‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, 1954-2015WWE
In 1981, during a Georgia Championship Wrestling studio show, perennial jobber Bill White lumbered out to lose against young star Michael Hayes. It was a study in dissimilarity: Hayes was beautiful, blond, and tan; White was pasty, balding, and shaped like a full potato sack. Roddy Piper was on commentary, and he was praising White at Hayes’s expense, subtly acting the villain while espousing only virtue. Eventually, Piper approached the ring and cheered White on — futilely, it seemed. Then the two combatants got tangled in front of Piper, and he reached out and tripped Hayes, sending both wrestlers to the mat with White on top. When Hayes put his foot over the bottom rope to break the pin, Piper tossed it off. White won.
While celebrating White’s win, Piper explained his beef with Hayes, the fan favorite: “He doesn’t know who Bill White is. He doesn’t appreciate how Bill White can wrestle. Hayes made a mistake that you and I don’t make — he underestimated you.” Piper was working as a bad guy, but his words resonated because he was right, and because he spoke from experience — nobody ever looked at Piper and saw a world champion. Hayes wasn’t the only one who underestimated White — everybody watching that show did. But with Piper involved, you couldn’t count on anything. Hayes’s star power was worth zilch. The world was turned upside down.
The Hayes-White match is almost entirely forgotten, even to wrestling fans old enough to have seen it, but it was emblematic of Piper’s character and his place in the sport. Piper didn’t just intervene and steal the match for White because it’s what a heel would do. He did it for personal reasons, too: That sense of being underestimated animated Piper’s entire career. He was a mainstream crossover star who never escaped the shadow of Hulk Hogan, the champion whose legend Piper helped build. The persistent feeling that he never quite got what he deserved was fuel for the persona that made him so memorable. Piper was the everyman who was self-aware enough to hate his lot in life, and that’s why fans connected to him, even when he did rotten things. That made him unique in the WWF of the 1980s, a time when characters were either all good or all bad. The smart-ass misfit he played hinted at the forthcoming generation of beloved antihero wrestlers, and it also made Piper one of the most memorable and important wrestlers of his era.
Roddy Piper, who died last week of a heart attack at 61, was born Roderick Toombs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the son of a policeman. It was a rough childhood. He was kicked out of junior high in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for carrying a switchblade, and, unable to connect with his father, he left home. He was living on the streets and in halfway houses at 15 years old. He took to combat sports as a way out, which led him to a Golden Gloves boxing championship, a black belt in judo while training with Gene LeBell, and some gigs as a jobber in the wrestling ring. He was still a teenager.
Piper is hardly the first wrestling star who started as a paid loser, but with him, it feels like the rest of his career was informed by that experience. It was LeBell who first saw something in Toombs, and he decided to give him a shot in the Los Angeles promotion he ran with his brother. Piper saw that the road from insignificance to the top led straight through the ultra-popular Guerrero family and their Mexican and Mexican American fan base. Piper assaulted the Guerreros literally and metaphorically, slapping noncombatant family members, disrupting trophy ceremonies, and, most famously, coming to the ring to apologize by playing the Mexican national anthem on his bagpipes and instead playing “La Cucaracha.” They started calling him “Rowdy” Roddy. These weren’t just the acts of a young villain trying to make a name — they were screams of determination by a scrawny runaway eager to make good. For Piper, it wasn’t playing heel that mattered — it was getting noticed.
Consider Piper’s famous run in the Pacific Northwest territory, where he fully came into his own. He had left California as a villain, after losing to Chavo in a hair-versus-hair match and later a loser-leaves-town match, though he stuck around a while afterward under a mask, as the Masked Canadian. Up north, he was brought in as a villain but soon turned on his accomplice, “Playboy” Buddy Rose, after an eight-man tag match went awry. Piper, who was pigeonholed as a second-string baddie, had been underestimated again. But, almost immediately, he became the most popular hero in the territory, looking like nothing so much as a kid wrestling in his yard in his underwear. He challenged Rose to a hair-versus-hair match, and this time Piper won.
But what were arguably the most memorable moments of his early career were the times he smashed a full beer bottle against his forehead to prove his toughness — once in San Francisco and once in Portland.1 Piper had developed into a good brawler and an inspired talker, but these moments were Rowdy distilled. It was an indignant, vulnerable explosion. It was a cry for recognition and of lunatic commitment. And it worked, because just like the bottle smashing against his scalp, it was completely real.
When he went to Georgia, it was like an acceptance into the wrestling mainstream, though again Piper was miscast — he worked as an announcer alongside the legendary Gordon Solie. Some argue that the heel-announcer act was a Piper innovation — before Bobby Heenan, before Jesse Ventura, there was Piper. But he cemented his legacy for shocking fans when he came to Solie’s aid when Solie was threatened by the Magnificent Muraco. The following week, Solie attempted to describe Piper’s uncertain allegiances: “He wants to be an island unto himself.”
At this point a pattern began to emerge: Piper comes in as a heel and does unrivaled work until fans beg for a reason to cheer for him. Before it was cool to root for Ric Flair or Randy Savage or Paul Heyman, Piper was changing the way wrestling fans looked at villainy. But even as a hero, Piper’s desire for significance wasn’t quenched. He was given a spot as a babyface in the East Coast Jim Crockett territory — a plush gig for that era. And yet he still scrapped like his life depended on it — he worked a famously brutal dog collar match against Greg Valentine in North Carolina and had his eardrum burst mid-fight. Needless to say, Piper kept fighting.
When he was hired during the WWF’s national expansion, Piper was underestimated yet again. He was meant to be a manager, a mouthpiece for Paul Orndorff and “Dr. D” David Schultz and the host of a talk show segment called “Piper’s Pit.” Maybe it was because he was rehabbing from injury, or maybe it was because he was determined to make the most noise he could from whatever platform he received, but it was on the talk show that Piper would achieve full mastery of his powers. He could still explode, but he realized that a smirk could carry the same weight as a bottle to the forehead. His time in Georgia had taught him the power of national television, and now he unleashed it on the WWF’s audience. He was speaking to a camera — to the masses — and in that forum a word can be as brutal as a body slam.
As if in response to his earlier association with Bill White, Piper’s best “Pit” segment was an interview with a mustachioed nobody named Frank Williams. He invited him on the show apparently to show that a wrestler who had lost as many times as Williams has is not worthy of Piper’s time or respect. (This was a marked departure from the reverence he saved for White years before.) Now Williams was the bottle, the bagpipes, the unlikely tool that Piper used to slap fans in their faces. He ended up assaulting Williams, tossing him through the backstage curtain, and then told the camera: “Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions.” At first, it sounds almost like a non sequitur, but in the context of Piper’s career, it amounts to a mission statement.
Tossing Williams off his set vanquished Piper’s own jobber demons and solidified his star power. Piper approached villainy with bombastic, heady aplomb. In character, he didn’t hesitate to use racist taunts, and he welcomed humiliation in a way that betrayed his fearless devotion to and understanding of the business. In one of his most notorious moments, he brought Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka onto “Piper’s Pit” and provoked him by insulting his Fijian heritage, tossing a banana at him and then cracking him in the head with a coconut. (It was actually the second time Snuka had been Piper’s guest. The first, which led to the coconut incident, is here.) Piper’s ensuing beatdown of Snuka destroyed the flimsy talk-show set — it was a regular trope for the show and an odd betrayal of the separation between the WWF broadcast and the production. If the fights in wrestling can be seen as largely symbolic — a method of advancing two performers’ story lines through staged violence — then the set destruction was so symbolic it was palpable. Piper was breaking down the fourth wall between the performance and the audience by breaking down an actual wall. He gave lie to the show’s artifice while also addressing the viewer on a primal level, telling fans that what they were watching was simultaneously inane and gruesomely authentic.
Of course, in pro wrestling in the ’80s, the fourth wall wasn’t a concept that wrestlers paid any attention to, so it’s hard to credit Piper with some kind of postmodern artistic intent. He was just recklessly human, a visceral groundbreaker who brought nuance to a two-dimensional pseudo-sport and set the stage for the self-referential deconstruction that would follow. Piper’s successors picked up where he left off, pushing wrestling into a form of postmodern performance — Brian Pillman’s violence, the time nWo tore down the WCW Nitro set, CM Punk addressing the camera. Those guys were explicitly influenced by Piper’s shtick.
In the heyday of the early WWF, Piper became Hulk Hogan’s primary antagonist by sheer force of personality. After Schultz was fired, Piper took the reins and never looked back. He was Hogan’s opponent at The War to Settle the Score, at WrestleMania I, and on the Saturday-morning cartoon Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling. But it wasn’t simply a matter of Piper having the personality to rival Hogan’s — while Hulkamania was full of growling platitudes, Piper told a story with his inexhaustible aggravation. In some ways, being a talk-show host was more appropriate (and more important) than just being a heel — Piper’s role was to provide narrative connective tissue for the superheroes’ swinging fists. Hogan was the icon, but Piper was the foundation. Even after Piper fell out of the main-event mix, he was still essential — the bulk of the Hogan–Andre the Giant rivalry occurred on “Piper’s Pit,” and between Andre’s nonsensical warbling and Hogan’s wild-eyed mannequin routine, it was left to Piper to sell the rivalry and imbue it with some humanity. He was more central to the product than the name stars. It’s impossible to imagine the biggest moments in WWF history without Roddy Piper. Nothing exists without him.
Fans loved Roddy. That almost goes without saying, but it’s worth mentioning because almost every other villain of that era has been retconned into a sort of meta antihero. But in Piper’s day, WWF storytelling had no shades of gray. It had heroes and villains, and in between it had Roddy Piper. He played the buffoon when he feuded with Hogan, but he chafed under the strictures. He thought he deserved to be champion — an honor he’d never get to hold in the WWF.
But just as Piper was carrying the Hogan-Andre feud, his own character started to shift again. Finally, WWF fans got to root for Piper — just as fans had rooted for him in Georgia and Portland before — when he began feuding with “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, whose “Flower Shop” interview segment replaced “Piper’s Pit” during one of Roddy’s absences. Piper mouthed off about the incursion and was mauled by Adonis, Muraco (who was also hosting a segment called “The Body Shop,” left behind by Jesse Ventura), and Piper’s old running buddy “Cowboy” Bob Orton. When Piper returned the following week with a baseball bat and destroyed the “Flower Shop” set, the crowd went wild. “If they think that those sons of bitches can keep me down like this, they’re wrong,” he screamed. He was talking about the attack, but he might as well have been talking about the silliness of the story line. As he smashed the “Flower Shop” walls with his bat, he turned a media grievance into a blood feud.
This set up his entrance at WrestleMania 3, when Piper jogged to the ring and the crowd went absolutely nuts. The other wrestlers that night were ferried to the ring on rolling platforms, but Piper’s malfunctioned, and instead of waiting he came to the ring on his own two feet. It was the perfect final entrance for a man who had forced his way into every big moment he’d ever achieved. The subtle athleticism in his jog is powerful, and the pride in his gait — the look of a man finally basking in his glory — is touching. It was billed as his retirement match because Piper was going to Hollywood to become an actor, but it’s easy to wonder whether he had done all he could do in pro wrestling. Or whether he justifiably thought he had.
Piper’s most famous acting role, of course, was as the protagonist in They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 work of Orwellian sci-fi camp. Piper, the average Joe who made good in a world of spandex demigods, is perfectly cast as an everyman. “Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” Carpenter said after meeting Piper at WrestleMania 3. His character is never named in the film but credited as “George Nada,” and he finds special sunglasses that allow him to see that skull-faced aliens have taken over Earth and are brainwashing humans through mass media. The subliminal messages Nada can suddenly see — Obey; No Independent Thought; Stay Asleep — represent everything that Piper the character railed against in his wrestling career. His most famous line in They Live is, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” But the most quintessentially Piper moment in the film comes when he is confronted with the mind-bending true state of the world and all he does is chuckle and say, “It figures it would be something like this.” Remember him grinning, leaning back in a folding chair with legs up to expose the briefs beneath his kilt, unwilling to preen for the cameras: Piper was jaded before jaded was cool.
His Hollywood foray was brief — Piper returned to wrestling, because it just figured he would. He feuded with Rick Rude, Bad News Brown, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Ric Flair, and the Mountie, from whom he won the Intercontinental championship, the only WWF title of his career. He lost that belt in an incredible match with Bret Hart at WrestleMania 8. Then Piper disappeared for a while, but returned to feud with Jerry “The King” Lawler. Eventually, he feuded with Goldust, and their rivalry led to a “Hollywood Backlot Brawl,” which is roughly the wrestling equivalent of They Live, both revered and ridiculed.
Piper did a late-’90s stint in WCW along with several other aging stars from the WWF’s heyday, and then he returned to WWE as an elder statesman in 2003, but that same year he appeared on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel to lament the deaths of so many of his ’80s comrades and the crazy lifestyle that led them there. “Everybody’s dead,” he told Gumbel. “They’re all dying early and nobody cares about it … They take them and they screw them up so much.” The wrestling business had a great entrance plan, he said — the quick fame, the adulation, the highs — but “it’s got no exit plan.” Piper was still working because he couldn’t get anything from his pension until he turned 65, and “I’m not going to make 65,” he said. “Let’s just face facts, guys.” WWE fired him after the interview aired.
“I hate it. I don’t watch myself on TV,” he said on HBO. “I hate that guy because I know what that guy’s thinking. I know what that guy’s capable of … there’s nothing nice about that guy.” This is Roderick Toombs coming to terms with Roddy Piper. This is a hard-luck human staring down his superstardom and trying to understand why it didn’t necessarily fulfill him. When he was in the weeds, scrapping every night for recognition, for acceptance, Piper could disappear into the role. But taking a step back, seeing what he had become, well, maybe he was too human for that.
Roddy Piper was never the biggest WWF star, but he was irreplaceable because he grounded all the good-versus-evil theatrics. He made it OK to root for a heel, not because he was transcendent or postmodern but because he was honest. He was human. It’s why casting him in They Live was such an inspired choice — Nada was an average drifter suddenly burdened with world-altering power. He was a nobody who had to give up his life to destroy the alien menace, but not before he flipped them off. He was quite possibly wrestling’s most relatable heel: We could see ourselves in him even though he was provoking our heroes. Piper battled cancer in the 2000s and beat it.
Piper wasn’t a superhero — not when he was staring down Hogan and certainly not when he was a “good guy.” There was nothing nice about that guy, no. But unlike Piper himself, the rest of us could never look away when he was onscreen.
When he made his return to the main event in WCW in 1996, it was as a babyface bent on upending the nWo’s reign of terror, led by his old foe Hogan. For Piper, it felt like one last shot at stealing the headliner role he felt he deserved all along. “Do you think they would’ve loved you so much if they hadn’t hated me?” he asked Hogan.
Piper was always a better talker than he was a wrestler, because his words could swing with the force of a hundred hammer fists. That line was more powerful than any body slam or clothesline, more terminal than any sleeper hold. Because it was true.
And so was Roddy Piper.
This column has been updated to correct an error: Piper was kicked out of junior high in Winnipeg, Manitoba, not Windsor, Ontario.