One look at the life and career of the man known the world over as Rowdy Roddy Piper and one word comes to mind: trailblazer.
In professional wrestling, he was one of the first beloved heels in the business. He is acknowledged as being one of the very best on a microphone not only of his generation, but of all time. And no one has ever worn a kilt more successfully than the so-called Rowdy one.
Piper, who is one of the most well known wrestling personalities on Earth, held more than 30 championships in his illustrious career and headlined many a pay-per-view. If that weren’t enough, the Canadian-born WWE hall of famer was one of the first breakout movie/television stars in pro wrestling, paving the way for the likes of Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Triple H, John Cena and others.
Not too shabby for a kid from small-town Canada.
Born Roderick George Toombs in Saskatchewan, Piper had a tough upbringing.
“I was born in Saskatoon, I think probably the coldest place on Earth,” Piper said with a laugh during an interview to promote his latest film project, Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies. “Pretty damn close to it.”
Asked how a man with his resume isn’t at the top of every discussion about the greatest Canadian-born pro wrestlers — along with the likes of Bret Hart, Chris Jericho and Adam (Edge) Copeland, to name some — Piper said that while he has always been proud of his Canadian roots, he never wanted them to define him. In many ways, Piper kept himself out of that discussion.
“I think I was either three or four, and I lived on an Indian reservation. I hear it’s still the toughest Indian reservation in Canada, The Pas,” he said, adding that he moved around a lot as a kid, also landing in such places as Port Arthur in Northern Ontario.
Because he moved often, there isn’t one particular place he can claim he hails from.
“I don’t have a place that’s home for me. I don’t have a school teacher or a hometown or anything like that,” Piper said, adding that even the origin of his wrestling persona hails from north of the border. “The first time I came to the ring, my pipe band played me in, got me the name Roddy The Piper. You know, I’ve been playing bagpipes since before I can remember.”
Piper’s long list of wrestling accolades is perhaps matched only by his lengthy list of television and movie appearances, which continue to this day, well past his in-ring wrestling career. In fact, it’s from his most well-known and successful film, They Live, that he draws comparisons to his own life.
“In the movie, They Live, the guy’s name is John Nada, which means nothing,” Piper said. “You don’t where he came from, you don’t know why. Well (John) Carpenter wrote that character after Roddy Piper. There’s a mystique there. Where is he from?”
It’s not unlike Piper’s feelings about his own background.
“Am I Canadian? You betcha. And I’ve still got a Canadian passport and I’m proud of it. (When people ask me) ‘Where’s your home?’ (I tell them) ‘I don’t know. I don’t know where that is.’
For Piper, the world is his oyster.
“Finally, I just said ‘I’m from the world. I’m from the world.’ I’ve been all over the world all of my life. I’m very proud of Canada, very proud of Japan, very proud of Russia, very proud of England, very proud of America.”
It’s the worldwide appeal that has helped that little boy from Everywhere, Canada, become a face that millions of people around the world can pick out of a crowd. And it’s that appeal that Piper is counting on to propel his latest project, Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies, to success.
In it, Piper plays himself, as he and a band of other wrestlers, some pros and some amateurs, are lured to a prison under the guise of a wrestling appearance. Once there, they face death as the prison is overrun by bloodthirsty zombies controlled by an evil brother seeking revenge against “The Franchise” Shane Douglas, who earlier had killed said evil brother’s brother in a botched wrestling spot.
Yes, it’s as zany as it sounds. And perhaps that’s why Piper was a bit reluctant about the role when he was first approached.
“It was something I kind of poo-pooed at first,” Piper said. “You know, pro wrestlers versus zombies … what, was Gone With The Wind not available?” he joked, his legendary wit on full display on this day.
But Piper had a change of heart after talking to some of the other wrestlers, wrestlers he considers friends, involved with the project.
“Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Kurt Angle, and some of the higher independent guys like Ryan Reign and Façade and Ashton Amherst — I’m just trying to think of them all to give them credit —they started talking to me about it and I realized it was a comedy. You’ve got to see the outtakes, they’re the best part. Once I did Legends House, which is going to come out April 17, 10 episodes, with Hacksaw. That has just happened, so it was kind of like ‘ah, let’s go have some fun, let’s not take ourselves so serious.’”
The film is almost a flawless blending of professional wrestling — and all of its theatrics — and the zombie cult. It mixes headlocks, clotheslines and bodyslams with brain-eating, blood and gore, but hilarity ensues.
Spoiler alert, wrestlers become zombies. None better, according to Piper, than his old pal Duggan.
“Jim, I think he played the best zombie,” Piper said, before adding “I’ve seen that blank stare many a night,” with a laugh.
In a movie that so very clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously, there is a even a touching scene between old friends Piper and Duggan.
When Piper enters a part of the prison to find his longtime wrestling pal a zombie, hunched over a body, devouring it, he’s overcome with sadness. As Duggan momentarily stops his feast to turn and look at his friend, the movie’s lone tender moment stands out.
“Acting is an art and we got playing around and then, when it came time, I realized that we’ve got to have a couple of serious moments,” Piper explained. “With Hacksaw, he’s not a schooled actor, but when he was there as a zombie and staring like that, it spurred something in me that made me feel for him. So I went ‘OK, let’s do this right.’ He just caught me and we did the scene properly.”
You don’t need to be a wrestling fan to pick up on the emotion in that scene. Nor will you need to versed in chinlocks and figure fours to get a couple of the playful jabs thrown at some of wrestling’s biggest names.
Both WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon and longtime Piper rival Hulk Hogan are the subject of some hilarious potshots in the film.
Both, according to Piper, were improv.
“Sometimes Rod has a real authority problem,” he said. “Also, you know what? I love you guys, the fans. You gave me a family. And I mean it when I say it. If I can give you those moments where nobody else will, then I do. I would hope that Hogan and Vince that ‘listen, Rod’s just having fun. They have no problem having fun with me.’ They were just improvs. Completely ad libbed. It was cold and we needed to get out of there.”
Asked whether he credits his worldwide recognition more to pro wrestling, more to TV and film or to both, Piper was torn.
“That’s a really good question, sir. You see, WWE has gotten so big it goes into 120 countries. Back then it did not,” he said. “However, They Live, you can get Bangkok posters of They Live, you can [get them in] Russian … I’ve seen them from all over … Indonesia. When you reach out to the world, you’ve done something that’s not for yourself … Social networking, that’s been a big one. “
Many of the wrestlers in Piper’s era were already established stars when they came to WWE, Piper said.
“These days that you were speaking of, they did more than just wrestle. They were bigger than the WWE, with the exception of The Rock, all of those guys, Hogan, Macho Man, before there was a WWE anything, they were already well established, well packaged, complete pros and had gone around the world from Japan to England to United States and some down to Mexico.”
Even Piper himself had a resume before coming to WWE, then the WWF.
“I was on worldwide channels for five years before I came to WW-anything.”
Wrestling’s audience, while far-reaching, is nothing like a television or film audience, Piper said.
“When you do a movie, you do a series, a TV series, and then (fans) see you, you might do a charity or something, then they realize you’re by yourself, you can stand on your own.”
While wrestlers crossing into film is commonplace today, even encouraged, such wasn’t the case when Piper was starring inside the squared circle.
“I remember there would be guys (like) Hard Boiled Haggerty … Vern Gagne pleaded with Hard Boiled Haggerty not to go into the movies. Pleaded with him. When I went and did They Live, they pleaded with me ‘please don’t go,’ and it started a rift. But now you look it (like) we’re pioneers.”
At this point in his life, the hall of famer calls his own shots. So he closely examines all of his opportunities.
“In my particular case, I have a responsibility,” he said when asked about how he selects his projects nowadays. “I have four of the most beautiful children in the world, so when I call my shots, I call them the way that I always dreamed I could, I’m a dad. If somebody asks me, how do you want to be remembered, I want to be remembered as a good dad. So when I go to do something, I go ‘well, how does this reflect on my family and everybody’s else’s families? What are the kids seeing? What am I showing? What am I doing? Not that I won’t get in there and do a Boogie Nights … I’m not saying that. But that’s not for them to watch. I think that there’s a certain responsibility that you carry. You might have earned this position to a certain point, but at the same time you were blessed to be put here by fans. You need to take care of them. You need to be careful with your work,” he said, citing The Rock as someone who is very meticulous when it comes to what film projects he commits to.
“He came up to me on the 1,000th episode of Raw, just out of nowhere, and he says ‘you know what, man, you were my total hero when I was a kid. I grew up loving you.’ What a classy man,” Piper said of The Rock, whose films grossed more than a billion dollars in 2013.
“Also, I want it to reflect well on my sport of professional wrestling.. But again, what makes my decision is ‘how is it going to look when people see this?’ What are they going to think? I try and put that into it, and not be so haphazard for a living.”
In Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies, wrestlers very modestly portray themselves as just that. There were no attempts at hiding the fact that they’re wrestlers, with many even sporting their ring attire the entire movie.
“We didn’t betray, or try to be something we weren’t,” Piper said. “I think that’s what would have killed me.”
Just as importantly, Piper said, wrestlers had a lot of input with regard to their characters.
“There were a couple of times where we broke it down and they wanted us to do this, this or this, and it was ‘no, no, no we don’t do that.’”
The conversation then turned serious for a moment, with Piper addressing two issues close to his heart.
“You know, there’s a big fallacy about how much we all get together and talk — I can only speak for myself here — how much we all get together and talk about what we’re going to do in the ring. I never did that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even want to know or see the guy. (My attitude was) ‘let’s go and roll.’ “That’s where the magic is.”
The other part of taking on a project involves staying true to his fans, whom Piper is fiercely protective of.
“We love our fans,” he said, before the Hot Rod made his first appearance in the conversation. “There’s a word — mark — I hate that word,” Piper said, in an extremely serious tone. “It’s a word that young guys that think they’re cool (use). It’s a disgusting word. Because of those wonderful people I have a family. And we can do fun stuff like Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies and you and I can talk. That’s pretty cool. I slap everybody that I see who uses that word.”
For Piper, this film ranks among one of the more fun projects he’s with which he’s been involved.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was hard to shoot, it was cold. It was a blast to just laugh and be silly. I think we all need to do that a little bit. Everybody’s getting way too serious in the world. I would put it right in there with Hell Comes to Frogtown.”
Wrestling legend … well known actor … one of the most recognizable celebrities on Earth … it’s been a charmed life right?
Not exactly, Piper said. While he’s counts his blessings daily about all he has achieved in his life, it hasn’t been without its scares and issues.
“I went down in an airplane, I’ve been stabbed a few times, electrocuted, 30-some car crashes, cancer, seven screws in my neck, right hip replaced in ’94,” he said, before jokingly adding “been married 31 years …”
“I’ve ah … woosh, I don’t why I’m still here,” he said, his voice trailing off.
There’s an old saying, you need a licence to fish, you need a licence to hunt, any jerk can have a kid, it takes a man to be a father. And I got lost there for a while. Especially with the cancer. It was ugly.
“Wrestling was ugly at the time. They had Hogan under a mask, they were trying to different things with me. And the war, WCW. It just got ugly. I got lost out there. And a couple of things happened in my family that made me go ‘whoops, I’m not being a good dad.’ And I turned my life around.
“It was for them.”
Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies
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