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THOUGHTS ON THE PASSING OF GEORGE 'THE ANIMAL' STEELE

By Mike Johnson on 2017-02-17 11:54:00

I was extremely saddened this morning as word began to make the rounds that WWE Hall of Famer George "The Animal" Steele had passed away.  Steele was, far and away, my favorite pro wrestling character growing up.  There were wrestlers that I enjoyed and liked but the seemingly simple but dangerous Steele was everything the spectacle of pro wrestling was supposed to be in my eyes: outrageous, over the top, silly but still with an aura that made you believe something insane could legitimately happen. 

When I attended my very first show at the age of 12 in Madison Square Garden, George wasn't on the card, but I was overjoyed when I spotted his official t-shirt that read "I am an Animal Lover" with a caricature of George's face replacing the "O" in the word love.  I remember being so thrilled when my dad bought it for me that I immediately wore it over my other shirt.  It's one of my favorite memories of that first show I saw and in my mind, even at 42 years old now, remains as vibrant to me as the moment it happened.   I have no idea what happened to that shirt, but I know I wore the hell out of it.

Steele was something of a living mascot for the WWF in that era.  In a world before I even existed, much less was a fan of pro wrestling, he was a dangerous, intelligent "Animal" who tormented fans and babyfaces alike while attempting to wrest the WWWF championship from Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund.  He would later even have a few bouts against Hulk Hogan, likely making him the only man to attempt to win the belt from the company's biggest names up until that point in its history. 

Later, as WWF moved towards a more cartoonish, over the top caricature, Steele morphed with it, being the innocent "Animal" who was all nice and cuddly until you riled him up, at which point you were in mortal danger.  It was an awesome character for its time, although if you were looking for great wrestling matches in that era, George wasn't where you were going to find it.   His character didn't need to have good wrestling matches - he was about mayhem and craziness.  After all, his trademarks were a hairy body, a green tongue and a diet made up of eating turnbuckles.   You weren't going to see an armdrag out of this guy, nor should you have!

George Steele, of course, wasn't really an animal or even a George.  He was William James Myers, best known as Jim Myers among his friends and for most of his life, he was a coach and teacher who was bouncing on the side in Michigan.  One night, he and his friend were drinking and the friend suggested, for the umpteenth time that Steele should be a pro wrestler.  After being relayed a story about how much money Killer Kowalski allegedly made, they tracked down a local wrestling promoter in Michigan named Bert Ruby.  Steele met with Ruby and according to Steele's 2013 autobiography Animal, Ruby opened the door, took one look and said "Beautiful."    Steele was soon training under Gino Brito and wrestling under a mask to hide his identity as a school teacher - oddly enough also the plot of 1980s pro wrestling syndicated sitcom Learning The Ropes, which starred Lyle Alzado and featured a ton of Jim Crockett Promotions talents.

Like others, Jim worked in the Northeast (starting out in Pittsburgh, where he appeared on the local TV there), but only left his local area when the school schedule allowed.  As the legend goes, every summer he would go out and wrestle as George and when the fall came, he returned to teach, with most none the wiser.  When the occasional student would find him in a wrestling magazine and point out, to Mr. Myers the teacher, the uncanny resemblance, Myers would balk and ask them how they could think he looked so ugly and blow it off.  Until the WWF went national, Myers remained a school teacher and football coach for his entire run as a pro wrestler.

Once WWF went national, the jig was up and Myers began wrestling full-time, first as a heel but then being turned babyface under the auspices of Captain Lou Albano.  With WWF having so many over the top vignettes and sketches, George fit right in, doing vignettes where he was taken to a psychiatrist to figure out what was wrong with him, leading to shock therapy causing George to speak intelligently, ever briefly.  George as a babyface was a great idea.  Before, he would scare people with his antics as he beat down babyfaces.  Now, he was cracking fans up and giving some much deserved beatings to the dastardly heels.

Perhaps his most famous angle came during WWF's huge run on late nights on NBC with Saturday Night's Main Event.  George fell for the lovely Elizabeth, the beautiful and sweet manager of the intense, vicious Randy Savage.  Playing off the "Beauty and the Beast" theme, Steele would bring her a flower and get beaten down for it.  He tried to kidnap and rescue her from Savage, who's intensity was played up as being mean to his manager (and real-life wife) and it was a great, colorful story.  When Savage would move on to feud with Ricky Steamboat, Steele ended up in the corner of the challenger for the classic Wrestlemania III bout, including shoving Savage off the top rope to assist "The Dragon."  It was a landmark match that is still celebrated today as one of the best of all time and is direct inspiration for all the kids who would grow up to be pro wrestlers seeking to have great "Wrestlemania moment" style matches with their own careers.

Pro wrestling allowed Steele a number of opportunities in the entertainment world including a role in Tim Burton's film on Plan 9 from Outer Space director Ed Wood and a starring role in a commercial for Minolta.  As he began to age out of wrestling full-time, he worked as a road agent behind the scenes for WWF for nine years and would make occasional independent wrestling appearances, where he antics were perfect for smaller, family-friendly crowds.  In more recent years, he would sign at conventions and shows, but his health issues made active participation a thing of the past. 

I noted earlier Steele was a teacher and a coach.  The Madison High football stadium where he coached is now named The James Myers Stadium in his honor.  Steele was also heavily involved in the creation of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, NY (it now resides in Wichita Fall, Texas).  Two standing monuments to his love for teaching and pro wrestling.

I'd like to close off with a silly story about George and Jim: In 2009, I reached out to him about doing an interview with us for the site.  He called me back and had a long conversation with me, almost 45 minutes long, but wouldn't commit to the interview.  I spoke to him about his career and he talked to me for a LONG time about God, as he was deeply religious.  We spoke and spoke and finally he excused himself.  I thanked him for the time and got off the phone.  Two minutes later, the phone rang.  It was George.  "I just wanted to test you and make sure you didn't use any bad language.  When can we do the interview?"  He kept me on the phone for almost an hour testing me, to see if I would curse and I didn't (which for a long-time New Yorker, may as well be an eternity!) so I ended up with the interview, which I loved doing.  Years later, I ran into him and had the chance to speak with him for the first time in person and greatly enjoyed that conversation, but not as much as I enjoyed knowing that he sat there at this home in Florida on the phone with me, screwing around with me to see if I'd crack or if I'd pass his silly test.  Pro wrestling has brought me a lot of joy and a lot of wonderful moments in my life, but for some reason, that one still makes me smile, and it did today when I learned of his passing.

Jim Myers was 79 when he passed away today.  George "The Animal" Steele, however, will live forever - in infamy, in nostalgia and in history.  My deepest condolences to his family, fans and friends.

 

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