"Rowdy" Roddy Piper: The Canadian Action Hero We Needed

Where does the time go? Two years ago this week we lost “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. His death brought on a large outpour of public sympathy, as he had been one the elite few professional wrestlers who had surpassed the sport and entered the public mainstream eye. This position was earned both as a star during one of the biggest mainstream runs of his chosen profession, as well as his under-appreciated acting career, during which he appeared in, among others, two SciFi classics, John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN.

Confession time: I was never a huge fan of Roddy Piper, the wrestler. I certainly appreciated his contributions to the industry, as his villainous run against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, along with an MTV-centered feud with Cyndi Lauper, helped usher wrestling into the hip mainstream in the mid-1980s. But this was before my time; the Piper that I mostly remember was when he was well past his physical prime and slowed down by injuries, getting by on his well-earned name value while cashing a check in Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (R.I.P.) One thing that he never lost though was his innate charisma and his ability to work wonders on the microphone. This showmanship (one of the most important parts of the professional wrestling experience) made him a natural fit for the movies.

Nobody will confuse Piper’s acting resume with that of Daniel Day Lewis or Sean Penn; those two could only hope to ever have a milestone like THEY LIVE on their IMDB page. Largely ignored at the time of its release toward the end of John Carpenter’s unrivaled 70’s-80’s run, the film is now a certified classic, with its “Obey” iconography still seen in every election cycle (and currently on a billboard in Mexico). Piper stars as John Nada, a drifter who ends up in Los Angeles and uncovers an alien conspiracy, where the wealthy elite are using the mass media to control what the rest of the populace reads, buys, and does. (Sound familiar?) With the help of a pair of special sunglasses, Nada is able to see the hidden messages in billboards, TV commercials, and magazines that tell us common folks to “Obey,” “Reproduce,” “Consume,” and “Conform.” He soon finds himself on the run alongside his friend Frank (the under-appreciated Keith David) from the aliens, attempting to stop their plan for world domination before it’s too late.

Though not exactly subtle in its criticisms of the “me first” Reagan 80’s, the film works as both a satire of the era and as a straight forward SciFi thriller. Piper is terrific in the lead role, never reverting to his over the top wrestling persona and is instead convincing as a common guy who is in way over his head. Piper later admitted during an interview with Joe Bob Briggs on TNT’s Monstervision  that the political content of the film was lost on him when he initially signed on. A fan of Reagan’s, he still agreed to do the film despite not necessarily agreeing with its messages. Any conflicts he may have had with the material can’t be seen in his performance. From his brutal fight scene with David, to his iconic (and improvised) line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum,” to his final scene where he literally gives the finger to the enemy after stopping them, Piper’s work here is fantastic and showed that he could have had a more mainstream movie run had it been a hit.

Then there’s HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN. If THEY LIVE is still something of a cult film, FROGTOWN is even further down the line. Outwardly comedic and fun, this film allowed Piper to use his more familiar, coked-out manic wrestling persona in his performance. His character Sam Hell is once again a drifter, this time in a post-apocalyptic world where a nuclear war has left most of what remains of the population sterile. He’s captured by a group of women who enlist him to rescue a group of kidnapped fertile women from a band of giant mutant frogs who intend to use them as sex slaves. Right away you can see what kind of a movie we’re dealing with here.

This one was in pretty regular rotation on the USA Network back when it was the greatest cable channel ever (alongside TNT/TBS) that would actually air movies like this. Nowadays this film would be made as a SyFy original movie, with a cast that wouldn’t have even been Z-list in their heyday winking at the camera about how bad it is and how they’re all in on the joke. That cynicism isn’t present in one frame of FROGTOWN, which is ridiculous and fun and still performed with a level of respect that it deserves. It also gives Piper a beautiful co-star in Sandahl Bergman (Valeria from CONAN THE BARBARIAN) in what is the last thing I can remember her being in. Her “dance of the three snakes” scene is one of those “you have to see it to believe it” deals, and should be remembered as much for her comedic timing as well as her moves. And while Piper isn’t required to do much dramatic heavy lifting, he also shows here that, while falling back on his wrestling persona, he could - and probably should have been - a more mainstream film and TV presence.

Last year I had the pleasure of seeing John Carpenter perform music from both his films and original catalog at the Moody Theater here in Austin. Besides Carpenter himself, the most enthusiastic audience response of the night was a fade-in of Piper on the video screen behind the band, donning the iconic sunglasses from THEY LIVE as the familiar score from the opening credits kicked in. It was proof, if any more was needed, that Piper will always be remembered for more than what he did in the ring.