Rowdy Roddy Piper

Roddy Piper with bagpipes

Roderick George Toombs
Born: April 17, 1954 (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)
Died: July 31, 2015 (Hollywood, California)

A skirl of bagpipes heralded the arrival for battle of Rowdy Roddy Piper, a kilt-wearing trash talker whose repertoire in the wrestling ring included such felonious tactics as eye poking.

The notorious villain, whose boy-next-door looks belied a wicked tongue and a heart filled with malice, became one of best-known wrestlers of his era. A bombastic and entertaining loudmouth, who was not above relying on foreign objects or folding chairs to overcome his rivals, Mr. Piper’s charisma took him from small-town hockey rinks in Manitoba to Madison Square Garden in Manhattan as one of the first stars of the WrestleMania series.

Rowdy Roddy Piper fistMr. Piper, who died of a heart attack at 61, claimed to have entered the ring for more than 7,000 professional fights. Hot Rod, as he was also known, was a central figure in the renaissance of pro wrestling in the mid-1980s, as the choreographed sport introduced storylines including characters from the world of television and pop music.

“One night, I knocked out Mr. T, kicked Cyndi Lauper, chased Dick Clark back to his locker room, and slapped Little Richard,” he told a reporter last year.

Mr. Piper served as a foil to Hulk Hogan, wrestling’s biggest star, appearing alongside his nemesis in Saturday morning cartoons and on children’s plastic lunch pails, becoming a pop-culture figure in his own right.

The villainous cheater of the wrestling ring showed great versatility as a movie actor, a standup comedian, a one-man improv performer, an MTV veejay, a soda pitchman, and a pop singer.

His acting credits include dozens of action films and television movies, though he is best remembered for his starring role in John Carpenter’s 1988 dystopian science-fiction feature, “They Live,” an over-the-top critique of the consumerist conformity of Reagan-era America. Portraying an everyman drifter, Mr. Piper discovers the ruling classes are alien robots. He confronts them in a bank while armed with a shotgun.

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” he announces before firing his weapon. Mayhem ensues. The film also includes an extended fight scene between Mr. Piper and Keith David often included on lists of greatest cinematic donnybrooks.

Billed in wrestling promotions as hailing from Glasgow, Mr. Piper’s true origins delighted a generation of Canadian children who were thrilled to learn the cheating, hair-shaking monster was one of us.

The wrestler was born on April 17, 1954, at Saskatoon, Sask., to Eileen (née Anderson) and Stanley Baird Toombs, a railway policeman who served with the CN Police. The boy, named Roderick George Toombs, lived a peripatetic childhood in Quebec, Ontario and on the Prairies, including stints in Dauphin and The Pas in Manitoba.

His teen years were tumultuous and he claims troubles at home led to his sleeping at youth hostels and on gymnasium floors from an early age. “I ran out of tears when I was 14,” he once told the Winnipeg Free Press. He attended Windsor Park Collegiate in Winnipeg, though by his own admission his academic studies were secondary to his own keen interest in boxing and playing the bagpipes. In 1971, he helped his Winnipeg school district win an invitational amateur wrestling tournament by emerging as champion of the 165-pound division.

In later years, he claimed his first professional bout came about by accident when he was asked at age 15 to fill in on an undercard for a wrestler who failed to show against Larry (The Axe) Hennig. He risked his amateur status by entering the ring, but the promise of a $25 payday proved a greater lure.

“I had never seen a match before,” he told the Portland Tribune last year. “I went to play my bagpipe. I was wearing (a) kilt. The announcer didn’t know who I was. He just knew my first name was Roddy. So he said, ‘Here comes Roddy the Piper.’ Shortest match in the history of Winnipeg Arena — 10 seconds. Broke my nose.”

(Mr. Piper’s anecdote is likely a bit of promotional hullabaloo in the wrestling tradition. The bout occurred in 1974, nine days after his 20th birthday, when Mr. Piper suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of The Axe in a battle lasting less than two minutes and described in print as one of the shortest in Winnipeg’s history. “It was almost a matter of the bell ringing to start the fight,” the Free Press reported, “and then immediately echoing back to end the match.”)

In any case, the young man had found his calling and his shtick. He would wear tartan shorts or a kilt and he would fight as an angry, half-mad Scotsman. In his earliest appearances, the penniless fighter entered the ring after tossing dandelions into the crowd like rose petals, angering the crowd.

In those days, promoters worked certain territories with wrestlers sharing motel rooms to save costs, a hardscrabble life more similar to being a carney than a pro athlete. The promoter Al Tomko added Roddy Piper as an opening fighter expected to grapple for 20 minutes on cards scheduled to last three hours. He was a jobber — paid to lose.

After a few years working the prairie circuit, Mr. Piper moved to California, where he was trained by Judo Gene LeBell, a former wrestler who called himself “the toughest man alive” and the Godfather of Grappling. At 6-foot-2, a scrawny Mr. Piper would eventually fight at a billed 230 pounds. It was while engaged in Mr. LeBell’s promotions at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles that Mr. Piper began perfecting his Rowdy character. His most notorious stunt was to have insulted a popular family of Mexican-American wrestlers. He announced he would make amends by playing the Mexican national anthem on his bagpipes. Instead, he played “La Cucaracha.” Mayhem ensued.

He tasted success as a “heal,” a wrestling bad guy, as he fought from the Pacific Northwest (as the Masked Canadian) to the American South.

Outside the ring, Mr. Piper battled with promoters. His demands for payment, or a better storyline, led to his being blackballed by regional promoters more than once. He learned to be self-sufficient.

“You can pretty much strip me naked, drop me off in any city, and I’ll find my way out,” he once told a weekly newspaper in Portland, Ore. “I learned the rules — like, never carry a dull knife or an empty gun, ’cause both’ll get you in trouble and neither will do you any good.”

In 1984, he was hired by the World Wrestling Federation (later World Wrestling Entertainment, now WWE) to be a manager, as well as a commentator on a segment called Piper’s Pit. Racial taunts were widely used by Mr. Piper as part of the unsubtle marketing of wrestling. In one notorious episode, Mr. Piper filled the set with bananas, pineapples and coconuts to welcome Fijian grappler Jimmy Snuka, only to wind up insulting his Polynesian heritage before conking him over the head with a coconut. More mayhem ensued.

The WWF steamrolled the old economics of wrestling by relying on such new technology as video while also creating syndicated programs and annual pay-per-view specials called WrestleMania. (These were delineated by the use of Roman numerals, like popes, monarchs, and football’s Super Bowl.) Mr. Piper teamed with Paul Orndorff in a tag-team match against Mr. Hogan and Mr. T in the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985. The following year, Mr. Piper boxed Mr. T, and he appeared in several starring and guest roles in the annual show. Such antics, even as a bad-guy loser, made the Canadian world famous.

He continued wrestling on an irregular basis, more recently on independent circuits. He became a entrepreneur in Portland, where he co-owned a wrestling promotion company, lent his name to a bubble-gum flavoured soft drink called Rowdy Roddy, and owned such small businesses as Piper’s Pit Stop Transmission Center. In 1992, his pop love song, “I’m Your Man,” was released in the United Kingdom, as was an accompanying video. He also appeared in Cyndi Lauper music videos.

Mr. Piper suffered untold concussions in his time in the ring, as well as a dizzying array of lesser injuries. He claimed to have been stabbed three times by angry wrestling fans over the years and made it a habit to sit in public with his back to the wall.

In 1991, he joined Mr. Hogan and three other pro wrestlers in telling a U.S. federal jury that they had purchased anabolic steroids from a Pennsylvania doctor, who was subsequently convicted. The wrestlers were not charged because using the muscle-building drugs was not a crime at the time they admitted receiving the drugs by Federal Express from the doctor.

In 2006, Mr. Piper was in hospital to get treatment for a bone chip in his hip when doctor spotted swollen lymph gland. He was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy.

“It seems like I have been fighting someone, something, someplace, in some manner, my whole life,” he said at the time. “But this fight is one I am gonna win!”

Mr. Piper died of a heart attack at his home in Hollywood, Calif., on July 31. He leaves his wife Kitty (née Dittrich), a pint-sized former waitress whom he called the only person he ever feared. He also leaves three daughters and a son, who was a professional mixed-martial arts fighter, as well as a granddaughter. Other survivors include two sisters and his mother.

“He was Roddy Piper inside the ring,” his mother said Friday, “but outside the ring he was Rod Toombs, a lovely boy.”

In an interview with sports broadcaster Bryant Gumbel in 2003, Mr. Piper lamented the death of so many of his peers at an early age.

“Everybody’s dead,” he said. “They’re all dying and nobody cares about it.”

More than once, Mr. Piper joked in interviews that he wanted his tombstone to read, “I told you I was sick.” His death brought tributes from Ms. Lauper and the movie director Mr. Carpenter, as well as many of his ring opponents, but perhaps the most poignant farewell was written by an anonymous headline writer for Vice: “Roddy Piper came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and now we’re all out of Roddy Piper.”

Roddy Piper

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

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