame and fortune?

LP: Well, as soon as I realized that I couldn’t play baseball, yes.

NHQ: Did you play? Your brother played.

LP: Yeah. But I wasn’t as good as him and he didn’t make it. So what was the point?

NHQ: What position did you play?

LP: I was a catcher, but then I used to wait until the ball stopped rolling and I just picked it up…

NHQ: Well, I hate to tell you this, but I agree that you probably wouldn’t have made it with that strategy. It was a smart way to go. So, your first wrestling, was it for your father and his promotion?

LP: No. It was for a guy named Phil Golden, a wrestling promoter in Paducah, Kentucky.

NHQ: Wow, that’s a mouthful.

LP: That’s the bottom, baby. The only way to go is straight up.

NHQ: Do you remember your first match?

LP: Yes.

NHQ: Where was it? Like in a Sizzler? Or a high school gym? If it’s the bottom, where are we talking bottom?

LP: (Feigns indignation) I didn’t come here to be made sport of. It was in Paducah in a theater that they turned into a wrestling venue. They put the ring on the stage.

NHQ: Okay.

LP: And I remember I would never use the men’s room there.

NHQ: And I wouldn’t make sport of you. One of the two of us has performed in front of thousands of people at Madison Square Garden and one hasn’t. So I’m in no position to make sport of you.

LP: (More mock indignation) I’m very, very offended.

NHQ: Are you? I wouldn’t have taken you for a guy with tender feelings.

LP: Continue on.

NHQ: So…did you win your first match?

LP: No.

NHQ: Oh, man. Were you a face or a heel when you started?

LP: I was a masked wrestler named The Avenger. And I got no vengeance…ever.

NHQ: That’s irony. Irony’s fun. So, did Randy start with you or before you? I mean he’s two years older…

LP: After me. He played four years in the minor leagues. He started in 1975. He’s three years older, but he played baseball first.

NHQ: So at some point, you wrestled in your father’s promotion…

LP: It wasn’t my father’s promotion. I owned 33 percent of it. My father owned 30. We all put in our money. Except, I did so reluctantly. I didn’t want to do it, but being the owners, I did it. Now that I’m the oldest, I do anything I want. And if folks don’t like it that’s just going to have to simmer.

NHQ: So, at that point, were you “Leaping Lanny?” Was your brother “Macho Man” Randy Savage yet?

LP: No. I was still The Avenger and then I became “Leaping Lanny,” and then in 1989, I became The Genius.

NHQ: And that was the finest gimmick in the world.

LP: I’m glad you liked it.

NHQ: So in 1985, the WWE beckoned?

LP: Yes.

NHQ: Did you both [Lanny and Randy] move over at the same time? You before him? Him before you?

LP: They wanted him, and they threw me in as a, “You mind taking my brother?” “Okay. We don’t have any place for him on top.” I said, “That’s all right.” They asked me, “Babyface or heel?” And I said, “Babyface, because if I’m not going to be on top, I might as well be a babyface.” And when I turned heel I got a big break, see?

NHQ: Yeah, that was huge. Was it a culture shock to move to WWF [now called WWE]? Or was the transition pretty smooth?

LP: I was shocked. I never thought I’d see the inside of Madison Square Garden. Now I’ve been there 23 times.

NHQ: Really?

LP: Twice as a main eventer. Twenty-one times on the undercard.

NHQ: Wow.

LP: I drank from the silver chalice of success for one brief shining moment. (Begins quoting Camelot) “Who was that boy Arthur? One of what we all are, Pelly. Less than a drop in the great blue motion of a sunlit sea. But it seems some of them got sparkles. Run, boy, run…”

NHQ: I think Hollywood’s calling you…they want you. Oh, wait, Broadway’s also calling…

LP: Well, make up your mind…

NHQ: Which one would you rather? Broadway or Hollywood?

LP: Hollywood.

NHQ: So when you moved, did anyone other than your brother offer you any advice?

LP: Yeah. Tony Garea said, “Get as much rest as you can.” And he offered to rest with me. No, I’m just kidding…

NHQ: Was anyone particularly hostile towards you? Anyone particularly mean? Any experience stick out?

LP: No, not until I meet Bam Bam Bigelow. Not a fan. He beat me every night, every night, every night, every night. Never thanked me. Little bit clumsy. Sometimes hurt me but not chronically. And he never washed his tights. They were long and gimmicky. He got me in a head scissors and there was a combination of ammonia and cat urine. And I said, “Self, I hate my life.” It smelled like it was fermented.

NHQ: That sounds terrible. Was there anyone you enjoyed — anyone you put on good matches with?

LP: Terry Funk. Harley Race. I guess that’s it. Let me see. That couldn’t be all. Dory Funk Jr. Let me see. In the “Leaping Lanny” days, I guess it was — nope, that was all.

NHQ: You were always going up against the other lower-mid-card guys, like Jim Powers, and Koko B Ware…

LP: I can’t knock them. They’re good guys. James Ware, though, who was Koko, all of a sudden he’s on a class action suit for concussions. The lawyers called me up, asking if I wanted to join a class action suit. I said, “Look, I don’t bite the hand that feeds me, and I don’t bite the hand that fed me.” And the Hebners, Dave and Earl, they’re in there. How do you get concussion from being a referee?

NHQ: So, question I’ve always wanted to ask. Whose decision was it to not mention that you and Randy were brothers?

LP: I never asked. I just did what I was told, and got my check, and did my best to raise my family and stay out of trouble.

NHQ: Because really, the only time I think I even ever saw you anywhere with him was when they had the “king” coronation [when Randy became “Macho King” Randy Savage] and they had you in there, and you read the decree, and the poem. That was kind of cool. That was when they had all the bad guys kind of together —

LP: That wasn’t kind of cool…it was classical, not just, “kind of cool.” Is Casablanca “kind of cool”? Is Gone with the Wind “kind of cool”?

NHQ: So you’re saying that that moment was the Casablanca of wrestling?

LP: It was the Casablanca of my career. I enjoyed it.

NHQ: Because that was another question I had. Would you say that that was — I mean you’ve got to admit, you’ve had some big moments. You got a win over Hulk Hogan. You were on Regis and Kathie Lee with Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig, weren’t you?

LP: Kathie Lee wasn’t there. She was having a baby. It was Regis and his wife.

NHQ: Gotcha. You were also main-eventing with Mr. Perfect feuding with Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, right? So you would say the coronation was pinnacle to all of those things? What would you put as the top moment?

LP: This moment.

NHQ: Interviewing with me?

LP: Yes.

NHQ: I can’t refute you —

LP: It’s not only the best interview I’ve had, it’s by far the most recent.

NHQ: The best interview you’ve had today.

LP: Before lunch.

NHQ: So as a fan, when I started watching, I always got a kick out of the poems. And for people that don’t know, when you were a face in the WWF, you would recite a poem and there were actually poems written on Frisbees that you’d throw to the crowd. So where did the poem idea come from?

LP: I got my start in the men’s room of a Howard Johnson in Newark, New Jersey.

NHQ: Were you the, “Here I sit broken-hearted,” guy? Don’t tell me you came up with that?

LP: There are ladies present…

NHQ: So, the poems…did you pitch the idea or how did that — ?

LP: Remember TNT, Tuesday Night Titans [a wrestling-themed talk show that was a loose parody of Johnny Carson]? I was a guest. And I knew if I was boring they’d never have me back. So I decided to stack the deck, baby. So I did a poem and when they went to commercial, Vince [McMahon] says, “Lanny? That was great. From now on, you do a poem before every match.” I pretended to act blasé but the 12-year-old inside me went, “Yes!”

NHQ: Okay, now I have to know…who paid for the Frisbees?

LP: I paid for the first 500, and then the guy, the marketing guy, asked if he could market them. And he sold them for $3 a Frisbee and they sold out every night because win, lose, or draw I would sign autographs. And since I was the only one that did that, word got out that I was a nice man. And I got the idea from Sam Walton who said, “Sell for less and be nice to kids.”

NHQ: Makes sense.

LP: Sincerity’s the main thing. If you can make that, you’re going to make it.

NHQ: Did anyone vet those poems or did you just go out there and say them? I don’t remember you ever saying swear words in them…

LP: Well, [Vince] got mad at me a few times and he wanted me to mouth them off at him before I went out there.

NHQ: He got mad at you? What could you have conceivably said that was so horrible? I always remember them as being pretty tame.

LP: (Fakes misunderstanding) Lame?

NHQ: Tame. With a “T.”

LP: He wanted them short, he wanted them funny, and he wanted them “lame” or “tame.” Go on.

NHQ: Okay, so five years in the WWF as “Leaping Lanny” and three more as The Genius, eight years in all. What prompted the change to The Genius?

LP: They were going to fire me. And they said they needed heels, and I said, “How about making me a heel?” And that was the change.

NHQ: Really? And who’s idea was The Genius?

LP: Vince’s.

NHQ: Really? It sure was a good one. I’m no wrestling expert historian, but it did seem in the ’80s and ’90s it was, as a bad guy, we make you foreign, we make you smart, Bobby Heenan, The Genius, we make you overly good looking, or we make you effeminate, and you checked two of those boxes. Was there any more animosity because of that?

LP: Okay. Have I ever been stabbed? No, but somebody did that to me (shows a scar on his arm). Yeah, I don’t know what happened. I got in the shower and I said, “Who’s bleeding? Oh, it’s me.” I didn’t know what it was. Because of that, now I wear long-sleeved shirts and I’m very self-conscious.

NHQ: There were no other incidents? I mean, you for a while, you’re acting smarter than everyone and you’re fighting Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. I mean, you can’t get any more “good guy-ish” than those two. You didn’t have any real fan incidents?

LP: No, we had guardrails. Vince had guardrails and he had security. So, there were no real incidents. Vince had it so that fans couldn’t get to us. Now, before Vince, I wrestled for these bad organizations, there’s no guardrail, there’s no protection from the fans.

NHQ: Right. What was the worst thing you ever saw happen to someone, fan-wise?

LP: Somebody bought a ticket once and didn’t get his money’s worth. That was the worst thing that can happen.

NHQ:So your time there in the WWE was three years wrestling and managing or three years wrestling before they moved you into managing?

LP: Five years as Leaping Lanny, three years as the Genius, and two of those years were managing. I got fired and then I came back up for the Beverly Brothers. That was another year and a half.

NHQ: Really? I didn’t even remember the gap there.

LP: There was a gap of six months where I wept into my pillow.

NHQ: I’m super curious as to the workings of it; how do they decide to pair you? Curt Hennig was pretty solid on the mic, and I always thought as a kid that they stuck managers with people that were like Umaga who doesn’t know anything and just grunts and grunts. Stick him with a manager. How did they choose you and [a manager]? I mean, it was a match made in heaven, the vignettes with him doing the stuff and you — how did that come about? Did Vince just say, “Get over there with him”?

LP: I was just so happy that they chose me, I was not going to ask any questions. I was going to, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die.”

NHQ: The Charge of the Light Brigade…lovely. Anyway, so how was it working with Curt Hennig?

LP: It was fantastic. I loved it.

NHQ: It was tough to hear when he passed away. Speaking of that, was there anyone in the wrestling world that hit you out of nowhere?

LP: The worst thing of all was Owen Hart. That was terrible because it was an accident.

NHQ: Was there ever a gimmick that you saw you felt bad for the guy that got stuck with it?

LP: I thought the Red Rooster was ridiculous. Papa Shango was a little ridiculous. The Boogey Man. Doink the Clown…

NHQ: The craziest thing is that he was one of the best wrestlers around. I don’t get why they stuck him with such a horrible — I mean, I know it’s supposed to be irony.

LP: Steve Keirn was. Steve Keirn was great. I just didn’t like the gimmick. I liked my own gimmick.

NHQ: It was phenomenal. The whole shtick where you did equations when Hulk Hogan threw you out of the ring, hysterical.

LP: That actually wasn’t my idea. I was just listening to what they wanted. They told me to do it.

NHQ: I’ve lost a little respect for you now…

LP: I did the best I could. I was writing equations and plans with a Sharpie. You don’t do that using a Sharpie.

NHQ: No, if you’re The Genius, you’re not going to make mistakes! So, you write it in pen…permanent pen.

LP: I know. It’s hard to live up to. It’s just too much. The pressure is unbelievable. I’m a fraud.

NHQ: So, while we’re talking about funny moments from your career, there was a time where, as “Leaping Lanny,” you were wearing a suit of armor in a bunkhouse battle royal…

LP: Yeah. That cost me $1800 for theatrical armor.

NHQ: You paid for it?

LP: Yeah, but I had already bought it a couple few years before I got to the big leagues. Then I wore it on the TNT show and then Howard Finkel said, “Hey, we’ve got Lanny to wear the armor.” So I wore the helmet and the boys would bang me right on the head and I would — it would be like this (shakes head rapidly back and forth).

NHQ: Okay, that’s mean.

LP: So, I remembered who did it. I took that helmet off and I hit them with my fist. I said, “Boom. Boom.” From then on I knew better than to wear the helmet because if somebody hits you over the head…

NHQ: Did you ever win any of those battle royals with your suit of armor?

LP: No.

NHQ: So, as a behind-the-scenes question, when it comes to a battle royal, is somebody saying something, or like you said, you’re told to go out at a certain time?

LP: No, they have a list of names. First of all, Vince was a micromanager. When you were going to announce the order, you’re announced first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and then you leave the battle royal first, second, third, fourth. And the winner is the last five guys, and then they make up an interesting little climax to the show, you know what I mean?

NHQ: Right.

LP: So they all know what they’re going to do and blah blah blah, it’s all picked by numbers. But battle royals are sometimes not great, it looks better on paper. And sometimes they’re very good. I was in the most famous battle royal ever, on NBC with Andre The Giant.

NHQ: The one where he busted you open?

LP: It was a self-inflicted razor blade wound to the head. Do you see it? (Shows his forehead) I’m not proud of it, but I just took a razor blade and — because they needed Andre to be a bad guy. And so I’m not good at doing it in life, I hate that, it’s immoral, but I figure for this — do you know what I mean?

NHQ: Yeah. Yes, I do. Yours was not to question why…

LP: It was just to slice your head off and not even get a thank you. Not even a thank you. Not even stitches, just to handle it.
NHQ: At least it healed pretty well…you can’t even see it. It’s not as bad as the thing on your arm, that you don’t even know how it happened.

LP: I don’t know. I think a fan came up to me and I just blocked myself, and then I went back. We have to get a replay. I was so excited I didn’t feel anything.

NHQ: Worst injury you ever suffered?

LP: Worst injury I ever suffered, the divorce was a Punjab to the figs.

NHQ: That’s from Family Guy, right? Okay, so second worst injury…not involving the figs?

LP: I’ve never been hurt.

NHQ: Really?

LP: You know why? There’s three reasons: I’m rubbery, I’m really well coordinated, and I’m just plain good. I don’t hurt anybody and I don’t get hurt. Sometimes my feelings are sensitive; you’ve already hurt me twice or three times already…
NHQ: You and your wet pillow.

LP: My pillow knows the truth.

NHQ: For fans of wrestling today, what would be one thing that they don’t know about the world of wrestling you can tell them? Pull back the curtain, pay no attention to The Genius behind the curtain, what could you tell them?

LP: Don’t try these moves at home.

NHQ: Listen to you, Mr. PSA. The walking PSA, Lanny Poffo, that’s going to be your new gimmick.

LP: Do not try these at home. You know that — especially they try that sleeper, that’s so bad. How long should your brain be without oxygen? So stop doing that stuff. It’s just not funny.

NHQ: What advice would you give someone…and so help me, don’t say, “Don’t do it.” What advice would you give someone looking to break into the world of wrestling?

LP: Do it.

NHQ: Okay, you’re right, I did say not to say, “Don’t do it.” Your ability to follow directions is fantastic.

LP: Try to get into some welfare thing, you know what I mean? Have a diet of government cheese and live in a van down by the river.

NHQ: Any more optimistic advice?

LP: I would say, work on a good Plan B. Know what I mean? In case it doesn’t work out. Have something you can fall back on besides your butt. But in the meantime — I was in Ecuador at a wrestling school, and I worked so hard trying to improve my Spanish. And I go there, and everybody spoke English with an accent. And I didn’t have a huge vocabulary, you know what I mean? I just had these phrases. I didn’t urinate on anybody’s dreams. I figure, life will do that anyway. And I’ve had a few big plans that didn’t materialize, but wasn’t I a better man for having tried? You know what I mean. So that’s my point. Go for it, and even if you don’t get it, at least you’re living hopefully ever after. Without hope, what do you got? Without the silent E, it’s just, “hop.”

NHQ: So, just curious. You might not know the answer to this, but I was a big fan of the pairing between you and Curt Hennig. He always seemed to have a manager, and I never understood why.

LP: You know what? Like I said before, I was just so happy to be chosen, after five years of not being chosen. I felt like Fredo Corleone.

NHQ: Yeah, but he went on the dinghy and he didn’t come back.

LP: But at least I got — remember, when they choose you, don’t question it. You know what I mean? I never asked.
NHQ: Did you enjoy being a manager? It seemed like you had fun with it…well, except for the head shaving thing (at the 1990 Royal Rumble).

LP: I prefer doing the wrestling. I prefer the wrestling. I didn’t mind the head shave.

NHQ: Did he shave it or just cut the front? I forgot.

LP: If you go back to the Royal Rumble, I wrestled Beefcake and he says, “I’ll just take a little piece off.” I said, “No. take a big swatch off and make it a big laugh.” Because I figured, “I’m going to wrestle Beefcake. It’s going to be horrible.” So at least I get a pop at the end. And then when I was wrestling him at main events, every night they would beat me and they would cut off another piece. By the time I got to WrestleMania, I looked like a chemotherapy patient…like I was molting.

NHQ: They stuck a wig on you for a while, right?

LP: No, I got the wig, because I stole it from Buddy Rose in Portland, Oregon. Because I wanted it so when they pulled it off, I wanted to act like it was total humiliation. You know, I’m a very proud man.

NHQ: Yes, I can see that. If you could rewind and do anything over again, is there anything you’d do different?

LP: I would have the lotto numbers all set before I bought the ticket.

NHQ: Yeah, and you can’t buy a Grays Sports Almanac like Biff Tannen.

LP: Hello? McFly?

NHQ: If you could go back and have another gimmick, like the Red Rooster…

LP: Cyclops. I would want an eyeball right in the center of my head.

NHQ: You know, it’s odd…why The Genius and not The Poet?

LP: I didn’t ask.

NHQ: Did you ever test your IQ? You would think being called The Genius, that just for grins, you would try an IQ test…

LP: I think of myself as Yogi Berra. Compared to a wrestler, yes, I’m one of the smarter ones, but in real life, I’m not quite Yogi Berra. Yogi Berra, “Smarter than the average…”

NHQ: I think that’s Yogi Bear.

LP: “You come to a fork in the road, take it.”

NHQ: You, Bobby Heenan, and Damien Sandow in a game of Trivial Pursuit. Who wins?

LP: I have to give it to Heenan, when he could talk. That guy had the best ad-libs ever.

NHQ: It was unreal. One of my favorites was, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make a duck out of him.”

LP: It was like Laurel and Hardy, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil is lead, especially graphite.”

NHQ: And I think I asked you about this, so more recently, for the people who are going to read this, Damien Sandow was a modern wrestler that followed very close to the Genius gimmick, the “Intellectual Savior of the Masses.” He, like you, did interviews that were almost flawless. I mean, there were never even stutters, either of you when you did — I mean, I watched the match again when you beat Hulk Hogan by countout. You smashed the belts. And even in the heat of the moment, there wasn’t even, like I said, it all sounded flawless…

LP: It takes a lot of planning to appear glib. If you don’t have it here, this doesn’t matter. That’s beautiful. If you don’t have it here, this doesn’t matter. In other words, without passion, you don’t have it.

NHQ: So did you advise Sandow at all? Talk to him anything about the gimmick? Did he reach out to you?

LP: Yeah, he asked permission to use the gimmick and I said, “Hey, I stole the gimmick from about 20 guys.” I said, “You’re a young man. Go for it.” And then he even called me up and it was to do Macho Mandow. And I said, “Look, thank you for calling, but do it.” Randy would have done it. And remember Jay Lethal? He was in a three-way phone call with me and my brother and Randy gave him his blessings. “Just do it.” That’s the way he felt about it. It’s the sincerest form of flattery. “Go for it.” Besides, how many guys did I steal from? If you steal from one guy, it’s plagiarism. If you steal from 20 guys, it’s research.

NHQ: So, moving on, what are you up to these days? You’ve written a couple books. Wrestling with Rhyme I know is one of them.

LP: Yes. I’ve written more books than I’ve read.

NHQ: Are there any more books on the horizon?

LP: No. I’m going to just fade into the endless tide of obscurity.

NHQ: So, do you still get in the ring from time to time?

LP: Not even to sweep it. I don’t deserve to be even near it. I do conventions. I do stuff like that.

NHQ: I’m trying to think. Anything else you want to plug? Causes you support? Anything else? There are literally dozens of people that are going to read this. Dozens.

LP: My website, You can get my books autographed on the site. I also support unwed mothers. I just help them get their start.

NHQ: Well, on that note…thanks for joining me, Lanny. It was great talking to you.

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