8/1/15 – Andrew Berg – @WrestleRosters
Like all wrestling fans, I have witnessed far too much death in an industry I love. I have come to expect that my heroes are going to pass away far in advance of the normal life expectancy and I’m even glad to see a wrestler live long just to pull up the average. Despite all of this death- or maybe because of it- I have become almost immune to the emotional consequences and questions of mortality that usually accompany premature death. So why is it that the death of Rowdy Roddy Piper has left me so cracked up, so emotional, and so full of feelings that I have not explored after the deaths of numerous other wrestlers?
In the coming days and weeks, I’m sure I will see Twitter links to Piper’s greatest promos (and they are some of the greatest wrestling has ever seen). I’m sure that I will hear about how he was an underrated worker and fans will publish lists of his most underrated matches (of course, he tore down the house with Greg Valentine at Starrcade I and with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania VII). I’m also sure that insightful fans and writers will explain how Piper exemplified the tipping point between wrestling’s historical bar brawling tough guy and the more modern larger-than-life character.
Yet, hundreds of wrestlers have preceded Piper in premature death and there are plenty whose careers matched or surpassed Piper’s in terms of qualifications. What is it about him that weighs on my heart in a way that no other wrestler’s passing has done?
I recent flew back to the US from Europe and on the flight, I listened to Piper as a guest on the excellent Sklar Borthers podcast. The entire interview was compelling, entertaining, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and all of the other things we have come to expect from Piper as a master of human emotion. The part that stuck with me, though, was the closing segment in which Piper got choked up about how his form of entertainment and the Sklars’ form of entertainment were both deeply personal and resonated because they came from the heart. It was clear that the hosts had an emotional reaction to Piper’s speech because it was something seldom seen in wrestling or improvisational comedy- an authentic emotional moment.
If you followed Piper’s career, you heard the story of the falling out with his aggressive (possibly abusive) father. He left home in his early teens, and rather than join the circus, he joined the professional wrestling circuit. By the time he was 15, he wrestled his first match against a legend known as “the Axe” (Larry Hennig). Even as a teenager, he traipsed across the country, learning the business and becoming a man. By the time he hit it big as an antagonist on the west coast in the late 1970s, he had grown into adulthood within the professional wrestling industry.
Everything Piper did in wrestling- from his fantastic, ground-breaking promos and interviews to his rugged brawling matches- was an outcropping of who he was as a human being. We live in an era where kayfabe is on life support because fans know far more about wrestlers’ personal lives than ever before. Piper traversed this divide because the person he was in the ring and the person he was out of it because they were the same man. Authenticity wasn’t just important to Piper as a character, it was essential to who he was as a human being.
Piper stressed on the Sklar Brothers podcast that wrestling, and all entertainment, are most meaningful when they come from the heart. Piper put his heart on display every time he hosted Piper’s Pit or walked to the ring in his trademark kilt. Piper never had to translate how he felt into a wrestling persona because he was his wrestling persona. If the best wrestling characters are the ones that amplify and adapt the personality traits of the portrayer, then Piper was one of the best pro wrestling characters of all time because there was no amplification and no adaptation needed.
Piper had a successful career outside of wrestling because he understood how to entertain like few others. He is best known for his role in John Carpenter’s They Live, but also starred in everything from reality shows to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Throughout his acting career, it never felt as if there was an actor who played Roddy Piper branching out into different roles; every role was an extension of Roddy Piper because that’s who he was and that’s who he knew how to be.
Maybe it’s simply Piper’s authenticity that makes his loss feel so painful. Most wrestlers die a series of small deaths before the finally shuffle off the mortal coil- they end their in-ring career, they end their time with a professional wrestling company, and they end their time in the public eye before they actually die. With each transition, we have the chance to reflect upon the work they did and undergo part of the grieving process.
In Piper’s case, there was no incremental change because there were no parts of a character to leave behind- there was only Rowdy Roddy Piper. The man, the public persona, and the wrestler, all forged in the same crucible and never split into artificial sub-species. Of course, his death came too soon, but it felt all the more acute because we never had the chance to grieve his wrestling career or persona. Even more importantly, the Piper we saw on TV was the Piper who stayed married for almost 40 years and raised four kids. In a scripted, fake world, he was real. In the end, it was Piper’s uncompromising authenticity that made him special, and it’s what will make us all miss him so much.