Put On These Glasses: Rowdy Roddy Piper and They Live

In my early childhood, the primal forces of “light” and “darkness” for me were represented by two titanic figures: WWE wrestlers Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper.

Irony of ironies…in 2015, “good guy” Hogan was forced out of the-now WWE in infamy as the “villain,” while the organization’s CEO Vince McMahon would send out a two-part tweet praising the recently deceased Piper—born Roderick Toombs—as “one of the most entertaining, controversial and bombastic performers ever.” (Of course…now, as per 2019’s Wrestlemania, Hogan has returned.)

How did wrestling’s greatest heel become so beloved?

Well, like many anti-heroes before and after him (and it should be remembered that the character of Wolverine was originally a villain as well), it was in part because he was so goddamn entertaining. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him when he was on your TV screen. He radiated more than just menace…but this manically alive energy that just bounced around unrestrained and uncontrolled. It was often clear that he was going “off-script” and just doing his own riffs, and they were mesmerizing.

But I don’t think Piper could have fully made that transition out of “heeldom” if it wasn’t for his starring role in the 1988 John Carpenter movie They Live. It was a ballsy choice on Carpenter’s part—the wrestler might have clocked in a lot of TV wrestling time on his mini-show “Piper’s Pit,” but this would be the first time he’d star in a motion picture. You only have to look at Hogan’s movie career to see the pitfalls—the “Real American” basically playing a banal version of himself in every hokey film.

And perhaps Piper was playing himself in They Live, as the protagonist John Nada…perhaps that “lone wolf” character was more himself than even his wrestling schtick. And of course…that’s what made him so damn good in that role.

In the film, Piper/Nada finds a pair of glasses that let’s him see the world as it really is—filled with skull-faced aliens secretly in power. Not only could his spectacles suss out the invaders…they even “translated” propaganda, revealing commands like “OBEY” and “CONSUME” in advertising and on TV.

Way before The Matrix became the movie of choice for a post-9/11 generation, there was They Live—almost the blueprint for 1990s “conspiracy-culture.” It was all there: Piper as the working-class hero screwed by the system, who exposes a worldwide conspiracy of “aliens” who manipulate the public through mind-control. The movie has been cited as an influence by everyone from Jonathan Lethem to Shepard Fairey—with Fairey even being inspired to create his “OBEY” series because of the film.

Towards the end of his life, Piper seemed to accept some of the “conspiracy” aspects of “They Live” as possibly real, saying as much in his DVD commentary for the movie and in this famous tweet:

Roddy Piper may be gone, but his spirit will live forever.

One of the most powerful and subversive film scenes in cinema history: