For any wrestling fan watching in the ‘80s, the name of George “The Animal” Steele evokes a specific image: a bald man with enough body hair to look like a coat chewing turnbuckles until the foam contents would spill out, his green tongue lolling around outside his mouth. Steele was one of wrestling’s simpletons, the old trope of the half-savage, half-stupid man directed by smarter, more evil men to acts of destruction.
The punchline was that Steele wasn’t stupid. He had a Master’s degree and was a high school teacher. And as for the savagery, he was always spoken of in glowing terms as a gentle, humble man in a business which has always had too few of that type.
He was an old-timer, a foil for Bruno Sammartino in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Every hero needs a villain, and Steele’s odd look and willingness to play the part of the wild man made him perfect for the role. He was a serious wrestler for serious times, the inherently comical lengths his kind face would have to go to in order to illicit fear muffled by the fact that these were men with trunks, tights and gimmicks that mostly boiled down to “fight a bunch.”
For all that he was an integral part of Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF, it’s hard to imagine the warm memories in the wake of his death without his late-career 1980s resurgence. Steele ended up with a long run as a lovable babyface, the simpleton gimmick turned from easily manipulated evil to beatific innocence. He was a good guy because he was blank, a Before the Fall story of wrestler before original sin. He hated mean people more than anything, and nobody was meaner in 1986—the year of his most memorable modern feud—than Randy Savage.
The story was as simple as it was effective: Steele saw the way Savage treated his valet, Miss Elizabeth, and didn’t like it. Savage didn’t treat Elizabeth as a partner, but as property, a well-worked angle over the decades hinting at the darkness underlying an unfortunate amount of domesticity. Steele’s concern bloomed into a crush, and suddenly the two men were openly fighting over Elizabeth. It culminated in a 1987 match “for” Elizabeth—we’ll set aside the implications that releasing a woman from captivity by winning a battle “for” her is absurd.
The feud was magic and Steele became truly beloved. Speaking personally, he was one of the few things in WWF at the time which could pull me away from the NWA, ensconced as I was in Jim Crockett’s fiefdom. Not least, the oddity of it was so magnetic, this 50 year old man with a look completely out of step with the times working a high profile angle and picking up popularity each time out.
Steele retired in 1988 due to his Crohn’s disease, returning only rarely for a special appearance. He had a well-regarded turn as Tor Johnson in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s movie about the infamous director; the real-life Johnson also did a stint as a professional wrestler, and the two men bore an eerie resemblance to one another.
Steele was 79 when he died, a fact which is not irrelevant to his story. So many men and women who came through the gauntlet of 1980s pro wrestling died young, or lived with scars. Steele seemed for all the world to have done well for himself, with a happy life and, despite health problems, a good, long retirement. Most of us couldn’t ask for more, in-ring or out.
Ian Williams has written for Vice, Salon, The Guardian and more.