Mr. Harris had suffered many health reversals in recent years and had both legs amputated because of diabetes complications.
In the ring, the imposing Mr. Harris stomped around barefoot, sported a loincloth, slapped his belly and carried a spear. As part of his “savage” role, he would beat up opponents long after the match ended, as his handler, a masked man named Kim Chee, tried to keep him in line.
While the character was often seen as trafficking in racist stereotypes, Mr. Harris said he enjoyed the role and being an entertainer. He had been mentored by promoter Jerry Lawler, who invented the Kamala character. “He put the paint and stuff on me and they put the little skirt on me,” Mr. Harris told the CBS affiliate in Memphis in 2012. “I like doing that kind of stuff.”
His 30-year career peaked during the 1980s with what then was known as the World Wrestling Federation, as Mr. Harris wrestled marquee names such as Hulk Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior.
As Kamala, Mr. Harris spoke in grunts and purportedly was unable to speak English. In reality, he was a ninth-grade dropout from the Jim Crow South who made ends meet by picking cotton, driving trucks and even — he said — committing petty crimes. When he was 25, he moved to Benton Harbor, Mich., where he had family. Wrestling became a last resort when he couldn’t find a job.
First wrestling under names including Sugar Bear Harris and the Mississippi Mauler, Mr. Harris had a chance meeting with Lawler, then the promoter of the Continental Wrestling Association, in 1982.
Impressed by Mr. Harris’s size, Lawler pitched him his eventual character’s prototype: Kimala, a caricature of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Lawler filmed a commercial of Mr. Harris storming out of a jungle — with Lawler’s untamed backyard substituting as the African bush — and aired it on Memphis TV to instant success. The character soon became known as Kamala.
“Lawler asked me if I was going to be ashamed to do it, but I’m not ashamed to do stuff like that,” Mr. Harris told hobotrashcan.com in 2006 when asked if the role was offensive or degrading.
Mr. Harris compensated for his lack of traditional grappling skills with his extreme agility for a man of his size, plus wild-man showmanship. His slow Southern drawl didn’t fit with the boisterous trash-talking of his contemporaries, so his character’s yelps and grunts served him well.
His career highlights included several main event matches in 1986 against the champion Hogan, then the most popular wrestler in the world. Backstage, Mr. Harris was bristling at being paid far less than other wrestlers in the WWF and recalled owner Vince McMahon rebuffing his requests for more money.
“I think he looked down on me because I was a poor boy from Mississippi and I don’t mind telling anybody that I’m not well-educated,” he later told the CBS affiliate in Memphis. “I’m a ninth-grade student, but I can count.”
Mr. Harris returned to truck driving and wrestled for several rival companies in-between stints with the WWF, including Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling. His last match, on the independent circuit, was in 2010. He had been diagnosed with diabetes in 1992 but neglected treatment and, having gained considerable weight, had his first leg amputated in 2011 and the second the next year.
James Harris was born in Senatobia, Miss., on May 28, 1950, and grew up in nearby Coldwater. He said he was 4 when his father was killed during a dice game.
He was married three times. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Harris made a brief return to what became WWE in 2006, where he said young wrestlers were excited to introduce themselves. “For the first time, I felt like I’d accomplished something in my career,” Mr. Harris told Bleacher Report. “It made me feel appreciated.”
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