What a terrible few weeks for wrestling. Dusty Rhodes dead, Hulk Hogan blackballed, and now Roddy Piper has gone too, dead of cardiac arrest.
Piper, a Canadian pro-wrestler who capitalized on his Scottish heritage to become Hulk Hogan’s arch-nemesis in the mid-’80s, was also the first pro-wrestler to cross over and become a legit movie star, headlining John Carpenter’s They Live, Hell Comes to Frogtown, and numerous low budget action films thereafter.
Roddy Piper would say, when anyone would listen, that he was never playing a character – he was always being real. If so, he was most likely a troubled soul, as he always came off as a man on the brink of madness. So long as he stopped just short of the edge, he maintained a successful career, but every once in a while he’d disappear from the scene. In the recent Legends House reality show, he displayed strong symptoms of PTSD, and mentioned that he had trouble sleeping comfortably, always worrying about potential threats.
I still don’t know if the coconut he smashed over Jimmy Snuka’s head was gimmicked or not. I do know that whatever personal problems he may have had never stopped him from putting on a great match or cutting amazing interviews – his catchphrase, “Just when they think they have all the answers, I change the questions” is an all-time classic, almost on a par with his line in They Live about how he’s come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and he’s all out of bubblegum.
He was implicated in the same steroid trials that pushed Hogan out of the WWF the first time in the early ’90s, though having been in semi-retirement since WrestleMania III anyway, it didn’t harm him as much career-wise. The lethal combination of steroids and other drugs, though, is what so often leads to wrestler heart attacks at early ages, and sadly, a cardiac arrest at 61 is better than most manage. During the Monday Night Wars era, he made a comeback and he and Hogan renewed their ’80s rivalry – together in the ’80s, the two of them made the WWF what it was. Hogan reaped most of the glory, but it was Piper who he faced at the first WrestleMania, with Paul Orndorff and MR. T thrown into the mix for added novelty. It was Piper who was the bad guy in the Rock and Wrestling cartoon show, and it was Piper who was a thorn in every good guy’s side until eventually the fans took notice of how hard he worked and started liking him. When Andre the Giant turned bad, Piper turned good, retiring for a stretch thereafter but returning for a great series of matches against the next big hero, Bret Hart – this time with both of them being cheered.
He never had a movie hit quite as big as They Live again, but in delivering a restrained, more serio-comic lead turn, he paved the way for Hulk Hogan to try the acting thing, and eventually The Rock. WWE Studios today might not exist had John Carpenter not approached Piper at WrestleMania III. Though many of the movies he’s been in since have, to put it mildly, not been so good, Piper never made any bones about the fact that he was doing them to feed his family, and saw no shame in promoting them at horror conventions and anywhere else.
When he was bad, he was a classic heel, never afraid to push audience buttons and -as many Hogan thinkpieces have pointed out – often borderline hateful, as when he claimed he wanted to play the controversial South African resort Sun City in the ’80s, or called MTV “music to vomit by.” When he was good, he was hilarious. I remember him appearing on Bill Maher’s show, and when Maher asked if audiences today were “in on the joke,” Piper responded indignantly by showing off all his surgery scars and asking Maher if he really thought they were a joke. Nowadays, I can interview a guy like Kane and he’ll be charming and polite as he talks about his persona; with Piper, you got the sense that he’d slap the shit out of the interviewer if a question landed wrong.
I enjoyed watching him on an episode of Wife Swap recently with Ric Flair, which went exactly as you’d imagine it would – Flair showed Piper’s family how to leave the house occasionally for a good time, while Piper taught Flair’s family that Dad’s partying shouldn’t take priority over quality time at home. Seeing two guys who used to settle their differences by opening up bloody wounds in their foreheads sharing household tips brought home the realities of time, age, and living the legend.
Piper was apparently about to launch a new soda line. It’s fitting, for a guy who would make himself get shaken up until he exploded everywhere. The man was not just a great wrestler, but a well-above-average entertainer.
This seems fitting:
Oh, and here’s a 30-second short film a friend and I were in a few years back that features a Piper tribute.
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist