It takes a strong personality to stand out in a sport full of them, but Roderick George Toombs, otherwise known as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper (1954-2015), managed to sustain a career as one of the most colorful characters in the history of professional wrestling. For more on “Hot Rod,” including his martial arts background and his unlikely turn as a big-screen hero, keep reading.
1. Roddy Piper was a very accomplished bagpipe player.
Born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada on April 17, 1954, the future “Rowdy” Roddy Piper earned his nickname early in life. According to Piper, he was “too much” for his parents to handle and wound up leaving home at the age of 13. Piper lived in youth hostels and hitchhiked. Despite his nomadic lifestyle, he was an accomplished bagpipe player and claimed he played in the Rose Bowl at age 12 before being nationally recognized for his abilities on the instrument at age 14.
It was the bagpipes that led to Piper’s career in wrestling. Playing with a band one night at the Winnipeg Arena when he was still a teenager, Piper—who was also an amateur wrestler and boxer—volunteered to step in for a wrestler who didn’t show up for a scheduled bout against Larry Henning. Piper came to the ring in a kilt and was announced as “Roddy the Piper.” Though the bout lasted just 10 seconds, he had found his calling.
2. Roddy Piper once wrestled a bear.
Before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (later World Wrestling Entertainment) organized pro wrestling in the United States, various regional organizations would do whatever they could to garner attention and fans. While performing in Fresno, California, a young Piper got an offer to wrestle “The Bear.” Piper believed this was one of wrestling’s theatrical nicknames. It wasn’t. The promoter, Roy Scheiers, wanted Piper to grapple with a real Kodiak bear that had been declawed. Though Piper was expected to try and pin the bear, the animal maintained a dominant position until its handler used a tranquilizer to end the match. Piper later discovered a friend had smeared honey in his trunks to make the bear more aggressive.
3. Roddy Piper was a black belt in judo.
When Piper moved to California in 1973, he wrestled frequently at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The promoter for the territory was Mike LeBell, who had a half-brother, Gene LeBell, a renowned martial artist who practiced judo. Piper and Gene LeBell became friends. LeBell taught him judo and eventually awarded Piper a black belt in the art.
4. Roddy Piper suffered permanent hearing loss as a result of wrestling.
While wrestling may sometimes be dismissed as fake, injuries are a very real and common occurrence for its athletes. In 1983, Piper agreed to wrestle a “dog collar match” with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. In the bout, the men would be connected via a chain attached to their respective neck collars. When one wrestler had enough slack on the chain, he would use it to assault his opponent. Having the chain smashed into his head broke Piper’s left eardrum and cost him a 50 percent loss of hearing in that ear. Owing to the nature of wrestling tours, Piper and Valentine wrestled the same dog collar match dozens of times over the next two months.
5. Roddy Piper did not get along with Mr. T.
When McMahon had consolidated a number of wrestling territories in the 1980s, his next move was to create a large-scale event with a lot of hype behind it. WrestleMania debuted in 1985 and featured Hulk Hogan and Mr. T taking on Paul Orndorff and Piper in the main event. Mr. T was a celebrity thanks to his performance as Clubber Lang in 1982’s Rocky III as well as the NBC television series The A-Team. But Piper was wary of losing a bout to someone who was only making a passing appearance in the wrestling world and told McMahon he wouldn’t allow Mr. T to defeat him in the bout. It was Orndorff who was pinned. For WrestleMania 2 the following year, Piper and Mr. T faced each other again, this time in a simulated boxing match. Piper lost by disqualification after body-slamming Mr. T, a clear violation of the rules.
6. John Carpenter cast Roddy Piper in They Live because the wrestler walked funny.
In 1988’s They Live, a drifter with the enigmatic name of John Nada (Piper) discovers a subversive alien plot to control humans via subliminal messages. Director John Carpenter cast Piper after meeting the wrestler following his match in 1987’s WrestleMania III. “Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” Carpenter told Starlog in 1988. “He has been hit so many times, that he is really broken up. He even walks funny, because his pelvis was shattered and his back was wrenched. He is definitely not a pretty boy. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met. You could run a truck into Roddy, and he would still be standing.”
Piper’s shopworn physicality won him the role. They Live went on to become a cult classic, in part due to a ridiculously long fight scene between Piper and actor Keith David.
7. Roddy Piper became a member of G.I. Joe.
In 2007, Hasbro unveiled a limited-edition G.I. Joe figure of Piper as an Iron Grenadier Trainer from the Scottish Army for their annual International G.I. Joe Convention. He joined fellow wrestler Sergeant Slaughter, who debuted as a Joe in the 1980s. Piper also appeared at the convention to sign autographs.
8. Roddy Piper released a pop song in 1992.
Along with Hulk Hogan and other wrestlers, Piper helped popularize the WWE in the 1980s by appearing alongside singer Cyndi Lauper in music videos and on MTV. Lauper even got in the ring on occasion. In 1992, Piper got out of his own comfort zone by recording a single, “I’m Your Man,” that was released in the UK by Epic Records. You can watch Piper croon in the video above.