George “The Animal” Steele was recently at a Mahoning Valley Scrappers game. There was a laser hair removal promotion on the same night in which Steele picked the fan with the hairiest back to receive a free treatment. For years, Steele was the ultimate WWF (WWE) heel. He struck fear into some fans and amused others with his antics. Eating corner turnbuckles, flashing his green tongue, losing focus during matches, and being the uncontrollable x-factor with the white-taped foreign object, made Steele so much fun to watch. I was lucky enough to have a few minutes with The Animal.
Paneech: I want to get your views on today’s professional wrestling as compared to 40 years ago. What difference have you noticed and do you still watch?
Steele: It has changed drastically and is a totally different business now. I don’t watch wrestling anymore. I got my faith in 2002, I was very, very sick and was given only six months to live. When I made it through that, Vince [McMahon] wanted me to sign a Legends contract, but I chose not to sign as a tribute to my new-found faith. At that time they were using angles involving fornication in a coffin, gay marriage, and all kinds of stuff that didn’t cater to my new lifestyle. So I chose not to get involved and if I watched, I felt as though I was condoning it.
Paneech: Do you keep in touch with any other pro wrestlers or have you eliminated all contact?
Steele: I am on the board of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. The web address is PWHF.org and it is not just an internet site, we have a building that is three stories. The guys that are in wrestling today will sometime be going into that Hall of Fame.
Paneech: How did the whole “Animal” persona evolve?
Steele: I got that name, George Steele, when I was wrestling out of the Pittsburgh promotion. I was a school teacher making $4300.00 a year. I started wrestling in the Detroit area as a masked man called, “The Student”. Bruno [Sammartino] came to Detroit with an entourage and they spotted me. I took my cap, gown, and mask to Pittsburgh, but they decided that they did not want a masked man, they wanted me. I knew I couldn’t use my real name, Jim Myers, because of teaching and coaching. Johnny DeFazio said this is Pittsburgh, the steel city, but I didn’t like Jim Steele, so we went with George. They wanted me to quit teaching and coaching to wrestle full time, but I loved what I did, so the wrestling stayed a part time venture for me.
Paneech: For years, you didn’t speak, then Capain Lou Albano takes you to Dr. Rodney Papoofnick’s office to get you some electric treatments that will miraculously have you articulating.
Steele: How Now Brown Cow.
Paneech: Exactly, that is what you said. Then Albano tried to convince the doctor to give you more juice to say more and it was too much and you relapsed.
Steele: Before that era, I actually did all of my own interviews. When I was assigned a manager, I would not talk. Because I was not there very long due to teaching and coaching, the manager would fill spots talking about me, but that whole thing with How Now Brown Cow was my own adaptation of what Vince originally wanted. Vince gave me a poem to memorize, it was about a page-and-a-half, and I’m dyslexic, so c’mon give me a break. When the time came to recite this poem verbatim, I said “screw him” and just said How Now Brown Cow. I always did everything my own way. If you watch Vince’s reaction during that segment, he was wondering what I was doing. If I would have read that long poem, no one would have remembered and it would have been garbage. I still have people come up to me randomly and say How Now Brown Cow.
Paneech: You went from a notorious heel for years to this endearing lovestruck being with the whole Macho Man / Miss Elizabeth angle in which you were drawn in to Savage’s valet. How did that angle work?
Steele: I didn’t become a face, I became a cartoon character. I went from being one of the most viscious heels in the industry to a cartoon character. Me, Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo were involved in a match at Madison Square Garden during my cartoon character era. We were fighting Big John Studd, Bobby Heenan, and I think Mr. Wonderful [Paul Orndorff] and nobody knew how to get out of the match to end it because nobody wanted to lose. so I said “I’ll get us out of it”. I cleared the ring with a steel chair and ended up hitting the ref with the chair and getting disqualified, so nobody lost anything.
Paneech: Who was a wrestler you really liked to work with, and conversely who did you not like working with?
Steele: I really enjoyed my matches with Bruno Sammartino, they were bigtime hardcore. Later on, I had my feud with Randy Savage, which was very lucrative. That feud lasted three years and had a long run, he was very jealous. People would ask me if I was in love with Miss Elizabeth, and I would just laugh and say no, I have been married to my wife for 55 years, and she [Elizabeth] doesn’t do windows. I never had anyone I didn’t like to work with until they started throwing people who didn’t belong in the sport into matches with me. At a television taping, I faced one such opponent and over the span of four minutes, I threw him out of the ring 17 times. He couldn’t lace his boots and did not belong in a ring, so I got my point across.
Paneech: Today’s wrestlers sometimes whine about working 320 days a year. Is this a realistic number?
Steele: No, absolutely not, they work about 150-200 days a year. Two days out of the week, they do television shows, one live and one taped. I was an agent with WWE for ten years after I retired, so i was pretty familiar with the schedule. I once wrestled 97 straight days. Many days in a row, I bounced back and forth between the East Coast and the West Coast, just back and forth every day, that was a tough span.
Paneech: There was a rock band called Kiss that was huge in the seventies. The deal with them was that you could not see them without their makeup. When you were in public, did you stay in character, or were you a free talking person?
Steele: I was 6’2″ and weighd 290 pounds, pretty imposing. People would come up to me and I would just look at them (pauses) and they would leave.
Paneech: Do you resent Vince McMahon for the direction he has taken the sport?
Steele: No, I don’t. Vince did what he had to do. Verne Gagne’s AWA promotion in Minnesota and Canada was moving Southeast fast. The NWA was gaining major television exposure on TBS and moving North, everything was moving toward Vince. He came up with Wrestlemania as a way to prove he was smarter than the rest of these guys and it caught. I was closer with his father, Vince McMahon Sr., than I was with Vince, although I did watch Vince grow up and aided in his nurturing. I don’t agree with everything he does, but he is definitely very good with business and marketing, and has succeeded.
Steele came off as very articulate and cordial. He took pictures with anyone who asked, but the highlight of the night came between the fifth and sixth innings of the Scrappers game. Steele was on field with Heather Sahli’s hard working promotional team and he clotheslined Scrappy, the oversized mascot. He then encouraged one of the kids on the field to pin the mascot (and hook the leg), and in typical George Steele fashion, started to walk back to the exit, turned and looked at the laid out mascot and ran back to deliver a patended George Steele kick to the head. The audience loved it and he really seemed to enjoy himself. Very classy individual, but obviously, a great performer who had so many people fooled about who he really was all those years.