I like to unplug from my phone and internet during lunch. If I check my phone, I will have to rewind the TV to see what I missed. So it was with quite a shock this past Friday, after a late lunch my girlfriend Megan called me with a frantic, “Are you OK?”
“What the hell happened?” I asked, going from relaxed lunch to full alert.
I heard her take a deep breath and say, “TMZ Sports is reporting Roddy Piper died.”
What? No, that can’t be right. Not THAT Roddy Piper. Not Rowdy Roddy Piper. Must’ve been someone else. Must’ve been Lonnie Phipher, someone got confused somewhere. There’s no way Roddy Piper could be dead. Not someone with that much life and zeal. But in this day and age, TMZ is pretty accurate when it comes to reporting this sort of story. Remember, these are the guys who outwitted the entire NFL with one well-placed phone call during the Ray Rice scandal. I had to believe the story was true even though as a story it seemed unbelievable.
I talked with Megan for a bit and then read up on it, hoping they were wrong somehow. There are celebrity death hoaxes all the time after all but it wasn’t long before Vince McMahon, the boss with whom Mr. Piper had a long love/hate relationship, took to twitter to eulogize Hot Rod.
I can’t sit here and claim to have been a close friend of Roddy Piper or even that I knew him very well. But as the picture above shows, I did work with Rowdy Roddy Piper. And yes, technically for one night at least, at Chippendale’s in Las Vegas. So I thought I’d share some thoughts and memories.
As my homepage tells you, I worked as a producer on WWE Legends’ House which put Roddy Piper along with WWE Legends Pat Patterson, Mean Gene Okerlund, Jimmy Hart, Tony Atlas, Howard Finkel and Hillbilly Jim inside a house in Palm Springs, CA for a month-long shoot. The resulting episodes can be found on the WWE Network and as a life-long wrestling fan, the experience remains one of the fondest memories of my entire life. And while I did some work as a referee on the New England independent wrestling circuit in 2001, I kept that information to myself. I did not want these Legends thinking I was in their league or their business. I have too much respect for what they achieved to do that.
All of the Legends were fantastic people. They were always telling stories, trying to make the crew laugh and were consummate professionals. If you got to spend 10 minutes with any of these Legends, you’d have a great time and will be happier for it.
Wrestlers are one of a kind people. Roddy Piper even more so. The internet is now a memory lane of a generation’s favorite memories of the Rowdy One. My aforementioned girlfriend never watched or like wrestling yet she knows exactly who Roddy Piper was. Roddy Piper was not just a wrestling celebrity. He was a bona-fide celebrity, an indelible part of this generation’s childhood. I’ve long argued “I have come here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble-gum” is one of the great lines in movie history.
As a person, Roddy Piper could be a tricky character. I know this because he told us. He was weary of the crew at first. Mr. Piper was a veteran of scheming territorial promoters and Hollywood crews so his weariness was completely understandable. But within a few days of seeing how professional things were going, he became as gracious as could be. When I first met and told him I’d be interviewing him about some of the scenes we were shooting, he beamed and said “ask me anything you want, a pleasure.”
Roddy Piper was an open book to the camera. He would regale the crew with stories from the road, such as the famous night in Fresno with Bob Orton, or clotheslining plants with Ric Flair. And of course, when he was put in warpaint for a day of LARPing, he told us about the time Andre The Giant & Arnold Skaaland made sure he stayed painted half-black for several days after Wrestlemania VI. But also he was happy to hear stories from the crew. One night while waiting before the shoot, we talked about my screenwriting career and my life with Megan back home.
Most nights at 8 PM he’d feel a burst of energy from years of being amped for showtime. Some nights, he’d howl at the moon. He was fascinated by the moon. Many days though, he and his roommate, Hacksaw Jim Duggan would just relax telling stories about their kids. One night I was interviewing Pat Patterson about a scene, but Roddy wanted Pat at dinner with the other Legends. He came over and pulled Pat away from the interview but don’t think he was being disruptive. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’ve been working all day, you all need dinner too. We’re taking a break.” I could make a quip that one doesn’t mess with this former Intercontinental Champion but I’m guessing this was the father in Roddy Piper, making sure everyone got fed during a long day.
Roddy Piper could tell you stories about a million fights he’d been in. But now in his late 50’s, he was the peacemaker when some heat between Jim Duggan and Tony Atlas flared up. And he seemed to enjoy it. For his wild reputation, Roddy Piper was now a man happy to bring peace to the valley. When another argument between two wrestlers occurred, I conducted an interview with Roddy about it. Maybe in 1985, he would’ve said “Let them fight!” But in 2012, he enthusiastically looked at all angles and perspectives, sympathizing with where people were coming from and trying to come up with solutions.
For weeks, he called me Bambi. One of the executive producers asked him why I was called Bambi. He snapped his fingers, going, “Bambi, not Bambi, Lassie, aha, Timmy” and smiled. That’s how he remembered my name and you know something? Never in my whole life could I be more pleased to be nicknamed Bambi. Only Rowdy Roddy Piper could make that nickname cool. When I got ribbed a little by one of the wrestlers, I told Roddy about it conversationally. He perked up and looked at me very seriously, “Was he mean to you?” And I said, “No, not at all, just playing around.” “OK,” he said. THAT’S when Roddy Piper got Rowdy – whenever anyone was threatened. But don’t think I’m the only member of the crew he had nicknames for or was protective of. By the end of the shoot, lots of folks had autographs, nicknames and stories.
When I tell people I worked on Legends’ House, the first question is “what were the wrestlers like?” Awesome is always the answer. What was Roddy Piper like? Always took a picture with the fans. Always had a great story. Always polite and professional. Never hiding anything.
And more than anything else – Rowdy Roddy Piper was a family man. Many wrestlers have called Roddy a great father in their remembrances and our cameras can back up at that story. One night, Roddy Piper told his fellow Legends his proudest moment was that he was saw all of his kids being born. Considering wrestlers are on the road 300+ days a year, that is no small feat. And while Roddy Piper’s achievements made him a unparalleled figure in the century plus history of pro wrestling, he never ever lost sight of what was most important in his life.
On the last day of shooting, I was busy doing closing interviews with some of the Legends. There was a rush to get things signed by many of the crew. I could only get one thing by each signed because it was so busy. I handed my copy of Roddy Piper’s autobiography to one of the EP’s to get it signed.
Later on after the shoot, I happened to bump into Roddy Piper. “I didn’t know you were a referee,” he exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I told him basically what I said above. A guy can play in the minors but that doesn’t necessarily make him a peer of Mickey Mantle. But I’m glad that EP told him the story and that he was glad to hear it. He wished me all the best with my writing and gave me a big hug.
Of course, I’ll remember the dog-collar match, the coconut shot to Jimmy Snuka’s head, Wrestlemania, the match with Bret Hart & They Live. But more than that I’ll remember this kind, generous and unique person who carved his own path in a harsh world and knew how to make everyone smile.
His autograph remains one of the finest pieces of advice I could think of:
I haven’t watched the WWE tribute to Roddy Piper yet. I hear it’s amazing and I will. Soon. But not yet. For now, I’ll raise my Scotch north toward Oregon & Canada while listening to “Scotland The Brave.”
Below is a picture of Roddy Piper preparing his roast. He didn’t know I took this quick, grainy shot. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But I was nearby while this artist was at work. He sat quietly alone taking note after note of what he was going to say . This producer became a journalist, saw a moment and snapped the pic. I’d like to think he’d be pleased.
Safe travels to Rowdy Roddy Piper who was 61 years young…
Rowdy Roddy Piper’s homepage:
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