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SYFY WIRE John Carpenter

They Live: The Story Behind How Roddy Piper Came Up with the Movie’s Most Famous Line

In John Carpenter’s epic horror-verse, we’ll always be fresh out of bubblegum.

By Benjamin Bullard
Roddy Piper They Live (1988) GETTY

Right in the very movie moment when they heard it, the words completely freaked out the sinister skin-walking aliens of John Carpenter’s action-horror classic They Live. Now, 35 years after the late, great Roddy Piper first strapped up with weapons, stepped inside a bank, and sounded out his unforgettable ass-kicking lament about bubblegum, the show-stoppingly ominous zinger remains the movie’s most famous and oft-quoted line.

Piper’s nameless character in They Live (stream it here on Peacock), known only in the credits as “Nada,” is out for a good old-fashioned human revolt after discovering a mysteriously magical pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the movie’s big dystopian secret: A skeletal race of alien control freaks, all masquerading as people, walk among the rest of society while strategically swapping Orwellian subliminal messages with conventional billboard ads and street-level signage.

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Problem is, Piper is the only character in They Live who seems to see reality’s disturbing features for what they are (thanks, sunglasses!). The rest of humanity, it seems, simply doesn’t have any clue that it’s been sleepwalking its way through an invading species’ secret agenda.

How They Live’s "bubblegum" line made it into the movie

By the time Piper’s agitated drifter strides into the bank in They Live, he’s wise to the aliens’ whole scheme and ready to do something about it — even if he’s only an army of one. Thanks to Carpenter’s neat trick of switching between color and black-and-white shots to show Nada's through-the-sunglasses point of view, it’s not too tough to sympathize with his fed-up resolve when he steps through the door, surveys the scene, and utters the film’s most famous line.

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he announces inside the suddenly silent lobby. “And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

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Along with the movie’s epically lengthy fight scene — a knock-down drag-out affair between Piper and costar Keith David — the famous bubblegum line rates not only as one of the most memorable moments in They Live, but in all of Carpenter’s prolific filmography. And considering that Carpenter already had directed a slew of genre classics including the original Halloween, Escape from New York, Christine, The Thing, Starman, and more, that’s really saying something.

What’s most interesting, perhaps, about Piper’s iconic one-liner is that it reportedly wasn’t written anywhere in Carpenter’s original They Live script. As Entertainment Weekly reported at the time of Piper’s 2015 passing, Carpenter himself credited the wrestler-turned-actor with ad-libbing the zinger right on the spot — after, in other words, the cameras already had started rolling.

Roddy Piper on the set of They Live

Piper appears to have corroborated that account, explaining in a 2013 interview (reported via /Film) that he didn’t have any deep insights into what he must have been thinking when he improvised the line in real time. “Yeah, I couldn't tell you what it really means, either,” he reportedly said, while recalling Carpenter’s open-ended cues on how he should play the scene.

“It was one of those — 'Roddy, you've got bullets on you, you've got a shotgun, you've got sunglasses, you go into a bank, you're not gonna rob it, say something... action!' 'I'm all out of bubblegum.' 'Lunch!' That was it. No more than that. I know, it's crazy.”

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Crazy it may have been, but Piper’s off-kilter choice of words (not to mention his pitch-perfect delivery) burrowed deep into pop culture consciousness. Creative culture wiki Tropedia lists a veritable cavalcade of mass media homages that’ve been offered, over the years, to Piper’s quick-witted ad-lib — including what may be the most frequently-mistaken place where people think the quote originally came from: the 1996 video game Duke Nukem 3D, which slightly tweaks the movie version while nevertheless mimicking, y’know, the whole basic ass-kicking concept.

With or without the bubblegum, They Live remains a stone-cold Carpenter classic, complete with an elegantly compelling surface-level horror story that smartly conveys the directing legend’s signature gift for thoughtful social satire. So stock up on the chewy stuff and keep a pair of shades handy: They Live is ready to stream anytime on Peacock right here.