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How wrestling's biggest bad guy became the hero of John Carpenter's 'They Live'

Even though it's perfect in retrospect, Piper's casting wasn't exactly a (body) slam dunk at the time.

Roddy Piper on the set of They Live

Back in 1988, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was primarily known as one of the most conniving, sniveling, backstabbing bad guys in all of WWF (now WWE) wrestling. Sure, he had changed allegiances now and again, but deep down, anyone who’d been paying attention knew that the bane of Hulk Hogan’s existence was up to no good in the wrestling ring. So it was plenty surprising when he showed up as the action hero lead of John Carpenter’s rampant-consumerism satire disguised as an alien invasion movie, They Live. And plenty awesome, too.  

If you’ve never seen the film, definitely head over to Peacock to check it out, but basically Piper stars as a nameless (only credited as Nada), plaid-wearing, glorious-mullet-rocking drifter who finds himself a swell pair of Raybans that allows him to see the world for what it truly is: filled with consumerism-pushing, ghoul-like alien overlords who subliminally want you to obey, buy things, and watch TV. With a little help from Meg Foster and Keith David (along with some WWF-style resistance from the latter), Piper kicks ass and chews bubblegum all around that alien-controlled town, while simultaneously skewering and expanding the action adventure bravado that only ‘80s cinema could deliver.

Before They Live, Carpenter had already directed such classics as Halloween, Escape from New York, The Fog, The Thing, Starman, and Big Trouble in Little China, among others, so it’s not like the writer/director/composer didn’t attract star power. So why pick unproven Piper? His biggest non-wrestling credit at the time was playing a preacher in Sam J. Jones’ one-season TV series, The Highwayman. So yeah, not exactly Schwarzenegger’s resume (though some might argue there’s a fair amount of acting in professional wrestling).

Well, it all started at 1987’s Wrestlemania III, perhaps the pinnacle of '80s squared-circle popularity, and one of the most widely viewed wrestling events ever. Indeed, Carpenter, a devoted wrestling fan, was there, and among other great moments in sports, got to witness Piper win his retirement match (he’d be back, don’t worry) against "Adorable" Adrian Adonis, managed annoyingly by Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart. When Carpenter met Piper for dinner afterwards, it was apparently love at first sight.

“Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” Carpenter told Starlog Magazine in 1988. “He has been hit so many times that he is really broken up. He even walks funny, because his pelvis was shattered and his back was wrenched. He is definitely not a pretty boy. He’s the toughest guy I’ve met. You run a truck into Roddy, and he would still be standing.”

So perfect for the part of Nada. Seems like pretty good reasoning to us. And it obviously worked out, as Piper kicked plenty of ass in the role, particularly in the now legendary 5-plus minute fight scene battling fellow day laborer Frank Armitage (Keith David, not to be confused with David Keith) over Armitage's repeated objections to donning said illuminating Raybans. Furthermore, it was Piper, according to Carpenter himself (per Entertainment Weekly), who adibbed the film’s most memorable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

The line, the fight, and yes, Piper’s casting, help show just how genius the film really is. What better way to poke fun of the ‘80s schlock and consumerism that came before, while also badassedly topping the action with one of wrestling’s biggest schlock-slingers in the starring role?

If you’re suddenly in the mood to chew some bubblegum and watch They Live, head over to Peacock and check it out for free. Or if you feel like checking out some serious wrestling action, Peacock’s got you covered there as well.

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