Hall of Fame wrestler George “The Animal” Steele has died, according WWE.
Steele, real name Jim Myers, had been battling health problems for years, including kidney failure. He had been moved into hospice care shortly before his death.
Portraying a green-tongued, bald-headed wildman, Steele was known for “eating” turnbuckles -- ripping them open with his teeth and throwing the shredded padding at opponents. He enjoyed his greatest fame near the end of his three-decade career as part of the 1980s WWE (then WWF) roster that included stars like Andre the Giant, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Steele spent most of his career playing a menacing monster heel, a villain known for his sometimes vicious brawls with the likes of champions Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales.
In 1985, he turned into a loveable good guy thanks to a storyline intended to write Steele’s character off, as the company transitioned to a younger roster. Fans took pity on the Animal and cheered him, giving Steele new life as a sympathetic, simple-minded character who meant well.
On the first episode of “Saturday Night’s Main Event” in 1985, Steele’s tag team partners, the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, betrayed him. Steele thought this was WWE’s way of writing his character off. But owner Vince McMahon sensed a positive crowd reaction to Steele’s betrayal and called an audible.
“Vince was watching what was going on, and he sent Captain Lou [Albano] -- who had been my manager for many years -- back to the ring,” Steele told CBS Sports in a 2015 interview. “I’m looking at him like I’m gonna fight, and he’s kind of wanting to slow me down. ‘Come on, come on.’ So finally just out of nowhere, I dropped on one knee and I put my head in his fat belly. He started petting my head like I was an animal. The place went absolutely crazy nuts.
“As soon as I saw that and realized that we’re going into the business of selling action figures and lunch buckets and pictures, [I thought] this might make a lot of sense financially.”
During the mid-’80s, Steele had a memorable feud with Savage and appeared at three WrestleManias. His likeness appeared on action figures, ice cream bars and trading cards. In the kid-friendly WWE of the 1980s, the less threatening, more humorous George “The Animal” Steele was better suited for younger fans.
Contrary to his gimmick, Steele was a well-spoken man. He had given intelligible TV interviews for years before he dumbed down his “Animal” character at McMahon’s suggestion in the 1980s. At that point, he began limiting himself to single-word answers, grunts and guttural, animalistic howls.
His wrestling fame allowed him to transition into acting opportunities. Steele appeared with Tony Randall in a 1985 TV commercial for Minolta computers. In 1994, he starred alongside Johnny Depp in the critically acclaimed movie “Ed Wood,” playing the role of B-movie actor and former pro wrestler Tor Johnson.
Up until 1985, wrestling was only a part-time endeavor which Myers considered a side job. His main job was teaching health and physical education at Madison High School in his hometown of Madison Heights, Michigan. He also coached the Madison football, wrestling and track teams at various times.
Although George Steele never won a world title in pro wrestling, Jim Myers was inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996.
During the summer or holiday breaks, “Coach Myers,” unbeknownst to the majority of his students and fellow teachers, wrestled all over Michigan and Ohio disguised under a mask as “The Student.” Myers broke into pro wrestling in 1963 working for promoter Bert Ruby and continued to wrestle as The Student for promoters Ruby, Walter Moore and Ed Farhat (the original Sheik) until he caught the eye of then-WWWF champion Sammartino in 1966.
Sammartino invited Myers to wrestle in Pittsburgh for far bigger paychecks -- on the condition that he lose the mask. Myers agreed, and in January 1967, the character of George “The Animal” Steele was born. All the while, he commuted back and forth to Madison Heights to teach and coach. This went on until he retired from teaching in early 1986 and, for the first time, finally took on a full-time wrestling schedule.
The money Steele could have made as a year-round wrestling villain was far better than what Myers earned as a high school teacher and coach. But as he explained in his 2013 book Animal, Myers continued teaching for 25 years because he considered that his true calling.
“Coaching is what I believe God put me on Earth to do, even more so than yanking hidden objects out of my wrestling trunks,” he wrote. “I turned down a fortune by returning to Madison High every fall for years. I believed in what I was doing and that it was the best thing for the kids and the best thing for me.”
Although he was always big and athletic, Myers was often bullied as a child because of a learning problem (later diagnosed as dyslexia). When he realized he was strong enough to fight back physically, it sometimes led to behavioral issues and poor decisions.
Myers fought to overcome his shortcomings, including his dyslexia. He earned a B.A. from Michigan State and an M.A. from Central Michigan and later won a spot on the roster of the UFL’s Grand Rapids Blazers at defensive tackle. He then decided to draw from his life experiences to mentor youth as a teacher and coach.
In addition to a 25-year teaching and coaching career and a solid 25 years as an active pro wrestler, Myers worked for many years as a behind-the-scenes road agent for WWE, helping coordinate live events and matches. He wrestled in the occasional match until 2000, when age and health issues caught up with him, including a serious bout with Crohn’s Disease.
Steele was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York, in 2005, and was a Cauliflower Alley Club men’s wrestling honoree in 2004.
He is survived by his wife, Pat, and his children Felicia, Dennis and Randy.