Surrounded by bleached blond muscle men, 7-foot giants and crossover celebrities - a short, round New Yorker with scraggly hair and rubber bands dangling from his face became one of the most recognizable stars of the 1980s pro wrestling explosion.
"Captain" Lou Albano, whose career as a wrestler, wrestling manager and pop culture icon spanned six decades, died Wednesday at his home in upstate Carmel. The colorful loudmouth, who starred as Cyndi Lauper's father in the music video for "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," was 76. He died of natural causes.
"In our wrestling business, there are very few people who have that special charm. Captain was one of them," said Jim Myers, who, as wrestler George "The Animal" Steele, was managed for years by Albano. "He was just a natural cartoon character."
Born July 29, 1933, Albano briefly played football for the University of Tennessee before entering the pro wrestling business in the 1950s. With Tony Altimore, Albano created a villainous tag team known as "The Sicilians" in Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation - now World Wrestling Entertainment.
But it was standing at ringside that Albano made his biggest mark in wrestling. As the mouthpiece for some of wrestling's most ruthless villains, including "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff and the Wild Samoans, Albano discovered his gift - talking trash.
"He was the best at what he did," said Bruno Sammartino, who headlined numerous sold-out arenas against Albano and his charges. "Every time I wrestled him, I guarantee you the arena was packed, because the fans would come to see me beat the heck out of him."
In the 1980s, Albano made the transition from one of wrestling's most reviled characters to one of its most beloved. As Vince McMahon Jr. took his wrestling company national, Albano's colorful persona was a good fit alongside some of the other flamboyant personalities that filled his TV shows.
"He'd put [safety] pins on his face and on his nose the rubber bands. He dressed weird and had the long beard," said WWE Hall of Famer "The Unpredictable" Johnny Rodz, who traveled with Albano for several years. "That was the way he presented himself to draw the attention of the crowd."
Albano's working relationship with Lauper helped open the door to other celebrity tie-ins, and helped make the first WrestleMania event in 1985 a big success.
All the while, Albano's gift of gab, which included peppering sentences with absurdly long - and inaccurate - medical terms and disastrous attempts at foreign languages, drew attention from other media. He landed roles in films including Brian DePalma's "Wise Guys" and starred as Super Mario in the syndicated "The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!"
"The Captain Lou you saw on TV was the same Captain Lou that existed in real life," said Stu Saks, publisher of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. "He was always on."
Albano was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996. He made semiregular appearances at wrestling events and conventions until falling ill with various health complications in recent months.
Survivors include his wife, Geri, four children and 14 grandchildren.