The George “The Animal” Steele many wrestling fans knew in WWF was a small part of the man who loved the wrestling business.
While he might be best known for his cartoonish character who stuck out his green tongue and ate the stuffing out of turnbuckles, he was an accomplished wrestler long before Vince McMahon Jr. bought the fledgling company from his father. It was only after the younger McMahon bought the company that fans grew to love his “likeable” character.
Word broke on Friday that Steele (real name Jim Myers), 79, died of kidney failure after an extensive battle with health issues. He had dyslexia and Crohn’s disease, which later led to his colon being removed after it was determined he was in remission and he did not want his symptoms to return.
WWE released a statement on his passing, emphasizing his importance to the company before and during the early years of Hulkamania.
“Steele was one of the wildest and most unpredictable Superstars in sports-entertainment history. Yet, despite his green tongue, hairy torso and insatiable appetite for turnbuckle pads, “The Animal” was a very well-educated man. Prior to breaking into sports-entertainment, 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. Steele’s first WWE appearances took place in 1967, when he began a heated rivalry with WWE Champion Bruno Sammartino. For nearly 20 years, 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. His classic main events against Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund saw him come close to winning the WWE Championship on many occasions.”
Steele recalled the change in his character in a shoot interview, which has been told over the years by various sources. His infamous “Duh-dahh” interview style happened by accident. Throughout his career, Steele cut eloquent promos and was well-spoken in front of a camera. But during a WWF TV taping in the early 1980s, he was cutting one of these promos when McMahon cut him off, and reminded Steele that his gimmick was the “Animal”, and that he was “making too much sense.” Incensed, Steele did a second take of nothing but garbled and incoherent syllables (“Duhh-dahh”). Steele did this deliberately and out of pure frustration, thinking that McMahon would relent and allow Steele to cut his normal, eloquent promos. Much to Steele’s shock, McMahon replied, “That’s exactly what I want!”, and this would remain Steele’s interview style for the rest of his WWF run.
Steele started to fully cultivate his gimmick of a menacing imbecile. It was perfect for the time and the promotion.
I am not sure if the move was to Steele’s liking, but its success helped line the pockets of McMahon. We grew up watching Steele chase Randy Savage around the ring, show an affinity for Miss Elizabeth and carve a niche in the circus that took wrestling by storm.
He will always be remembered for his character, but his body of work before the transformation was Hall of Fame worthy as well.
The Animal left a lasting impression that hasn’t been duplicated since, and certainly never will.