“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a wrestler and actor who was one of the kings of the squared circle during the WWF’s go-go days in the 1980s, died overnight at his home in Hollywood. He was 61. His agent Jay Schachter told Deadline that Piper, whose real name was Roderick George Toombs, died peacefully in his sleep. No cause of death was given. Piper had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007 but said last year that he was cancer-free.
“I am shocked and beyond devastated,” Schachter said. “He was an amazing man and a true friend, one of the most generous, sincere and authentic people I have ever known. This is a true loss to us all.”
WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon also paid tribute to Piper via social media. “Roddy Piper was one of the most entertaining, controversial and bombastic performers ever in WWE,” McMahon said on Twitter. “[B]eloved by millions of fans around the world. I extend my deepest condolences to his family.” Meanwhile, on Instagram fellow wrestling legend Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson told of how much Piper influenced him as a child growing up in the shadow of pro wrestling royalty.
Piper had been wrestling professionally for a decade when he joined the then-World Wrestling Federation full time in 1984, just as it was catching fire in pop culture. A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, he was billed as a bad guy from Glasgow, Scotland — famous for wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes in the ring. Piper was a popular figure on the circuit, wrestling some of the top draws of the era and becoming an archrival of then-world champion Hulk Hogan. Their legendary beef — aided by Cyndi Lauper, whose popular video for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” featured WWF all-stars — helped bring pro wrestling farther into the mainstream. Piper and Hogan squared off for the heavyweight championship in the 1985 Madison Square Garden event billed as The War To Settle The Score. The good guy won, natch, and Piper never did claim a world title.
MTV aired their bout, which helped pave the way for the inaugural WrestleMania a few months later, Piper — also known as Hot Rod — and tag-team partner Paul Orndorff lost the main-event bout to Hogan and Mr. T. WrestleMania would become the WWF’s signature event, and Piper returned several times. He also got his own interview segment, Piper’s Pit, during which he regularly would taunt his subject and, often, attack him. Decades later, it was revived as a podcast.
Piper, Hogan and dozens of other WWF stars of the day would gather — ‘We Are The World”-style — for a video of the old hit “Land Of 1000 Dances,” which earned heavy rotation on MTV. Remember this?
Piper left the WWF in 1996 and joined World Championship Wrestling, then rejoined the rechristened WWE in 2003. But that reunion was brief; WWE stopped using Piper following his interview on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel in which he discussed the underbelly of the pro wrestling biz. But he returned again in 2005 and his legacy was cemented with induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. He returned to the ring and later was voted No. 1 on its all-time villain list. He continued to make WWE-related appearances throughout the next decades, and last year was a regular on the WWE Network reality show Legends’ House.
During and after his wrestling days, Piper racked up dozens of film and TV credits, starring in numerous action B-movies and later doing voice work. Piper’s TV credits include It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Cold Case and Highlander, and he had a number of projects in various stages of production at the time of his death. But aside from wrestling, Piper’s most famous role inarguably came in Universal’s 1988 sci-fi thriller They Live. Starring as a sunglasses-sporting drifter suddenly tasked with saving the human race, Piper originated the famous catchphrase — “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum” — and engaged in a marathon fistfight with co-star Keith David, said to be among the longest ever filmed. Years later, director John Carpenter said the scene took three weeks to rehearse. Since then it has been referenced and parodied in myriad other works, including an episode of South Park and the 2013 video game Saints Row IV, in which both Piper and David appeared as themselves.
The suddenness of his death left Piper no time to write deliberate last words. But in characteristic style, his last tweet serves as a fitting epitaph both to the man he was in real life, and to the larger than life persona he spent more than three decades crafting.
As news of his death spread, further tributes from friends and colleagues in professional wrestling poured out: