Wrestling great became cult icon in 'They Live'

Wrestlers don’t become actors. Wrestlers are actors. Sometimes, Hollywood notices. Hollywood noticed Roddy Piper. Body Slam, 1987: A fish-out-of-water comedy about a music promoter in the world of wrestling, with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as “Quick” Rick Roberts. Hell Comes to Frogtown, also 1987: Piper plays a post-apocalyptic drifter rescuing a tribe of beautiful women kidnapped into sex slavery by mutant frogs. You read all of that right. Piper’s name in the movie? “Sam Hell.”

Piper, who died Thursday at the age of 61, never really stopped acting. His IMDB page overflows with titles you kind of remember, maybe from some long-ago video store, maybe from when they used to print out the TV guide in the newspaper you used to subscribe to. Back in Action and Immortal Combat, No Contest and Jungleground, Terminal Rush and Dead Tides. To be a famous wrestler is to be a cult figure, so there were equal parts gleeful self-satire and raw authenticity when Piper showed up in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, playing a demented wrestler named “Da’Maniac.”

In an interview, Piper said Da’Maniac was a comical riff on Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s ode to the squared circle. Maybe Piper’s spoof was so funny because he understood all too well the character’s bleak reality — Aronofsky claimed that Piper showed up to a screening of The Wrestler, loved it, and wound up crying into Mickey Rourke’s arms.

Piper was already a legend long before his untimely death. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say: As a wrestler, he was a legend. And as an actor, he worked a lot — and, once upon a time, he became some kind of legend. They Live, 1988. John Carpenter wanted to make a sci-fi horror action satire, an R-rated blood romp about consumerism and class warfare and media brainwashing and aliens camouflaged as humans. Carpenter went to WrestleMania III, met Piper, knew that he had found his star.

They Live is best described as a brutally serious farce, a Marx Brothers comedy approved by Karl Marx. Piper plays a man who doesn’t quite have a name. (In the end-credits he’s “Nada,” as in “Nothing.”) He’s a drifter living on the fringes, watching the cops destroy a homeless village. He finds some groovy sunglasses, which reveal that there are aliens among us, pummeling humanity into submission with stealth-attack media and totalitarian conformity.

At one point, Piper finds his way into a bank. He’s got a shotgun. He see some aliens. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he says. “And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Carpenter always credited Piper with ad-libbing that line, which plays in the moment like both a shining example of ’80s beefcake badassery and a lacerating parody of the same. (A version of that line popped up in Duke Nukem.) And that’s not even Piper’s best moment in the movie. Later, in an alley, he meets up with his pal Keith David. Piper wants David to put on the sunglasses; David refuses. They fight, and fight, and fight and fight and fight.

There is so much inexplicable wonder in this scene, which took weeks of rehearsal. It’s realistic but cartoony, funny but occasionally genuinely freaky. You can never tell how serious the fighters are, and you start to wonder if they’re just going to kill each other. You have to love Piper repeating the phrase, “I don’t want to fight you, I don’t want to fight you,” right before he spends five minutes fighting him. Or the moment around 4:19, when Piper smashes the back window of a car — and, stunned, tells David he’s sorry, like a kid who didn’t realize his hand was in the cookie jar.

South Park did a shot-for-shot parody of that scene. Last year, Adventure Time did another parody of the fistfight, between fiery despot Flame King and his minion Don John the Flame Lord. This parody was rather more official: Flame King was voiced by Keith David, and Don John was voiced by Roddy Piper. Listen closely at :05, and you can hear Piper mumble, with complete authenticity: “Stamina…failing.” Raspy, wry, over-the-top and completely believable — and that was just the man’s voice!

According to some sources, that scene was only supposed to be a short little scuffle. As is, it’s five and a half minutes long. Aronofsky cited it as an influence on The Wrestler, and thought the scene was intended as an overextended, hyperbolized spoof of fight scenes. I’m not so sure; it’s possible Carpenter just liked watching Piper and David fully commit to punching and kicking the living hell out of each other. Piper was a wrestler and an actor — and for one perfect, mesmerizing scene, he was the best of both.