George "The Animal" Steele, Popular Pro Wrestler, Dies at 79

Courtesy of WWE
George "The Animal" Steele

The bald, green-tongued grappler went from villain to good guy in the ring and appeared in the Tim Burton film 'Ed Wood.'

George “The Animal” Steele, the pro wrestler who went from notorious villain to good guy during the course of his two decades in the ring, has died, according to a statement from World Wrestling Entertainment. He was 79.

No details of his death were immediately available.

A WWE Hall of Famer whose real name was William James Myers, Steele was a native of Detroit and known for his bald head, hairy body, green tongue (from eating Clorets before his matches) and love of chewing on turnbuckles.

In Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1997), he played real-life Swedish wrestler and actor Johnson, and he had top billing in a movie released three years later, the low-budget Blowfish.

Steele’s first WWE appearance took place in 1967, when he kicked off a fierce rivalry with WWE champion Bruno Sammartino. He played the heel for the next two decades before turning nice under manager Capt. Lou Albano, and in 1987, he battled Randy "Macho Man" Savage to win the affections of Miss Elizabeth.

"I loved the people hating me," he told James Tehrani in a 2014 interview. "That was what I was all about. It just was a great fit for me. Later on in the '80s, '84 I think it was, I changed my character to a lovable cartoon-type thing. I hated that, but it was better money at the time because we weren’t selling wrestling anymore, we were selling lunch buckets and action figures, T-shirts, so it was better off to be loved a little bit than it was to be hated."

Steele, who fought at nearly 300 pounds, never won a WWE championship but came close many times.

On Twitter, wrestler Jake "The Snake" Roberts wrote: "Wrestled George Steele several times. He threw a horrible looking punch that hurt a lot. May he rest in peace!!!!"

Before he became a wrestler, Steele received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State and a master's from Central Michigan University, then taught wrestling and football at Madison High School in Madison Heights, Mich.

He settled down in Florida and revealed in the 2013 autobiography Animal that he battled Crohn’s disease later in life.