George ‘The Animal’ Steele ‘lived for the gimmick’

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

George “The Animal” Steele was done wrestling for the night, but he was staying in character.

B. Brian Blair had asked him to, so he could pull one over on Blair’s freaked-out fiancee.

And, boy, did they ever.

“She wasn’t smart of the business at all. I told her George ‘The Animal’ Steele was gonna ride with us from Madison Square Garden,” Blair said, laughing, recalling the story Saturday afternoon. “She’s like, ‘The guy with the green tongue? No, no, are you serious?’ She was really scared.”

In hopped Steele, for the ride from New York City to Providence, R.I. It was about a three-hour trek, and not once did Steele break character.

Steele, born William James Myers in Detroit in 1937, died Thursday in Florida at the age of 79. He had been ill for some time, and in and out of hospice care for several weeks.

“I had already worked it out with George. ‘Just stay in character,’” said Blair, who wrestled in what then was known as the World Wrestling Federation from 1980-88, most famously as a member of The Killer Bees tag team. “He goes in the back seat of my car, he had her so scared, she was on the floorboard.

“He was licking the back of her head, crazy stuff. She was just a nervous wreck.

“He did an Academy Award performance. I think she wet her pants pretty good.”

Steele, a bald, hulk of a man who was more hunchback than Hercules, grabbed the purse of Blair’s fiancee and started putting on her lip stick. He stuck his head out the window, barking at neighbor cars.

“If you would’ve been there ...” Blair said. “He just did silly things like that at times. George was always George, a great man, a guy that everybody respected.”

Steele attended Madison High School in Madison Heights and was a good football player, going on to Michigan State — where his college career was cut short by a knee injury.

He stayed in school, earning a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State, and later a master’s from Central Michigan, before moving on to a 25-year teaching and coaching career.

That part of his resume would surprise wrestling fans who knew him as an uneducated oaf whose wrestling vernacular including few words, mostly, “Mine!” while holding a stuffed animal. Steele wrestled with a green tongue — nobody’s really sure if he got it that way via Clorets or food coloring —and was known to chew the turnbuckle to pieces during a wrestling career that spanned from the 1960s, in Detroit, to the 1980s, during WWF’s rise to mainstream.

“I got along with George. He was a nice guy, a quiet guy, stayed to himself,” Jim “Hacksaw” Duggan said Saturday. “He got more mileage out of that green tongue and biting the turnbuckle.

“He was a hairy son of a gun! And a funny guy backstage.”

Steele played a memorable role in WrestleMania III at the Silverdome in Pontiac in 1987, when he was in the corner of Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. He famously shoved Randy “Macho Man” Savage off the top rope, late in a match Steamboat won. In wrestling circles, it’s considered perhaps the greatest wrestling match of all-time.

By that time, in March 1987, Steele’s in-ring wrestling career was coming to an end, but he stayed with the company for quite some time afterward, even working as a writer.

The WWF would bring wrestlers to its headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to do those legendary promos, two days at a time. Steele, interestingly, was hired to write many of those promos.

“His whole interviews, he’d hold that stuffed animal and say one word, ‘Mine!’ We were like, ‘What the hell? How bad do we have to be?’” Duggan said, laughing. “He lived for the gimmick.

“He had that down. It’s not as easy as folks think.”

Steele made occasional appearances for what now is known as World Wrestling Entertainment into the 1990s.

Steele was one of the first celebrity “heels,” or bad guys, in the business. He eventually became a fan favorite, and was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame in 1995, the headliner of the class. A year later, he was inducted into the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

During his career, he continued to teach and coach — often working a show at a locale such as the Garden on a Sunday night, and being in the classroom to teach on Monday morning — working as Madison’s football coach for 12 years, and starting the wrestling program at the school. His wrestling team won the Class B team state championship in 1969, three years after he started the program. His record as wrestling coach was 188-41-2.

Steele is survived by his wife of 60 years, Pat, and three children.

“He was just a great, great guy,” said Blair, who wrestled alongside Steele on occasion in three-on-three tag-team matches. “Out of character, he was a smart guy, an educated man.

“But he liked to stay in character so often. He just enjoyed that category so much.”