Looking back at it from a distance of too many years, it’s easy to see how Hulk Hogan became so popular during pro wrestling’s 1980s boom, especially with the still-developing male brains that fueled it. Hogan presented a clearly attainable path to success. If you ate your vitamins, said your prayers and were a “real American,”, things would probably turn out okay, just as they usually did for the Hulkster.
George “The Animal” Steele was a tougher sell. Who wants to grow up to be a bald, alarmingly hairy ogre with a green tongue, three-word vocabulary and a taste for turnbuckles? And so, in a masterstroke of both storytelling and salesmanship, the then-WWF had him fall in love with the lovely Miss Elizabeth, girlfriend of loutish heel Randy “Macho Man” Savage.
I was around 12 years old, and I ate it all up. So did a lot of other people: The Steele/Savage/Elizabeth story line was only supposed to last a few months but became so popular that it was stretched out for more than a year. Because who hasn’t felt like an oaf while watching some jerk get the girl?
Steele, wrestling’s relatable monster, died Thursday night of kidney failure in Florida. He was 79.
Born William James Myers, Steele was a master’s degree-holding high school teacher and football coach when he found professional wrestling in 1967, becoming a villainous foil to the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund but never winning a title. Nevertheless, his crazed antics and green tongue — an accidental addition to his ring get-up after he chewed on a couple of green Clorets breath mints, he said — kept him afloat during the small-time years when pro wrestling was split into regional factions.
That act translated well when wrestling’s popularity exploded on a national scale in the 1980s, and midway through the decade Steele became a good guy after getting abandoned in the ring by partners Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff during a six-man tag-team match against Ricky Steamboat and the U.S. Express. Soon after, he entered into his feud with Savage.
Steele’s ring career mostly ended soon after the Savage feud petered out thanks to knee problems and Crohn’s disease, but he kept in the spotlight with occasional TV appearances and a prominent role in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood,” where he played Tor Johnson, himself a professional wrestler who appeared in some of the B-movie director’s films. In 1995, Steele was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Remembrances poured in from the wrestling community Friday on Twitter.
George"the Animal"Steel,RIP my brother,only love,only grateful. HH
— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) February 17, 2017
God Bless. George "The Animal" Steele. A friend over the years. RIP
— Hacksaw Jim Duggan (@OfficialHacksaw) February 17, 2017
The wrestling world lost one of the best today and I lost a good friend. RIP George"the animal" Steele. My prayers are with his family. pic.twitter.com/2b5ITY5Q7l
— Ted DiBiase (@MDMTedDiBiase) February 17, 2017