Sunday, August 2, 2015

View In Peace: Rowdy Roddy Piper

I had just come out of a hours long training session Friday when I saw the posts on Facebook about Roddy Piper. I honestly couldn't believe it. He was only 61. But the sad history of wrestlers has seen many pass before retirement age due to heart complications most likely brought on by drug use and lifestyle. While guys like The Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart were my favorite wrestlers growing up, Piper was one of my favorite personalities. He transcended the sport that made him so famous, appearing in cult hit They Live and several other solid action flicks. Piper's death made me instantly sad as he seemed like the kind of guy who had been through a lot and wore his heart on his sleeve. When I first subscribed to Netflix a few years ago and found myself alone for a long weekend, I devoured hours upon hours of WWF/WWE documentaries, one of the first being Piper's. In remembrance we sat down for a viewing of They Live to see him in his prime.

Rowdy Roddy was born Roderick George Toombs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada and grew up in Manitoba. A runaway from junior high age, Toombs traveled the country working odd jobs in gyms and for professional wrestlers. Being of Scottish heritage, Piper even played the bagpipes while becoming a Golden Gloves boxing champion and amateur wrestler. Toombs made his professional wrestling debut at age 15 against Larry Henning, being billed as Roddy the Piper. The business would take him to the states working in California, Kansas and Texas where he began crafting his Rowdy persona by insulting local communities and managing villains. By the 80's, Piper was a fan favorite and feuding with the likes of Sgt. Slaughter, Ric Flair and Greg Valentine. In 1984, Piper joined the World Wrestling Federation as a heel and given his own interview segment, Piper's Pit, where he would sometimes insult then attack guests like Jimmy Snuka who got a coconut to the jaw and crashed into the flimsy set. A feud with Hulk Hogan involving singer Cyndi Lauper, Captain Lou Albano and Mr. T. was shown on MTV. 1987's record breaking Wrestlemania III sold out over 93,000 seats, one of them being wrestling fan and Halloween and Escape From New York writer/director John Carpenter. Carpenter was doing low budget movies at Universal and thought Piper would be an excellent lead due to his weathered look and expertise on the mic. WWF owner Vince McMahon was having none of it, thinking that the company was based around himself and superstar Hulk Hogan. McMahon tried to offer Piper a lead in a WWF produced film but the wrestler passed, knowing that a director of Carpenter's skill would not be involved. This lead to McMahon and Hogan holing up in a hotel room for a week and coming up with the not great 1989 flick, No Holds Barred.

While Barred would actually end up grossing more than They Live, it's hardly remembered in the same regard twenty some years later. Piper plays Nada, a drifter from Denver who finds construction work in Los Angeles. While staying at a local shelter, he uncovers the truth that aliens have taken over society and placed subliminal messages on TV, printed money, magazines, etc. Armed with special sunglasses that let him see the messages and the faces of aliens hiding under human masks, Nada teams up with Frank (Keith David) as they battle the 1% alien threat. It's great stuff with some terrific dialog that was half written and half improvised along with shotgun flavored action and a ridiculously awesome alley fight that goes on for 6 minutes. Piper is pitch perfect as the drifter who can't believe what's happening and delivers a broad performance where he can be sad and mad in the same 90 minutes. The $4 million dollar movie would gross $13 million upon release and become a cult classic, prompting special edition DVD's and repertory screenings around the world. Subsequent acting roles in genre fare like Hell Comes to Frogtown and a slew of direct to video films with Billy Blanks would never rival They Live but showed Piper had some real acting chops. 1997's The Bad Pack showed his goofy sense of humor in the low budget Magnificent Seven update opposite Robert Davi and Ralf Moeller while he surprisingly delivered the best performance in 2007's street fighting flick Honor as spiritually wounded policeman and father figure LT Tyrell against Russell Wong.

Piper's outspoken personality and fractured upbringing created an adult who would give you the shirt off his back if asked but resented authority and did not take orders well. This lead to his in and out relationship with McMahon and WWF as Piper spoke out against the company several times and subsequently fired. I recall one interview where Piper claimed he wouldn't make it to retirement age to claim his pension. Sadly, he was right. Rowdy Roddy Piper was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005 and is survived by his wife and four children. Mixed Martial Artist Rhonda Rousey received Piper's blessing to use the Rowdy nickname and dedicated her Saturday night title defense to his honor.

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