M. Alberto Rivera
Article Category: 20 Questions 2 Comments
TWENTY QUESTIONS with: JIM MEYERS, aka GEORGE “THE ANIMAL” STEELE Interview by M. Alberto Rivera You may not recognize him as Jim Myers, the mild-mannered ex-teacher living quietly in Cocoa Beach, but his alter ego, George “The Animal” Steele, can still rattle your cage. Now retired from the unlikely dual career of high school teacher and professional wrestler, Jim Myers has overcome a great many obstacles to be able to reflect calmly on his successes and hardships. While still attending autograph signings, making guest appearances on RAW, and working as a motivational speaker, Jim does his best to enjoy stress-free beachside living with his wife of more than 50 years, Pat. As a child with dyslexia, a then undiagnosed condition, Jim struggled with academics. Not knowing what to do with him, his teachers sent him to the gym, and he became a phenomenal athlete as a result. He lettered 16 times, earning four each in track, basketball, baseball, and football, which eventually helped secure him with a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he managed to earn a Bachelors Degree. He returned to his high school in Madison Heights, Michigan, where he taught physical education and coached football and wrestling. Jim was able to keep his second, more colorful job a secret for most his career, not becoming a full time professional wrestler until the tender age of 50. He’s also acted, having shared the silver screen with Johnny Depp and Bill Murray in Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood.” He endured Crohn’s disease and baffled the doctors with his complete recovery, and has defied fate to make the most of the second chance he says God has given him. How did you get involved in wrestling? Going back to my second year of teaching, in 1961-62 — in that area somewhere — I was making $4,300 a year and I needed a part-time job. I learned that you don’t take a friend to a bar to apply for a job as a bouncer, drink a few beers, and hope to get hired. God was in control — I didn’t get hired. My friend was a huge wrestling fan; I never watched it. Couldn’t have cared less. I called the promoter at 2:30 in the morning… woke him up. He invited me over the next day. I went over, and he took one look at me said, “Beautiful!” I was wondering what this guy was all about. And then he calls me into his office, in his home. I met his mother-in-law, his wife, his kids, and I began to relax a bit. He brings me back into his office — I know nothing about wrestling — and he says, “Take off your shirt.” So I did. He walks around me, sees all the hair on my chest, and says, “Beautiful!” Now my eyes are really rolling around in my head, not understanding anything about wrestling or the look he was going for. Right off the chute, we decided we’d put me under a mask and I’d wrestle as “The Student,” with a cap and gown on, and I’d learn the business. That’s how I started wrestling. I had no interest really. A lot of people are unaware that you spent 25 years teaching. I went back to Madison Heights, Michigan — the same school I attended — planning on staying there two years, and then moving on with my life. I stayed there 25 years. I coached football for 17 years, started a wrestling program, in 1967, from scratch, and in 1969 we won a state championship. It was pretty unique. We had a great wrestling program. I had a lot of fun with football… (We) became a powerhouse in the area. Everybody at this level of wrestling was full-time… total career. Not me. I always looked at a wrestling, until January 1986, as a part-time job. I was a full-time teacher. Totally backwards. Then I start going full-time in a young man’s career at age 50. Whoo… it’s tough. Probably why I got so sick. I think I got Crohn’s from trying to run with the young bulls. Did those two jobs ever collide? This is what people don’t really understand… I might be at Madison Square Garden on Monday night or Saturday, and then I’d have to go back from George Steele to Jim Myers. From 20,000 people at Madison Square garden to coaching football — what a switch that is! It would have been near impossible to make it if it hadn’t been for my wonderful wife. When I’d come home, we’d have to get “George” in the box, psychologically, and get “Jim” out of the box. I’d have to go through this process or I’d go nuts. When I was wrestling, I was running a very fast track. It was tough to slow down like that every week. Again, somehow it worked. I don’t know if anyone normal could have done it. Who developed the George “The Animal” Steele persona? They brought in Bruno San Martino, who was a WWWF champion at the time, to wrestle a show in Detroit. And they spotted me and I was invited to Pittsburgh. They set up a program with Bruno. I go there with my mask and they say, “No, no, no. We don’t want a mask.” I’m teaching and coaching, so I don’t want to use my real name. It’s a different territory, so the television didn’t bother me. I could be any name I wanted. One of the guys said, “This is the Steel City, Pittsburgh. Why not ‘Jim Steel’?” I liked ‘Steel,’ but not ‘Jim.’ Somebody said ‘George Steele.’ That happened (when) I was only 42 years old. That’s where it all started. This is 1967. Anyhow, (for the) first time I’m unmasked on television. I always had a mask on, and now I feel like I’m naked. Part of being a masked man is you do the show with your body because you have no facial expression. So when I took the mask off, I had all this here stuff going on (gestures with his arms)… I didn’t know about facial expressions. It was just a natural fit. And from there, business really shot up for them, so the next summer I was invited to the northeast, to the home of the WWWF, which became the WWF — it’s now the WWE — and they had no idea if I was going to go over or not. You were there when wrestling became a huge business. What was that like? There was Wrestlemania and the Hulk, and all that. It was bigger in the territories, but it wasn’t national. The territories were better for the boys. You could wrestle in one place and once that dried up, you could go wrestle elsewhere. Once we exploded, it got hard for a lot of the talent to stay in the wrestling business because of TV. It’s like a big, chomping monster… Overexposure. Vince (wrestling promoter Vince McMahon) did a great thing… He’s developed a circus atmosphere, where the name of the wrestlers isn’t as important. It’s a huge business now. It’s not the business I came up in. Did you see the movie “The Wrestler”? I sure did. I hated it. Number one: it’s not the business I was in. There’s two types of wrestling business: one is professional wrestling, the other is independent wrestling. They’re totally different. The guys in independent wrestling are not professional wrestlers. They don’t make enough money to survive on. To be a pro, this has to be your income, your livelihood. When friends of mine would go and see “The Wrestler” and think that’s what I was in… that’s not what I did. They show all this garbage of abusing their bodies… I never abused my body. The object of us wrestling, the way I wrestled, was to protect each other form getting hurt. If you hurt somebody, you weren’t very good at your craft. You wanted to make it look like you were hurting someone without hurting them. Now, they’re going out there using the barbed wire and so on, and so on… The WWE started to go in that direction and I quit watching it. I thought it (“The Wrestler”) was an overdone porno flick using wrestling. Totally disrespectful to the business I know. How did your role in Tim Burton’s 1994 film “Ed Wood” come about? Tim Burton was looking for someone to play the role of (Swedish wrestler and B-movie actor) Tor Johnson. He didn’t know if he wanted to go with an actor or a wrestler. My name kept coming up, and he finally called here one day. (He) told me who he was and he asked me how tall I was. He said I was too short… Tor was 6’4″; I was 6’1″. He couldn’t find anyone else, so they made me these shoes for me, to make me taller. I got the part. I didn’t know who Tor was. They told me I looked just like (him). I was flattered until I found out that Tor Johnson was the first actor to do monster movies without makeup. (Laughs) It was a fun thing. I got to meet a lot of wonderful people… Johnny Depp was a wonderful person… Martin Landau was so helpful to me… Bill Murray… all of them. The first day I was going to the set, this was a whole new ballgame… a starring role. When I got there I wasn’t nervous. I felt like I’d been there my whole career. There were a lot of similarities between wrestling and acting. We were out there four months. I said to (wife) Pat, “We’re not going to get caught up in this crap.” I talked to a few agents. They wanted me to move out to LA… Said I would have all the work I could handle… bit parts, character roles… But I loved the lifestyle of Cocoa Beach. I like to kick back here. I didn’t like the lifestyle of LA. It was just too plastic. How did you get involved in motivational speaking? I had a guy call me from the automobile industry and asked me to do that. I said, “I’ve never done anything like this”; he said, “Try it.” I did, it was fun. I don’t do a lot of it. It usually ends up in a Q&A about the learning disability… about the disease. Churches bring me in to talk to youth groups. I don’t charge for that. A few times they have a love offering… I give that all back to the church. How did you choose the Space Coast to retire? The doctors for my Crohn’s disease had recommended I move to the mountains for the tranquility… I was waiting to die, really. With bad knees and bad legs, the mountains didn’t sound too good to me. I always loved the ocean. We moved here expecting another six to seven months to live, really. I had a show in Orlando… One of the guys in the wrestling business, Tony Duria, had a condo here and invited me to come stay. In the morning, I went for a walk and was like, “Wow!” This is when they had the diner down the street (Herbie K’s). I was like, “Wow, wow, wow! You come over the two bridges and it’s like going into utopia.” When were you diagnosed with Crohns disease? I was still wrestling; I was too old to be wrestling. In 1986 I worked 97 straight days — back and forth, coast to coast, all over the place — Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and me. I started feeling really rundown. I thought it was my age. I wasn’t diagnosed with Crohn’s at first. A doctor hooked me up to an IV getting vitamins — nothing illegal, just the best stuff. I called it “jet fuel.” It picked me right up and I was good for a few days and then I’d crash. I told Vince (McMahon) that I needed some time off to recover. I spent 30 days in the hospital… I was fighting for my life. Now I have no symptoms of Crohn’s. It’s gone. The doctor’s can’t explain it. I got my life back. That was God looking out for me again. Let me give you my testimony — I want this in print… After dying twice on the table, I told my wife that we were going church shopping… We’re going to the first Baptist church of Merritt Island… Eliminate them. I was raised a Baptist… When I got real sick, I searched the foundation my parents gave me. I liked the preacher and his message, and a year later, in 2002, we were baptized. Life became a lot better. Now I let God handle it. I thought it was going to be a real struggle… It’s not. Just let it happen. What are you most proud of? My family, my wife, and my walk with the Lord. At this stage in life, what do you enjoy most? Waking up every day. I go to autograph sessions and people ask me if I still wrestle. I say, “Yes”… to get out of bed each day.