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Be sure to check out George's official website at GeorgeSteele.com and The Animal House message board.
This interview was conducted via e-mail February 3, 2005.
When were you first introduced to professional wrestling as a fan?
I was looking for a part-time job and a friend of mine talked me into calling Burt Ruby, the Michigan wrestling promoter in 1962. I was never a fan of wrestling. The first live event that I ever attended, I was a participant.
Before becoming a wrestler, you were a teacher. What grades and subjects did you teach?
I was a first year Jr. High School Physical Education instructor and coached football and track in 1961 and 1962. In 1963, I became the Madison Heights High School Physical Education instructor and coached football, track, and started the wrestling program in 1966. In 1969, we won the wrestling state championship.
I became the head football coach at Madison in 1973. I taught and coached at Madison HS for twenty five years. Wrestling was my part-time job.
If I’m not mistaken, you were initially trained by Detroit promoter Burt Ruby. What led to you seeking to become a professional wrestler?
I had blown my knees playing football. In 1962, I was earning $4,300 a year teaching. I had two children and a third one on the way. I needed money.
Prior to working for Vince McMahon Sr., you spent considerable time in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Can you tell me a little about that time in your life, your most memorable bouts, and your general feeling about those early years in the sport?
Because I was teaching in the area, I started wrestling in Michigan as the Student, wearing a mask. I teamed up with Gary Hart as my manager. We were immediately wrestling on top in most all of the main events. The venues were most often sold out. When the Sheik bought the right to promote Detroit, the Student worked for the Sheik and Burt Ruby.
Bruno and his entourage spotted the Student on the Cobo Arena show, February 19th, 1966, and I was invited to Pittsburgh to wrestle on Channel 11 Studio Wrestling, hosted by Bill Cardell. I was prepared to wrestle as the Student but Ace Freeman told me that they did not want me to wear a mask. I did not want to use my real name. “Jumping” Johnny DeFazio suggested that Pittsburgh was the Steel City so why not call me Jim Steele. I did not like Jim and someone suggested George Steele and I liked it.
Later on, the best creative team – the fans – started calling me the Animal.
What inspired you to create the Animal character and all the character traits that came with it, ex: biting open the turnbuckle pads? Did it come easy for you or was it a constant work in progress?
Things just happened. Remember, I went back to teaching after each summer. I did not want to become redundant so I made little adjustments along the way.
Under what circumstances did you begin working for the WWWF?
Bruno Sammartino and George Steele had packed the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in 1967. The Northeast was down and was in need of a new heel that could draw some money.
Bruno gave me a call and invited me to meet with Bruno and Mr. McMahon at the Franklin Park Hotel in Washington DC.
What was your first impression of Vince McMahon Sr.?
I really respected and liked Mr. McMahon. Our business was done with handshakes.
Upon arriving to the WWWF, you were immediately pitted against then-heavyweight champion Bruno Sammartino. What are your thoughts of Bruno as an in-ring talent and how would you rate him as an opponent?
I loved working with Bruno. I truly believe that Bruno Sammartino was the greatest wrestling champion of all time. Both Bruno Sammartino and George Steele liked working hard and stiff. I know that we gave the fans their money’s worth.
I believe your schedule in the WWWF was a unique one in that, for many years, you often only worked the spring and summer months before going back to teach full-time. While so many other wrestlers worked a year long schedule, what gave you the idea to make wrestling only a part-time job?
Remember, I was looking for a part-time job when I started wrestling professionally. I loved being with my family. I love teaching and coaching. I learned to love wrestling professionally. Why should I have to give up either one? I am in both the WWE Hall of Fame and the state of Michigan Coaches Hall of Fame. I am looking forward to being inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame May 21st, 2005 (www.PWHF.org).
In an era in which face vs. face and heel vs. heel matches were rarely done, George 'the Animal' Steele had a brief feud with Killer Kowalski toward the tail end of the 1960s. Can you tell me a little about that situation and what did you think of working a program against a wrestler as hated as you were? How did the fans react?
Walter is a real wrestling legend. George Steele and Walter “Killer” Kowalski worked together as a successful tag team against the teams of Bruno Sammartino & Antonio Pugliese, also Haystacks Calhoun & Victor Rivera, and others. George Steele & Killer Kowalski vs. Haystacks Calhoun & Victor Rivera wrestled in the Boston Garden – September 13, 1969. George Steele took Victor Rivera to the corner and Walter “Killer” Kowalski went to the top rope. As Walter “Killer” Kowalski jumped to give Victor Rivera a double axe handle, Victor moved and that stupid Walter “Killer” Kowalski hit George Steele with the double axe handle and all hell broke loose.
The next Boston Garden show was October 4, 1969 and George Steele was booked to wrestle Walter “Killer” Kowalski. It was unbelievable. The Killer went out first and the Boston fans went wild, cheering Walter “Killer” Kowalski. It was like a Bruno Sammartino entrance. When George Steele came out, the fans went crazy. The heat was there. This match turned into a war. We fought in the ring, out of the ring, through the crowd, all the way up to the balcony. Killer Kowalski vs. George Steele returned to the Boston Garden November 1, 1969 to settle their differences in a steel cage match.
With the onset of the 1970s came a new wave of top talent. Pedro Morales, Superstar Billy Graham, and Bob Backlund held the heavyweight crown. Names like Tony Garea, the Valiants, and Ivan Putski arrived on the scene. How would you compare the earlier version of the WWWF to this era? What were some of the differences in your eyes?
There were major changes taking place with more talent on hand. The cards were bigger and the matches were shorter. There were more good matches. In the earlier days, we had one main event that really drew the money and put in the time. Now it was more spread out amongst the talent.
Gary Michael Cappetta mentioned in his book, Bodyslams!, that he was often legitimately nervous to ring announce a match involving the Animal because he never knew if or when he would be attacked or chased around the ring. Is it a safe bet to say that if the ring announcer thinks you are capable of anything at any moment, the fans will believe it as well?
I never talked to Gary Cappetta because the first day that we worked together, he pissed me off. He came up to me with a bit of an attitude, “Where should I say you are from and how much should I say you weigh?” I screamed at Gary and chased him out of the locker room.
Freddie Blassie, Mr. Fuji, the Grand Wizard, and Capt. Lou Albano all served as your manager during your stay in the WWF. In your opinion, what is the role of the wrestling manager and why do you think the number of managers has decreased in recent years?
They were window dressing. The managers were handy if a talent could not make TV. I think, in most cases, the managers often distracted from the heat.
How would you compare Vince McMahon Jr. to his father? In your eyes, what are the similarities and differences?
They were both very classy men. I really don’t think that I can compare the two men. They run very different businesses. I developed my George “The Animal” Steele character myself, except for the can’t-talk part. That was Vinnie’s idea and I hated it. I did make it work but it was not easy.
The last time that I saw Mr. McMahon (Sr.) was at MSG. We had a conversation that brought tears to both of our eyes. I was getting older and Mr. McMahon told me that it was time to shake hands and move on. He told me that I should not hang around and become just another old wrestler. I agreed and we said our goodbyes. Mr. McMahon died the following spring.
After nearly a two decade relationship with the WWF, George 'the Animal' Steele turned babyface during the very first Saturday Night's Main Event. Whose idea was that and what were your initial thoughts about making that change to your character?
George Scott was the new booker for Vinnie. He called with this crazy idea. I thought they were all nuts. I never thought that I could be a babyface. I did not think it would work. I saw how the business was changing. I knew that it would be a cartoon. Vinnie was selling cartoon characters.
For nearly 2 straight years, you worked against Randy 'Macho Man' Savage. Ricky Steamboat has said on more than one occasion that Savage liked to plan every detail of the match well before the bell rang. Was that also the case from your experience? What did you think of those bouts as an overall?
When I had my first match with the Macho Man, he brought this written match that he had scripted. I read each page and wrinkled up each page and threw it in the garbage, then said, “Listen to me, kid, and we will have a great match.”
Times were changing. I was old school and Randy was the new breed. It was not easy but we made it work my way. Randy was very jealous of Miss Elizabeth and I used that. It was kind of déjà vu, like Gary Cappetta, and it worked.
You were a key player for both WrestleMania II and III. At that point in your career, what did participating at WrestleMania mean to you?
I recognized it as a new business. I realized the art of wrestling was becoming a lost art. That was too bad, so sad.
Many people are curious about your involvement in the WrestleMania IV battle royal. You were listed as a participant and you were at ringside but you never actually entered the ring. Can you shed some light on that situation?
It was raining and the building was leaking badly. I slipped and twisted my knee. Vinnie wanted me to get in the ring and get eliminated early by going over the top rope. I chose not to get in the ring. Vinnie was kind of surprised but eliminated the men I was supposed to and left the arena. I know he was a little hot but that is OK. It was the right business decision. People still ask about that.
How was 'Mine' created?
Vinnie asked me to design a stuffed animal.
In June of 1995, you were inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame, alongside the Fabulous Moolah, Pedro Morales, Ivan Putski, Antonino Rocca, the Grand Wizard, and Ernie Ladd. Can you tell me a little about that evening and what it was like to have the company recognize you for all your accomplishments and contributions?
That was great but I realized it was just for show and not the real deal.
Vinnie does everything with real class. He had the company bring in my family for the event and that was really nice of him.
What led to your brief return to the WWF in 1998-99 as a member of the Oddities?
That was more of a rib and did not have much effect on anything.
In all your years in the sport, who was your favorite opponent? The one person you could never get tired of wrestling.
This is a no-brainer. Bruno Sammartino, without question.
If you can, please give a one-word response to each of these names. The first word that comes to mind.
- Bruno Sammartino: Disappointment
- Killer Kowalski: Classic
- Vince McMahon Sr.: Class
- Bob Backlund: Condition
- Pedro Morales: Happy
- Randy Savage: New breed
- Miss Elizabeth: Sad ending
- Vince McMahon Jr.: Innovator
- George Steele: Brawler
Since leaving professional wrestling, what have you been up to?
There is so much going on that I really don’t know where to start. It is all on my website, check it out (www.GeorgeSteele.com). My relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is most important to me.
I appreciate your time and willingness to allow me to conduct this interview. Thank you very much.
I really enjoy this website. You have a ton of great information here.