WrestleCinema: ‘They Live’ Starring “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

'They Live' Starring "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
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In addition to being an accomplished professional wrestler, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was an on-screen actor throughout the years. In 1987, Piper took a break from wrestling following WrestleMania III, where he defeated Adrian Adonis in a Hair vs. Hair Match. This allowed “Hot Rod” to pursue acting, which he had done in the past. Though he had a lead role in ‘Body Slam,’ which came out in 1986, it was ‘They Live,’ which premiered in 1988, that became perhaps his most notable film.

Released on November 4, 1988, ‘They Live’ is a science-fiction action film directed by John Carpenter. From ‘The Fog’ to ‘Escape from New York’ to the original ‘Halloween,’ Carpenter’s filmography is extensive. In addition to his notable works, Carpenter produced many films that, while not as commercially successful as his other works, achieved cult status over time. Among the latter works is ‘They Live,’ which has an interesting story, to say the least.

They Live
Photo / Universal Pictures

The Development of ‘They Live’

‘They Live’ was derived from ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning,’ a short story penned by Ray Nelson in late 1963. The story tells of a man who discovers that the human race has been hypnotized; with this knowledge, he was until 8:00 AM to solve the mystery. ‘They Live’ was also conceived, by Carpenter, with the idea of the dangers of rampant commercialization in mind. Essentially, if an individual fails to question what they’ve been provided, they’ll continue to consume it, no matter how detrimental the long-term implications become.

In terms of casting, John Carpenter had the perfect lead actor in mind: Roddy Piper himself. Carpenter met Piper during WrestleMania III and the two hit things off right away. At this time, professional wrestlers acting in movies wasn’t unheard of. Several years earlier, Hulk Hogan portrayed the antagonist known as Thunderlips in ‘Rocky III’ before going on to star in such works as ‘Suburban Commando,’ ‘Mr. Nanny,’ and ‘No Holds Barred,’ the latter being perhaps Hogan’s most notable film. However, while Hogan’s acting tended to be energetic, bordering on cheesy, Piper’s acting in ‘They Live’ was more grounded and subdued by comparison.

John Nada
Photo / Universal Pictures

“The Whole Deal’s Like Some Crazy Game.”

‘They Live’ stars Piper as John Nada, a drifter who finds himself in the bustling city of Los Angeles, California. In need of work, Nada accepts a position as a construction worker. From there, he finds himself staying at a settlement within the city. Though Nada is initially a strong believer in authority, he starts to question his trust when TV broadcasts are hacked, showing messages that proclaim radio signals are attempting to enslave humanity.

Nada’s trust is challenged further when he sneaks into a nearby church where settlement members enter and emerge. Later that night, riot police officers attack the church, the settlement, and its people. This leads to Nada finding strange sunglasses that belonged to the church. Donning said sunglasses, our protagonist sees the world as it truly is. The sunglasses allow him to see well-meaning messages as propaganda, telling the population to “obey,” “consume,” and the like. More so, he can see aliens that have been masquerading as human beings. Nada befriends Frank Armitage, a fellow construction worker from the same settlement. Together, they must find the aforementioned signal, destroying it and unveiling the invading alien forces to the public at large.

Digging Deeper into ‘They Live’

It’s easy to see, while watching ‘They Live,’ that John Carpenter was influenced by sci-fi and monster movies of the 1950s; this was the case for many film directors during the 1980s. Hints of 50s classics such as ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ ‘The War of the Worlds,’ and ‘It Came From Outer Space’ permeate throughout the film. However, the latter is still an 80s flick, complete with gun-slinging action and hand-to-hand combat.

Speaking of hand-to-hand combat, ‘They Live’ features a street brawl that lasts for nearly six minutes, completely uninterrupted. In an attempt to get Frank to wear the revealing sunglasses, Nada fights his friend in an alleyway. The fight scene is long, to be certain, but one can argue that it helps convey the message that average people tend to be preoccupied with fighting one another as opposed to working together to face common enemies in power. This fight scene is one of the most memorable aspects of ‘They Live.’

Another reason ‘They Live’ is remembered is “Rowdy” Roddy Piper himself. As a wrestler known for being brazen and, at times outlandish, his portrayal of Nada is levelheaded. With that said, he has his moments where that Piper-esque wit comes into play. Nowhere is this more evident than in the bank scene. Armed to the teeth, Nada enters a bank, where he sees alien invaders among human clients and employees. With a smirk, Nada drops one of the most famous lines in 80s action cinema.

The Casting and Dialogue

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubblegum.” From there, Nada open fires on the aliens, shooting them down one after another. Nada’s one-liners are numerous in the film. From calling one alien in disguise “formaldehyde face” to telling one alien reporting on Nada that “mama don’t like tattletales,” Nada is as witty as he is deadly with firearms. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

‘They Live’ wasn’t Piper’s first or final appearance on the silver screen, either. Even as he remained involved in wrestling, Piper took part in other productions. These included ‘Hell Comes to Frogtown,’ which was released the same year as ‘They Live,’ and ‘Back in Action’ in 1994. In his later years, he would land a recurring role as Da’ Maniac in the TV series, ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ Over the years, Piper has proven himself as a versatile on-screen performer; ‘They Live’ was an early example of this.

Another strong casting choice is Keith David as Frank Armitage, a character who simply wants to work to provide for his family, all the while staying out of trouble. When he sees the same invading alien forces as Nada, however, Frank is convinced to join the fight. David’s aforementioned fight scene with Piper became memorable, as discussed earlier, but he’s a solid actor in his own right. Several years prior, he starred in another Carpenter film, ‘The Thing.’ He would also go on to see success in voice acting, supplying his talents in such works as Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog.’

Following the Release of ‘They Live’

Upon its release, ‘They Live’ was not one of the better-received films of John Carpenter. In fact, various critics believed that its script faltered and the movie lacked imagination, just to name a few criticisms. Nonetheless, it performed well, bringing in $13 million against a $3 million budget. Furthermore, it went on to achieve cult classic status. ‘They Live’ would be referenced in everything from music videos to video games, becoming a vital piece of sci-fi film history in the process.

‘They Live’ had a long-lasting impact on the people involved, too. On the December 15, 2014 episode of the Piper’s Pit Podcast, Piper sat down with Carpenter to discuss multiple topics; needless to say, these included ‘They Live.’ Piper regarded the film as a “documentary,” believing that its influence has only gotten stronger over the years. Carpenter believed that multiple factors contributed to the film’s long-term impact on society. These ranged from Piper’s performance to his various one-liners discussed earlier.

In 2017, David sat down with SYFY WIRE to discuss ‘They Live’ at length. He noted how “hungry” and “curious” Piper was in regard to acting. David also said that the fight scene, which was fashioned after 1952’s ‘The Quiet Man,’ told a story on its own. Furthermore, it was a scene that took three days to shoot; keep in mind that ‘They Live’ was shot in eight weeks. Nonetheless, David spoke about the scene with fondness, crediting Piper for teaching him about selling as well.

They Live
Photo / Universal Pictures

‘They Live’ – In Closing

It’s easy to sit down and discuss ‘They Live’ at length, from its story to the casting to its long-lasting impact on pop culture as a whole. From a wrestling fan’s standpoint, it was a genuinely solid movie starring one of the top names in the World Wrestling Federation at the time. From the perspective of a moviegoer who has never seen wrestling, ‘They Live’ is an action-packed flick with political and social commentary peppered throughout. No matter the direction, this is one 80s flick that has stood the test of time.

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