IN MEMORIAM: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper; Rebel, Rabble-Rouser, Raconteur

My heart was heavy when I heard the news that Roddy Piper, known to most of the world as “Rowdy” Roddy, or “Hot Rod,” died at the age of 61 from cardiac arrest. I just recently had the privilege of directing him in my film, Don’t Look Back.

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I only knew Roddy, personally, for a short period of time, but those of you who have made movies know just how close people become during the magical, and often relentless, process of filmmaking. Not to mention, I’ve actually known Roddy my entire life—a lot of us who watched professional wrestling have grown up knowing him—so I feel compelled to write something.

Roddy played Eddie Starks in Don’t Look Back. It was a dark role, the role of a child abuser. When my co-writer and casting director, Michael Testa, mentioned that Roddy might be available to play the part, I was ecstatic. Not only was Roddy an icon in the wrestling world, he solidified his pop culture status in John Carpenter’s They Live, which, if I’m not mistaken, still holds the record for the longest fight scene in cinema history. You might remember Roddy’s signature line from the film: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Roddy Piper They Live

When I first spoke to Roddy, he was hesitant about playing the part of such a despicable person, a person who victimizes the most innocent of our society. He was also aware of his status as a childhood hero, which such a role could potentially undermine. I told him that someone with his type of affable personality should play the role, because it’s always the person no one expects, or the person that everyone admires, who flies under the radar and gets away with such crimes. It’s more dramatic, more authentic, to play against type for this role. He liked that line of thinking; primarily because he thought it might benefit kids who watch the film by bringing awareness to these types of predatory individuals.

It was never about Roddy; it always about others, whether it was the viewers, his fans, or his collaborators.

I could write an endless amount of words on Roddy—whether they’re about working with him, or about the stories (legendary stories) that he shared with me during the process. I could write about his Method acting—he would isolate himself in a dark room, or closet, between takes to stay in character. He would want to know how tight the shot was—was it a wide, medium, or close-up—and subtly adjust his performance to every inch of the frame (likely a by-product of a life on camera, especially in a profession where a wrestling move must read the same to spectators in the first row as to those in the back. He knew how to perform to a lens, and for a director, that was most welcome). He would improvise lines here and there, but he would always warn me, “I’m gonna throw stuff at you, Will, but if it doesn’t work for you, you just tell me. I got thick skin!” He had improvised every episode of “Piper’s Pit”—each and every one off the top of his head—for the WWF back in the day; who was I to discourage such a generous bequest! Remember that famous “bubblegum” line? Yes, that was all him. If someone in the crew wanted a picture with him (I was one of those people), he obliged; he even obliged those who wanted a picture with him putting them in a headlock. I watched closely each time someone asked for that (and it was surprisingly often): Roddy was much shorter than you might think, so the picture-asker inevitably would have to crouch down for him, so he could reach his arms around—however, Roddy never let that happen. He would say: “Count to three.” Picture-asker counts to three, then Roddy proceeds to knee the picture-asker in the back, triggering the reflexes in the muscles to shrink the body like an accordion and bring the person’s head towards him, leaving plenty of room for Roddy and his arms to choke the individual as the picture’s being snapped.

Every time; brilliant. It never got old.

HotRod

I thought I’d relay one story, because it’s one of the most wonderful, and wonderfully terrifying, things that started as a story and became something else. Now it’s something wonderful and terrifying unto its own, which lives on inside Don’t Look Back. It all began when Roddy began humming, and then singing, the children’s song John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt during a particularly disturbing scene in the film. You know the song:

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,

His name is my name too.

Whenever we go out,

The people always shout,

There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!

He caught me by surprise when he began singing it in a take; what was meant to be a playful tune, was turned into something haunting. The subverted use of such a bright song in such a dark scene simmered with subtext—it heightened the drama of the scene to a level I had not anticipated. Roddy was on to something, and I filmed it (after I asked the powers-that-be if the song was in the public domain, which it was, and we carried on).

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While in post-production, my editor, Blake, and I realized how much of an impact Roddy’s seemingly little improvisation had on the entire film. We cut bits and pieces of the song up and peppered it throughout the film, using it to foreshadow more ominous elements of the story as it progressed. My composer, MJ, felt it to. He wanted to expand on that idea and bring the song, literally, into the score of the film. He wanted to take Roddy’s version and stretch it out, slow it down, speed it up, and merge it with his character’s musical theme. The problem was, we didn’t have much of it to spare. The production audio of the song wasn’t completely clean; there was dialogue from the other actor, and Roddy didn’t sing the song completely through to its end.

MJ asked me: “Can you get Roddy to come into the studio and sing the song for us?” Roddy spent a lot of his time in Oregon and was always shooting or touring, but I gave him a call. As I imagined, he was out of town and would be on the road for a while, and subsequently unable to come into the studio. Roddy asked me why I needed him. I explained how wonderful, and of course, terrifying, his use of the song was in the film, but that we didn’t have enough production audio of it. Yes, the song was eerie, but there was something genuine about it, something I couldn’t quite articulate, that just worked. And it worked because of him. He loved the idea of weaving the song through the score and began to tell me why he sang the song in the first place. When he was a kid, he lived in a rural area of Canada that was native to Timberwolves. Upon moving to this area, he had learnt of the deaths of several children who were killed by these wolves. That wasn’t the only problem. Roddy was a small kid and he told me that he was bullied a lot (hard to imagine, right?) before and after school. In an effort to avoid the bullies, he bypassed the roads and walked several miles through the heavily wooded outskirts of the town—heavily wooded outskirts that were home to these specific Timberwolves. But, he had learnt something else: Timberwolves were frightened of the human voice. As a result, he learned John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt and sang it at the top of his lungs during his walks to and from school. He told me, after that, he would never forget that song—and he brought that dark, gritty emotional reality to its performance in the film. And for that, I can’t thank him enough.

Roddy couldn’t make it to the studio to record the song in person, and getting him into a studio wherever he was proved difficult. So, I suggested to him, “You know what could work; give me a call, I’ll let it go to voicemail, and you can sing it into the phone.” He said, “Sure,” and he hung up. I expected him to call me right back, but he didn’t. After a few minutes of silence from my iPhone, I was sure I had rubbed him the wrong way; that the suggestion was too much to ask (you know how your self-consciousness gets the best of you sometimes; particularly in this business? Well, it was getting the best of me then).

One day passed, two days passed; should I email him? Third day: should I text him, give him a gentle nudge? Fourth, Fifth, Sixth day passed; okay, I should call and apologize to him. No, email; it should be an email.

Just over a week later, I was leaving a meeting and pulled out my phone to check it. The screen read: Missed Call: Roddy Piper. There was a voicemail. And, on that voicemail, was John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt:

This was the most terrifying voicemail anyone has ever left me—or will ever leave me—and we used it all throughout the film. The recording became an essential track in our score and sound design. The fact that Roddy left me in such suspense before leaving me this recording; well, he was still the same man who smashed that coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head. I’m extremely grateful to have worked with the man, who in my eyes (and many others’) was, and will always be, a legend.

My deepest condolences and prayers go out to Roddy’s family. Thank you for letting him come play with us up in Idyllwild and shoot our little movie—it was, without question, one of the best experiences of my life.

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