Phil Varlese of CPW has sent word that Cousin Luke (real name Gene Petit) passed away in the early hours of September 29, 2013 – he was in his early 60s. Petit had been in a long term health care facility in Morristown, NJ, for several years, due to complications from diabetes and other health issues. He is perhaps best known to wrestling fans from his 1985 run as Cousin Luke, one of Hillbilly Jim’s family members, though he journeyed the territories under various gimmicks in the years prior.
For an in-depth interview and career overview from 2008 go to SLAM! Wrestling.
The Mississippi native broke in to wrestling in the 70s as the driver for Olympian turned pro wrestler Dale Lewis, as he made his bookings for Eddie Graham’s Florida territory. At that time Petit was playing football for the University of Tampa alongside future wrestling star Paul Orndorff, and was also studying for a business degree which he completed.
His passion however was wrestling and Lewis gave him his inroad. Petit’s in-ring training was short, and he was essentially thrown in the deep end when the card was thin on talent. He officially debuted in 1973, teaming with Lewis and Gypsy Joe Rosario, to take on Silento Rodriguez, Ivan Putski and Alex Perez.
Petit was soon taken under Dale’s wing and became known as Gene Lewis, his previously unknown brother. The pair would work tag matches around the territories to protect Petit as he gained more experience. Over those early years he also had singles stints with Bill Watts, Stu Hart, Mid-Atlantic, Don Owen’s Portland Wrestling and Central States Wrestling, among others. He also did tours of Australia, and Japan for Antonio Inoki. Then in the early 80s he joined the Von Erich’s World Class promotion, where he teamed with Dewey “Missing Link” Robertson as a revival of the Mongols gimmick previously used by others in Stampede and the WWWF. Just prior he had a short run of Puerto Rico, where he was known as the Masked Assassin and would also team with Geto Mongol in the Mongols gimmick, which is where he would get his blessing to use it in Texas.
The mask became a common theme for him in the following years, and he’d return to Championship Wrestling from Florida to play The Midnight Rider when Dusty Rhodes was unavailable. Most notably he also played Kharma and Molokai, two characters in Kevin Sullivan’s controversial Army of Darkness. The cult of Satanists included Purple Haze, Bob Roop, The Lock, Luna Vachon, and a young Nancy Benoit, then known as the Fallen Angel. In one storyline Midnight Rider fell under the spell of Sullivan and ended up fighting Dusty Rhodes himself.
In 1985 Petit was hired by the then WWF and repackaged as Cousin Luke, a member of Hillbilly Jim’s family of Kentucky farmers. Originally he had ideas for a top heel character, but was told there was simply no room. The eventual gimmick came by chance when he showed booker George Scott a photo he’d taken of himself as a joke, wearing hillbilly cut off jeans and a hat. With that he was immediately tacked on to the rest of the clan.
In the storyline Hillbilly Jim joined the promotion as a fan who had became noted for regularly sitting ringside, and was eventually trained by Hulk Hogan. Because of this Petit’s role was basically of an expressionless country bumpkin who knew nothing about wrestling and thus he had very little actual ring time.
Though he did have some physical interactions against the top bad guys in a supporting role, an ankle injury only a few weeks in didn’t help matters, and the group itself fizzled out within a year, leaving him to head back to the independents.
While the run was short this was during the WWF’s boom period and by default he became a wrestling fan household name. Because of this he kept using the gimmick outside of the promotion, most notably in the fledgling AWA, but also in smaller promotions across the country. He got semi-regular work in to the 2000s, when a nagging back issue forced him to hang up the boots.
Petit eventually found his home in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and successfully promoted several of his own wrestling shows in the area in more recent years. He was also a member of the board of directors for the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Health wise he had a long battle with multiple sclerosis, and more recently diabetes. He had been staying in a long-term health care facility prior to his passing.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Petit’s family and friends.