My first thought upon finding out that ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper had died at 61 was that the entertainment world wouldn’t allow for his like today. But thinking further, I’m not sure that the entertainment world had ever wanted a legitimate loose cannon in it’s midst. And yet, Roddy Piper endured. Roddy Piper was. That’s what I take away most from the life of the star of They Live, and one of the greatest villains of the 20th century: Piper refused to not be.
“I don’t need to know how tough I am to know how tough I am.”
Pro wrestling has alway been about absurd, larger than life characters, and yet Piper loomed over all of them just by being himself. The WWF built their brand around number 1 mega hero Hulk Hogan, and his friendships with MTV stars like Cyndi Lauper and the one and only Mr. T. But the trope of a hero only being as good as his villain was never more true: There would have been no Wrestlemania without the psychotic frenzy of of Roddy Piper, no Hulkamania without a man as endlessly fun to hate as the Rowdy One.
Piper was never the World Champion, and never given the ball as the face of the company like Hogan or the ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. The truth is that he didn’t need it. Piper never needed the accolades or recognitions of championships. He was beyond them. Whether smashing a coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head or bodyslamming Mr. T in a boxing match, Rowdy Roddy Piper was and is the pinnacle of what pro wrestling is supposed to be.
“Just when they think they know all the answers, I change the questions!”
Piper is probably one of the greatest cult stars of all time, which is insane, remembering that he was the lead in only two films: Hell Comes To Frogtown and John Carpenter’s They Live, in which Piper played a drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal the dark truth about our world’s 1 percent.
As a major Jack Burton fan, it’s tough to say that They Live is Carpenter’s best film, but it’s the truth. The movie is still uncomfortably relevant, and has one of the greatest fight scenes ever put to film. It of course birthed what is arguably one of the most quoted movie lines of all time: “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” It’s a line that Piper improvised, which should come as no surprise if you’ve ever heard him speak for more than 30 seconds. And if you haven’t, you owe yourself some Piper time on youtube. Every word he’s ever said was brilliant.
“You don’t throw rocks at a man with a machine gun.”
I don’t think that the world ever really knew quite what to do with Roddy Piper. He could tell your story, but he’d follow his own script. He’d sell out arenas, and then he’d cause a riot. A heel with too much soul to be a villain. A fighter filled with too much darkness to be a hero. Piper was Walter White, The Joker, and Tyler Durden. But he was also Doc Holiday and Martin Riggs.
He was one of the most charismatic and complex characters ever put to screen, but it wasn’t a character. It was him: pure chaos in a kilt. What you saw was what you got, and Roddy Piper had so much more to give.