Whether you’re a fan of professional wrestling or not, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
In the 1980s, the kilt-wearing Scot took popular culture by storm alongside Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the rest of Vince McMahon’s larger than life World Wrestling Federation (WWF) superstars. As both a hero and villain, the charismatic Piper became a household name, amassed dozens of championships (in multiple organizations) and ultimately became one of the business’ most revered icons.
However, Piper’s fame and notoriety is not confined within the ropes of the squared-circle. The “Hot Rod” is also an accomplished actor, and most notably starred in John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi classic “They Live.”
The film, which will be celebrated during a 25th anniversary screening at Philadelphia’s Awesome Fest, stars Piper as Nada, a mysterious loner who arrives in Los Angeles and discovers sunglasses that reveal a portion of Earth’s inhabitants to be aliens in disguise. What’s worse, the aliens have hidden subliminal messages in our billboards, TV shows, magazines – even money – that help manifest a greedy, materialistic, obedient society.
I recently spoke to the “Rowdy One” himself, and asked him about his legendary wrestling career, brawling on the big screen, aliens among us and his iconic catchphrase: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick a**. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
David Onda: Did you ever expect to attend a 25th anniversary screening of “They Live”?
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper: No. This movie just keeps growing and growing. I saw [costar] Keith David, maybe, a week and a half ago, and we were just talking about – this movie keeps getting bigger instead of going away. It seems like new generations keep catching on to it.
Onda: Do you ever encounter people who know you just from this movie and not from pro-wrestling?
Piper: I do now, yes. Actually, there was a couple that didn’t know I wrestled at all and just knew me from the movies. Not many, but it’s growing, you know, because I’ve stopped wrestling.
Onda: “They Live” seems to have just as much relevance today as it did in 1988 – a country in peril, big brother is watching, hackers abound. It still resonates.
Piper: You know, when we did it, it was about Reaganomics, but it was also a political statement [about] where our society is headed. Right now, what they’re trying to do in society is get rid of all cash money so you just have a chip and everything is on your chip. Well, that’s full control. If you go on an airplane right now, they won’t take cash anymore. They actually say, “We’re a cashless airplane.” Wait a second? You won’t take cash? That’s “OBEY. THIS IS YOUR GOD.” I think this movie is a statement of “keep our freedom,” and I believe everybody gets that from it no matter what generation.
Onda: Is it true you were cast in this movie after meeting John Carpenter at Wrestlemania III?
Piper: [laughs] The guy who was managing me at the time, Dave Wolfe, said, “I want you have dinner with this guy.” I never heard of him, but that’s my bad, you know? ’Cause I had been fighting pro since I was 15, I was rolling pretty hard. And he said, “Ok, after [Wrestlemania is] over, after it’s over.” So we sat down and, I’m trying not to be too facetious, but it was pretty close to this – “Could you pass me the butter? You want a roll? Yeah. Want to star in my next movie? Sure. Can I have some more champagne? Sure.” It wasn’t much more than that, really.
Onda: As a wrestler who was constantly on the road, was it easy to relate to the nomadic Nada character?
Piper: Yes. I had literally quit my profession on top, and spent hours with John. And the character, Nada – the important part about him was that you didn’t know anything about him. So he designed it after myself, because nobody knows anything about me before I was 15. Even the book I wrote, I started it at 15. Nada had a wedding ring on. And he walked into town. You didn’t know where he came from, you didn’t know where he was going, you really didn’t know why he was there, you didn’t know if he was running away or running to, and that made him almost the consummate American.
Onda: You were obviously very familiar with performing and playing a character in the ring, but was there anything about performing in a movie that caught you off-guard?
Piper: You know, this is what caught me off-guard. I learned the hard way. When I left wrestling, they were very angry at me, like I was abandoning wrestling, because I was a main draw. When I went to Hollywood and the movies, they were very angry at me. “Oh, great, another jock thinks he’s gonna act.” So, I went to acting class and took it real serious. And I learned this – wrestling and acting are two almost opposite arts. One is explosion, the other is implosion. And it’s actually very hard for us. If I’m fighting in Madison Square Garden, the 30th row has to see me. If I did that on a huge screen, you’d walk out of the theater. It was very difficult to come around, but once you catch on, it’s great.
Onda: Your fight scene with Keith David is epic, and still regarded as one of the best fight scenes in film. Did you have a hand in choreographing any of that?
Piper: Jeff Imada was the stunt coordinator, and he’s gone on to coordinate a lot of good fights and he’s a great guy, but the fight, basically, was almost just kind of a Roddy Piper street fight with Roddy Piper wrestling moves in it. I heard, now, that when they go to theater, they shout out the moves – “suplex!” – which is very cool. John Carpenter asked me to watch “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, and at that time, that was the longest fight scene in cinema history. But that was a fight scene between two enemies. John wanted the longest fight scene in cinema history between two friends. That’s what made this one, not only more difficult, but it had to match the arc of the script. And where it does that is where I swung a two-by-four at him and missed and took out a window, and then realized I’d almost severely hurt my friend. And he gets mad and he busts a wine bottle and comes after me, but ends up cutting his own hand. And that makes me laugh and makes him madder and then he dives and we go over the car. So, those beats in it were very important because it showed, even during the fight, that these guys kind of cared for each other. I think it’s still the longest fight in cinema history.
Onda: Now 25 years later – given the choice between kicking a** and simply buying more bubble gum, which would you do?
Piper: Haaa. There’s some weekends I’d like to be out of bubble gum. Sometimes with McMahon. [laughs] But I try to keep plenty of bubble gum in stock, because I’ve got four of the most beautiful children in the world, I’ve been married 30 years, and I’m not such a hot shot there. I prefer bubble gum.
Onda: Did you really ad-lib that line?
Piper: Yeah. I couldn’t tell you what it really means either. It was one of those – “Roddy, you’ve got bullets on you, you’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got sunglasses, you go into a bank, you’re not gonna rob it, say something … action!” I’m all out of bubblegum. Lunch! That was it. No more than that. I know, it’s crazy.
Onda: Do you believe in any paranormal beings walking among us, like the aliens in “They Live”?
Piper: I’m not so closed-minded as to think we’re just here by ourselves. For any man to think that we’re just here alone would be short-minded. Just my opinion. But I do believe they walk amongst us, yes sir.
Onda: Did you save a pair of your alien-spotting sunglasses from the movie?
Piper: Yes! [laughs] I did. I’ll tell you a secret. When John did “Big Trouble in Little China” with Kurt Russell, there’s a scene with the 18-wheeler … if you look at those glasses, they had a whole bunch of those glasses left over. That’s the glasses we used in “They Live.” And, yes, I have a couple of pair of the original glasses.
Onda: Many people have nightmares about their job. Do wrestlers have occupational nightmares, and what do they dream about?
Piper: Depending on what stage of wrestling you’re at – if you’re at the stage where you’re still drinking a case of beer at night, you’re probably not dreaming about anything. I’ll tell you one thing that will bother a wrestler. This is back in the day. If it was tonight and I knew tomorrow I had to wrestle somebody with a 60-minute time-limit and it was gonna go a long time, that’s the kinds of thing we dream of. Those are very scary statements to professional wrestlers – “You’re gonna have to go 60 minutes tonight.” They don’t really do it anymore. Sometimes, like, the coconut incident – I tossed and turned about that a little bit. When I got stabbed, I tossed and turned about that a little bit. But, no, not too much. You’re going so hard. In real time, you’re all over the world and you’re just so happy to get some sleep.
Onda: What was the moment in your pro-wrestling career when you knew you had made it?
Piper: Wrestlemania III. Wrestlemania III was 93,000 people in the Pontiac Silverdome. They had a cart on wheels, a little ring, to take us to the real ring. When it came back, I was behind the curtain and McMahon was there and, I don’t know, the cart wasn’t working or they were fixing something. McMahon was trying to hold me back and I just bolted. When I ran down there, holy cow, you couldn’t hear yourself. I got in the ring and I can remember Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura at ringside saying, “I can’t hear you.” They stood and gave me an ovation that I’ll never forget and always be grateful for.
See “Rowdy” Roddy Piper host a Philadelphia Awesome Fest screening of “They Live” at The Trocadero Theatre on July 21, starting at 8 p.m. The screening will be followed by a special Q & A.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.