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George ‘The Animal’ Steele, wrestling great, dead at 79

Written By | Feb 25, 2017

WASHINGTON, February 24, 2017 – First cast as an almost sub-human villain before he later morphed into an oddly lovable character later in his career, bigger-than-life wrestling legend George “The Animal” Steele passed away in Florida on February 16, 2017 at the age of 79. Steele had been under hospice care since the spring of 2016 and the cause of death was attributed to kidney failure.

According to the UK Daily Mail,

WWE [World Wide Wrestling Entertainment] released a statement on Friday saying they were saddened by his death and described him as ‘one of the most unpredictable Superstars in sports-entertainment history.’

“Hulk Hogan, who fought ‘The Animal’ during his career, shared his condolences on Twitter.

“He wrote: ‘RIP my brother, only love, only grateful.’

“His real name was William James Myers, but he was known to beloved fans as ‘The Animal’.

“Prior to breaking into sports, Steele received his Master’s Degree from Central Michigan University and became a high school teacher and wrestling coach in the Detroit area.

“It was during his teaching stint that he began moonlighting in sports-entertainment, working in the Detroit-area promotions.”

Born in what is now the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, Michigan in 1937, the former Michigan State football player and later high school wrestling coach once known as Jim Myers got his first professional wrestling break when he was cast as an almost subhuman villain—renamed George “The Animal” Steele — to oppose popular WWE Champ Bruno Sammartino in 1967.

For some reason, George “The Animal” Steele had a green tongue. (Image via YouTube video source)

Steele’s unique character quickly caught on with wrestling fans, leading to many return matches against Sammartino.

Not surprisingly, “The Animal” later became a regular nemesis of successive WWE champs including Bob Backlund and Hulk Hogan. In the process, he often got close to, but not quite won the WWE Championship belt for himself.

With his shaved head, hulking body, overabundance of body hair, inexplicably green tongue and inability to speak much beyond primal growls and grunts, “The Animal” came across to wrestling fans like a carnival sideshow freak who, when hauled into the squared circle, morphed into a savage wrestler as likely to chew on an opponent’s ear as he was to hurl him out of the ring.

Another notable “Animal” habit: gnawing on and ripping apart turnbuckle coverings in the ring, as he does with relish in this video:

Wrestlers move in and out of the spotlight over the years, with only a few of them remaining in the spotlight for a considerable period of time. But Steele was one of the lucky ones. “For nearly 20 years,” notes the Daily Mail, Steele was a reviled villain, managed by the likes of fellow WWE Hall of Famers The Grand Wizard, ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie, Capt. Lou Albano and Mr. Fuji.”

One of “The Animal’s” most popular running story lines involved his unexpected and bizarre attraction to “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s manager, significant other, and eventual wife, The Lovely Miss Elizabeth. Whenever Steele and Savage met in the ring, Elizabeth was always there to handle Randy, who was regularly infuriated when “The Animal” leered at Elizabeth, clearly becoming enamored of her every time these opponents met.

A naturally jealous type anyway, Savage was actually driven to fury by the act, which gave each match up with steel a considerable measure of realism, and fans could never get enough of it. In the following video, Steele attempts to kidnap Elizabeth after throwing Savage out of the ring and onto the auditorium floor:

As is often the case in professional wrestling, story lines can changed, and that’s exactly what happened to Steele in 1985, notes the Daily Mail:

“After The Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff abandoned him during a match, Steele fell back under the tutelage of the then-beloved [Lou] Albano. His transformation was remarkable, as one of the most hated men in the sport became one of its most loveable figures.”

Steele’s active career spanned roughly 21 years, from 1967 to 1988. Even after retiring from the ring, however, he still made an occasional appearance in WWE’s squared circle in the 1990s and into the 2000s.

Legendarily unintentional camp amp horror film director Ed Wood. (Uncopyrighted image via Wikipedia entry on Wood)

In 1994, Steele was cast for a key part in Tim Burton’s weirdly fascinating black and white film “Ed Wood.” Starring Johnny Depp as the title character, this classic biopic charted the strange career of the eponymous film director (1924-1978) and sometime transvestite whose horrendously bad horror flicks won him a posthumous Golden Turkey Award as Worst Director of All Time.

The real Ed Wood tended to cast the same actors over and over again in his films, including aging horror film star Bela Lugosi, Hollywood’s campy Vampira, The Amazing Criswell and burly former wrestler Tor Johnson, who played the heavy in the original “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959). By now well-known for his own wrestling career, Steele bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Johnson. Burton quickly cast him for the part, which he performed with gusto.

Notes one source, “Coincidentally, Steele was often mistaken for Johnson earlier in his career. According to Steele, a New York novelty shop once sold a Tor Johnson mask as a George Steele mask to increase sales, due to Steele’s popularity at the time.”

The real Tor Johnson in full makeup for “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” (Image as well as the film are out of copyright)

Steele later co-starred with another professional, Greg Valentine, in a short film comedy, “Something Fishy,” and occasionally appeared in commercials, as well as being portrayed as a character in a video game entitled “WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain.”

Although Steele had a long and notable career, his life was not without complications. He was a dyslexic from childhood, and later was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in the late 1980s. Treatment brought the disease into remission, but fearing a return of symptoms, the former wrestler had his colon removed in 2002 to make sure.

By 2010-2011 his health began to markedly decline, leading to the kidney failure that resulted in his death in Cocoa Beach, Florida where he made his home.

Jim Myers, the real-life “Animal,” in a screen shot from his valedictory streaming bio, via YouTube.

Perhaps surprisingly for wrestling fans, Jim Myers/George Steele was a devout Christian for his entire life. He leaves behind Pat, his wife of 60 years, two sons—Dennis and Randy—and his daughter Felicia.

For stories and details on the life and times of George “The Animal” Steele, the wrestler has left behind a remarkably honest website filled with photos and videos of key moments in is career.

Also available online at YouTube is George Derunda’s hour-long collaborative biography of the wrestler, which is available via this link.


Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17