When he arrived on the set of “They Live” in 1988, Rowdy Roddy Piper was at the height of his professional wrestling career. He had been involved in the main events of the first two WrestleManias, battling Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. “When I left wrestling they were very angry at me,” Piper recalls, “and Hollywood didn’t like me either because it was another jock wanting to become an actor. So it was a very difficult piece of work to do.”
Despite those circumstances, “They Live” became a sci-fi/action cult classic, and Piper will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Sunday with a screening at the Troc as part of Awesome Fest. In the film, Piper plays John Nada, a drifter who comes across a pair of sunglasses that enable him to see aliens disguised as America’s ruling class, controlling humans via subliminal messages in media and advertising. Though aware of the film’s satirical take on Reaganomics, Piper says he steered clear of any political propagandizing.
“I don’t believe that I’m qualified to make a statement on the political atmosphere of the United States, because I’m not from this country,” says the Canadian-born Piper. “John [Carpenter, the writer/director,] was really serious about making a political statement. I remember going to a press conference and Carpenter would make me take my Rolex off because it wasn’t American-bought. But we both drove Cadillacs, so he was happy about that.”
The film is now famous for its extended back alley fight sequence between Piper and co-star Keith David, which took three weeks to rehearse. “That fight was a combination of what Rod learned off the street and what he learned in the ring,” says Piper, who lived in youth hostels for three years in his early teens, referring to his ring nickname, Hot Rod, in third person (his real name is Roderick George Toombs). “We went as far as we could possibly go with it, and with a little luck and a lot of pain, it turned out OK.”
Such grueling action may be one reason why the actor and director never reteamed, despite Carpenter’s initial plans to make the wrestler his muse. “He asked be to be the John Wayne to his John Ford,” Piper says. “But the first film was so difficult that we never did get into another one.”
Pity the fool
Although he makes occasional returns to the WWE to host his interview segment, Piper’s Pit, the 59-year-old Hot Rod is retired from the ring. A recent episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap” in which he appeared with longtime opponent Ric Flair, however, revealed that he’s now training his son, an amateur MMA fighter.
“I’m not happy about it at all,” he says. “I need a doctor or a lawyer; I don’t need another fighter in the family. But my son grew up with the most disliked wrestler in the world. I have no idea what it must have been like to go to school when your daddy wore a kilt and slapped Mr. T and kicked Cyndi Lauper. My son is so centered, he’s a better man than I’ll ever be. So whatever he does, I’ll support.”
"They Live" with Rowdy Roddy Piper
Sunday, 8 p.m.
1003 Arch St.