written by Justin Fields
A True Performer, Bagpiper, Boxer, Actor, And Professional Wrestler.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper represents an important chapter in Portland sports history. In the era following the Blazers championship of 1977, nothing was more memorable than watching Portland Wrestling on Saturday nights on Channel 12. Piper dominated the screen with a brash attitude that would become his trademark for years to come. After leaving Portland, Piper went on to become the most famous villain or “heel” in pro-wrestling in the WWF (now WWE), and win more than 34 professional wrestling titles in more than 7,000 professional matches.
Piper is an incredibly adaptable athlete and performer. In a career spanning almost 40 years, he has captivated crowds as a bagpiper, a boxer, a professional wrestler, a film and TV actor, and a podcast personality. He has a published biography called In the Pit With Piper, and has done voice work for the video game Saint’s Row IV, and the animated film Green Hornet: Emerald Knights. And he’s got a graphic novel coming out from the Portland based publisher Grind House called, Roddy Piper, Monster Killer. His other media exploits are too numerous to mention. He’s an action entertainment icon, and a legend of Portland cultural history.
I was born in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, maybe the coldest place on Earth at 100 below in the winter. In 1959, we moved to a place called The Pas, the toughest Indian reservation in Canada. I got beat up every day, all day, and it made me tough. I come from a long line of fighters that are legendary where I come from. My biological father never lost a fight, but he was very intelligent also. My uncle, Tupper Toombs, was a coach of the Canadian Boxing Team back in the 1900s. When I turned 11 he bought me a machete. But even before that, I had bagpipes. There’s a picture of me playing when I was about 5 years old. When I was about 14, I became fifth in the world playing the bagpipes with a band called The City of Toronto’s Men’s Pipe Band.
When I was about 15, I set out hitchhiking Highway #1 in Canada, and ended up staying in youth hostels for 25 cents a night. I’d play my bagpipes for money on the street, and survive how I could. Out of boredom, I started hitting the bag a little, learning to box. Pretty soon I had won the Golden Gloves championship. After that I started to wrestle at a YMCA in Winnipeg, Canada. One day my amateur coach offered me a paying job. He said, “You know Rod you’ll lose your amateur status, but I can get you $25 if you want to fight this guy.” I immediately said, “All right I’ll take it.”
What was your first professional match like?
They didn’t have TV where I was, so I had never seen professional wrestling. I asked my pipe band about it, and they were excited. They said they’d play me in. My very first match was when I was 15, and I had four pipers, a bass drummer, and two snares in full regalia. I had a kilt on, same as the band. When I came down the aisle the announcer didn’t know my name, so he just said, “Here comes Roddy the Piper.” That’s how I got the name. Shortest match in the history of the Winnipeg Arena. The guy beat me in 10 seconds. Ding, ding, and he broke my nose, and split my eye. My pipe band was so ashamed they left the arena. I came back from the dressing room and I thought the promoter was going to cheat me out of my $25. He just said, “Kid you did great. How’d you like to go to New York City?”
And just like that, you were off to the United States? What was it like on the road in America?
For the next 10 years I wrestled every day, twice on Saturday, twice on Sunday. For the first several years, I didn’t have a social security number, so the old guys didn’t like me and treated me like I was expendable. When I got to LA, I was still getting killed. Finally a fellow named Judo Gene LaBell took me under his wing and trained me. He’s alive today, and he’s one of the toughest men in the world. That’s according to guys like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. I’m one of the Judo Gene’s black belts. Anyone around the world in any kind of fighting sport knows who he is. Soon after that, I got my first break as a main eventer in Los Angeles.
So how did you go from learning the ropes in LA to being a well known professional wrestler in Portland Wrestling in the early 80s?
I met a guy named “Playboy” Buddy Rose, who used to come down to LA for the horse racing. He said, “Give your notice, and come on up to Portland!” Back in those days when you got over somewhere, it wasn’t common to just leave. When you became a main eventer somewhere, it was a big deal, so you didn’t take the decision to leave lightly. When I came to Portland nobody knew who I was. I had to start all over again.
What was it like being in the league at the same time as playboy Buddy Rose, and working for Portland’s famous promoter, Don Owens?
Buddy Rose was one of those guys who didn’t want to leave Portland because he was thought he couldn’t get over elsewhere, but he was just amazing. We sold out the Portland Sports Arena 26 weeks in a row with Buddy Rose. There were a couple other guys responsible for that like Killer Tim Brooks, and Rick Martell. The guys I’m mentioning now were the guys that hadn’t reached their prime yet, but were just really catching on. We were the cutting edge of the next generation that was going to rule. Don Owens, God bless him, was a wonderful guy. When I got to the WWF, I refused to work in Portland out of respect for him. But those early days in Portland – that was actually a magical era.
What was it about Portland that helped shape your career? Why was it magical?
In Portland, I began to craft my own individuality. I started changing the whole way interviews were done. In Los Angeles when I got on as a main eventer, I was still taking instructions. But when I got to Portland, I had had the freedom to set out on my own. During that time a lot of magical stuff happened on camera because we kept trying, and even tried out some stuff that wasn’t so good. But the fans in Portland, they just embraced it, and it was probably the hottest time for new wrestlers. It was just after that era of Tough Tony Borne and Stan Stasiak, God bless them. I love them so much. We all broke new ground together. Portland was a great place for honing yourself for wherever you were going next.
How has the world of pro wrestling changed over the last 30 years?
It’s a public company now, so there are stockholders that they have to answer to. When I got into it, it was just fastest draw in the wild west. There were no rules. That’s all completely changed now. They all are terrific athletes now, no one could argue with that. However, the sport has evolved more toward the entertainment side, and they have boundaries that they must obey. WWE Raw goes to 150 countries every week, including China and Russia.
Do you think something was lost in translation from its more primitive beginnings to the global juggernaut that it is today?
To be completely honest, it was more fun to watch back in the early days. When I left wrestling I got a message from Vincent McMahon saying I wasn’t a true-blue WWFer. He was mad that I left. However, it’s a billion dollar company now, and the athletes are making millions of dollars. Now they put mats on the ground by the ring to protect them. They’ve got catering three times a day, massage therapists, and an X-ray machine. It’s unbelievable.
You’re also famous for your acting, particularly for your role in the John Carpenter film, They Live. What was the process like crossing over from wrestling to movie making and how do those two corners of the entertainment industry compare with each other?
Really interesting question. To say they’re similar is false. Natural charisma might help with the crossover, but other than that, they couldn’t be more different. When I’m in Madison Square Garden, the guy way up in the cheap seats needs to see me too. Well, if I did that on a Hollywood screen you couldn’t watch it. So they’re completely different. I was the first one to ever star in a major motion picture that came out number one at the box office the weekend it was released. As you know, it was called They Live. One of the movie reviewers in New York said, “Anybody that thought wrestlers were actors should watch They Live.” I just said bring it on.
Do the themes of They Live still resonate today?
That movie’s hotter today than it’s ever been. I think it’s a documentary. When we made it, the underlying theme for John Carpenter was Reaganomics. But today, it has new meaning. For a movie that first screened in 1988, it’s great to go around the country and see it in theaters still today. The first time I saw the movie with people was in Philadelphia and the theater was packed. They couldn’t see me, but I was watching the crowd. They knew the movie so well they were calling out the lines. I was really amazed and honored by that. I did a Q & A when the movie was over, and I think I had more questions for them than they had for me!
It’s become a real cult classic, it has a following.
It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, because it has the longest fight scene in cinema history. It also has one of the 10 most famous Hollywood lines. My line is, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” That line has become so big that I now have a Roddy Piper Bubble Gum Soda pop. It’s in a lot of stores, including the BevMo chain. That popularity speaks for itself right there. And it’s good soda pop too, I like it a lot.
And you’re still acting in movies. You’re on set right now?
I’m playing somebody very cool. I’m playing Oscar Wilde. The movie is called Green Fairy. It’s about absinthe, and this green fairy goes from Vincent van Gogh to Oscar Wilde in the movie. It’s one of the better parts of me that I’ve had in a long time. It’s really cool.
Piper’s Pit started as your interview segment on WWE in 1984. Now that has evolved into a podcast heard around the world. What do you like best about doing the podcast?
I like challenges and I like creating and it’s one of the few mediums right now where there are no rules at all. I have a few hundred thousand listeners around the world. I think the show is most listened to in London. It’s on the cutting edge, and it can stay there. It’s very much like when I first got Piper’s Pit going – there were no rules. I don’t go on there trying to be a tough guy, because I don’t really like tough guys. It gives the audience another look at you from a different perspective.
Portland wrestling was a bellwether of bohemian culture in Portland. Wrestling personalities in the 1980s included a flannel wearing lumberjack, a leather mask wearing assassin, a bleach-blonde stoner “Playboy”, and a kilt-clad Scottish “Piper”. Sound like any given night in SE? It’s no coincidence.
The notoriously low video production value perfectly showcased the brilliantly bombastic wrestler interviews. Images of these outsized personalities coupled well with the cheesy commercials for legendary local furniture purveyor, Tom Peterson. The entire late night experience of Portland Wrestling exemplified the “Keep Portland Weird” ethos, long before it was a bumper sticker.
Photography by Tim Sugden
Roddy Piper passed away on July 30th, 2015