Piper, "Rowdy" Roddy (1951—)

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Piper, "Rowdy" Roddy (1951—)

One of professional wrestling's hottest renegades and all-time great interviews, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper has been a headliner for over 25 years. Piper, whose real name is Roderick Toombs, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but spent most of his early years in Canada. He was a gold glove boxer who began his wrestling career at the age of15. Piper headlined cards in California and the Pacific Northwest throughout the 1970s. While wrestling in Georgia in the early 1980s, he received national attention through exposure on Ted Turner's WTBS Superstation. In a "sport" that receives much criticism for its "authenticity" (or lack thereof), Piper has fashioned himself as one of the twentieth century's more prominent television personas.

Piper's ability to rile a crowd and "draw heat" almost cost him his life in 1982 when a fan stabbed him. His subsequent "turn" into a good guy was a classic wrestling angle. In Wrestling to Rasslin', Gerald W. Morton and George M. O'Brien described the transformation: "the drama finally played itself out on television when one of his [Piper's] hired assassins, Don Muraco, suddenly attacked the commentator Gordon Solie. Seeing Solie hurt, Piper unleashed his Scottish fury on Muraco. In the week that followed, like Achilles avenging Patroklas, he slaughtered villain after villain.… In the arenas fans chanted his name throughout his matches." Piper's character went from lunatic villain to a classic hero: standing tall, standing alone, and standing up for right. It is the same character he would play throughout his wrestling career and in most of his film and television work.

Piper was one of the first wrestlers signed in 1984 as part of Vince McMahon's national expansion of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), although at first Piper was brought in only as a manager and personality. His manic style shone through in an interview segment called "Piper's Pit," where he would interview other "heel" wrestlers. Famous Piper Pits include Piper interviewing himself on a split screen, attacking Jimmy "SuperFly" Snuka with a coconut, and assailing a wrestler by shouting into the camera "just when they think they have all the answers, I change the questions." Entering the ring to a chorus of bagpipe music, Piper became the most hated wrestler with his penchant for sneak attacks, low blows, and devastating verbal put-downs.

After his feud with Snuka, Piper became new WWF champion Hulk Hogan's greatest foe. It was Piper who started the feud and the "rock 'n' wrestling connection" by smacking Captain Lou Albano over the head during a broadcast on MTV (Music Television) that featured pop singer Cindy Lauper. The feud escalated with Lauper's involvement, leading to "the brawl to settle it all" between Hogan and Piper. Rather than settle anything, this match at Madison Square Garden, broadcast live on MTV and setting a cable ratings record at the time, served as a precursor to Wrestlemania I. Teaming with Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff, Piper squared off in the main event against Hogan and television star Mr. T. The celebrity-laden event put wrestling back on the popular culture landscape. Piper continued the feud with Hogan, as well as with Mr. T, whom he battled in a boxing match at Wrestlemania II. Piper's features on NBC's Saturday Night Main Events demonstrated a charisma which soon caught the attention of Hollywood.

Piper left wrestling after a "retirement match" at Wrestlemania III. He told TV Guide that "I'm not just going to go out into the world and wing it, like I always have. I'd like to do some movies and TV. Not as anything in particular—just as a personality. I can always come back and fight." Piper started off strong in movies like Body Slam (1987), in which he played himself more or less, and in Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987), playing the only virile man left in the world. His biggest role, however, was in John Carpenter's They Live (1988). Considered a cult classic, Piper stars as Nana, a homeless man who stumbles upon an alien takeover. In Carpenter's vision yuppies and Reaganites are an alien force as they bombard citizens with subliminal messages to consume and obey. The film's cult following certainly comes from Piper's performance, which was described by Entertainment Weekly as "scenery chewing," and from the fight scene that Piper told television personality Joe Bob Briggs had been planned as the "longest fight scene ever." Piper also told Briggs that he ad-libbed the films most famous line: "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum." Piper continued to make film and television appearances, including shooting a pilot called Tag Team with fellow WWF personality Jesse "The Body" Ventura; it was about detectives who moonlight as wrestlers. He also made money in direct-to-video action films like Terminal Rush (1995) and Battleground (1996).

Like many other WWF wrestlers, Piper found himself in the middle of the steroid scandal when shipments to Piper of illegal steroids from an indicted doctor were entered into court as evidence. Piper weathered that storm and continued to work part-time with the WWF, wrestling, commentating, or playing the role of WWF commissioner while keeping a career in Hollywood. In 1996, Piper unexpectedly left the WWF and showed up in World Championship Wrestling to rekindle his feud with Hulk Hogan. During their interviews, Piper reminded Hogan that fans only "loved you because they hated me." Since coming back from his 1987 retirement Piper has been a fan favorite, but it was his two-year stint as the lead heel in the WWF that made him a crossover celebrity. He was, true to the cliche, the man the fans loved to hate.

—Patrick Jones

Further Reading:

Lentz, Harris M. Biographical Dictionary of Professional Wrestling. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1997.

Morton, Gerald, and George M. O'Brien. Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Press, 1985.