Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Remembering Roddy Piper, 1954-2015

Last Friday a friend of mine sent me a message via Facebook. Roddy Piper, the legendary wrestling superstar, had passed away at the age of 61.

I read the link to the news article, from TMZ Sports, and looked at it with some skepticism. Perhaps they were going off of a rumor? Of course, as I slowly looked around the web and saw more and more sites reporting the news, it finally struck home that he had indeed passed away due to a heart attack suffered during the previous evening.

My first memories of Roddy Piper date back to about '76/77 when I began watching wrestling. LA had it's own hotbed of wrestling, taking place at the Olympic Auditorium and airing on Wednesday evenings on Channel 34 via a Spanish-language program called 'LUCHA LIBRE'. On Saturday afternoon, more Olympic  wrestling aired on Channel 52, this time in English. I watched both of these regularly, part of my consumption of comic books and endless hours of TV (Incredible Hulk, Six Million Dollar Man, Speed Racer, etc). 

 Some of my programs from the Olympic Auditorium shows.

The Olympic Auditorium wrestling shows introduced me to a host of great talents, such as the famous Guerrero family (Chavo, Mando, Hector), Victor Rivera, Andre the Giant, Texas Red, Bull Ramos, the notorious heels Black Gordman & Goliath. It's where I first became aware of the legendary Mexican luchador, Mil Mascaras.

But it was Roddy Piper who grabbed my attention like no other. Here was this very young Scottish wrestler
(by way of Canada) in a kilt, with his ever-present bagpipes, landing smack in the middle of Los Angeles, with it's large and loyal fan base of Mexican fans, and declaring all-out war on the Guerreros! Yes, back then the political climate and censorship wasn't what it is now, so Piper was able to tell the Guerreros and the fans exactly what the thought of them! The fact that a lot of this happened via a Spanish telecast only added to the outrage. I didn't think in terms of this exact language back then as a kid, but I was like "The nerve of this bastard!".  And of course, that's what wrestling is all about: putting butts in seats with all the hype and heat you can muster. Just think of some of your favorite movies that feature great actors playing bad guys you love to hate. That's exactly what Roddy Piper was doing, but in real life.

Not unlike the great Don Rickles, Piper would blast a whole in his targets, with the result that he'd put the crowd squarely in opposition to him. Just where he needed them to be...

In what to me is about the most ridiculous and brilliant scheme I've ever seen in wrestling, at one point Piper lost a 'loser leaves town' match to one of the Guerreros. Shortly thereafter a mysterious masked wrestler, in a full body red & white costume, appeared on the scene...The Canadian

The Canadian, of course, did not speak English, and his manager, Black Gordman, did all his speaking for him! Canadian would sometimes respond with a "¡Si, maestro!", but otherwise would not speak so as to not be recognized. Which was the hilarious part because we all knew it was Piper under the mask, and he knew we knew! But keeping that gimmick going was part of the fun, and it no doubt kept ticket sales going. It certainly fueled us viewers at home, screaming at the TV with a raised fist!

By the end of the 70s, with a lot of the wrestlers, including Piper, having moved on to other territories (this was back in the day when there where a variety of promoters across the country running their individual leagues), I eventually drifted away from wrestling. Then in the early 80s a friend and co-worker, Mike Henry, invited me over to his house to watch these new programs by the World Wrestling Federation. Wrestlemania 2 had just passed, and I was amazed by the steel cage match between Hulk Hogan and King Kong Bundy. But I was very surprised to see the boxing match with Mr. T and my old pal, Roddy Piper! Yep, I was back on the Piper bandwagon, right when he was terrorizing a whole new generation of wrestling stars. He was as nasty as ever, and I began to learn how he had played a role in launching the WWF into the mainstream of American pop culture with his clashes with Hogan and the whole circus with MTV, Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T. 

Eventually of course Piper catapulted into the movie business with his role in the classic John Carpenter cult film, THEY LIVE. Even as Piper became a fan favorite 'good guy' in the WWF, he retained his charismatic charm. Eventually, like with the old Olympic wrestling days, I drifted away from watching WWF as the 90s progressed. Piper of course continued his career, moving to the WCW in the mid 90s then several return engagements to the WWE (formerly WWF).

Through it all, Piper remained himself. What I've always loved about him was his ring persona: the supremely confident way he carried himself, whether as a hated villain or a beloved hero. He was without question the quickest guy on the mike, his humor and improvisational skills ranking him with such classic comedians as Don Rickles, Sam Kinison, George Carlin and others. But what became clear to me in later years was that alongside that great character of Rowdy Roddy Piper was a genuine human being. A devoted family man and someone extremely appreciative of his fans and the great opportunities he's had in life. It's amazing to me that someone who could be so 'bad' could be so good. But that's a true performer.

I saw him at one or two live wrestling shows, but also got to meet him in person back in 2002, when he was promoting his autobiography, IN THE PIT WITH PIPER. He was as gracious in real life as I could imagine, and I shared that I used to watch him during his Olympic Auditorium days. Ten years later, he hosted a screening of THEY LIVE in Los Angeles, which I attended with my friend Ted Seko. We had a wonderful time listening to Roddy's stories about making the film, and again, he was extremely amicable in talking to his fans. 

As a creator of comic books, I look at performers like Piper (and others, like the late Randy Savage) and see that their characters they create are 100% at full throttle. Totally 'in character' when the mic is on (and often afterwards, as well!). While I don't necessarily try to create characters that mimic these wrestling stars, I'm reminded to try to give my own characters a sense of performance that hopefully leaps off the page. Piper shares that desirable attribute that some of my favorite old-time comic book creators have: treating fans with genuine respect and kindness. That's something else I've always strived for in my own career. It's not hard to do when I've had such great examples.

I've only got a small handful of wrestling stars I can call my 'all time favorites'. Piper joins Macho Man Randy Savage on my list of 'gone but not forgotten'. But they live on in videos and DVDs, and our personal memories. We fans will miss him tremendously, but it's Roddy Piper's family I extend my most sympathy too: his wife Kitty, their son and three daughters, and grandchildren.

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