Who Was Roddy Piper?
Homeless during his teenage years in Canada, Roddy Piper found a lifeline in pro wrestling with help from a bagpipes gimmick. After honing his heel role in Los Angeles, "Rowdy" Roddy emerged as one of WWE's most notorious villains in the 1980s, his boisterous attitude fueling a series of feuds and his long-running role as host of Piper's Pit. His contributions recognized with induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005, Piper remained a central figure in pro wrestling until his death in July 2015.
Piper was born Roderick George Toombs on April 17, 1954, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The son of a police officer who worked for the railroad, Piper endured a peripatetic childhood that carried him to homes in unfamiliar places, including a Native American reservation, and often forced him to use his fists against hostile locals.
Piper found a source of solace from learning to play the bagpipes at age 6, and an outlet for his aggression as a high school wrestler. Home life remained difficult, however, and he left his family behind in his early teens to fend for himself on the streets.
Early Pro Wrestling Career
The 15-year-old was living in a youth hostel when a priest named Father O'Malley told him he could earn $25 for competing in a professional wrestling match. Piper leapt at the chance and, thanks to the bagpipes he carted along as a gimmick, was announced as "Roddy the Piper."
The fresh-faced wrestler bounced around North America's various pro circuits before landing with NWA Hollywood Wrestling in the mid-1970s, where he flourished under the tutelage of "Judo" Gene LeBell. Embracing the heel role as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, he whipped the fans into a frenzy with his dirty tactics and verbal attacks on rivals like the Guerrero family; once, after promising the Guerreros' fans that he would play the Mexican national anthem on his bagpipes, he instead launched into the folk song "La Cucaracha."
Following a stint in Portland, Oregon, Piper headed southeast to grapple in the ring and use his verbal talents as an antagonistic commentator for Georgia Championship Wrestling. He notably developed a feud with Greg "The Hammer" Valentine during this time, the two settling their differences with a vicious "dog collar match" in pro wrestling's first pay-per-view event in November 1983.
'Piper's Pit' and MTV
Lured to World Wrestling Entertainment (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) in 1984, Piper fueled the sport's transformation from a niche curiosity into a mainstream attraction. With his gift for gab – and collection of ideas and catchphrases gathered on legal notepads – he became the host of Piper's Pit, a talk show featuring interviews that frequently turned contentious; one ended when Piper smashed a coconut on the noggin of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, while another went south when Andre the Giant hoisted his host in the air and flung him.
Piper reached new heights with his villainy at an event in late 1984, when he smashed a gold record over the head of Captain Lou Albano and subsequently "kicked" Albano friend and pop star Cyndi Lauper. This led to Piper's January 1985 "The War to Settle the Score" match with Hulk Hogan on MTV, which brought even more attention to pro wrestling with the introduction of famed tough guy actor Mr. T to the proceedings.
Building on the narrative of the Piper-Hogan/Mr. T feud, WWE launched WrestleMania, the first of what became an annual flagship event, to PPV audiences in spring 1985. Piper and Mr. T were again among the main attractions of the following year's WrestleMania 2, their boxing match ending in Piper's disqualification for body-slamming his opponent.
Intent on always delivering a show, Piper saw to the shearing of Adrian Adonis' locks after his win at Wrestlemania III and famously hosed down talk show host Morton Downey Jr. at Wrestlemania V. He also knew how to use his talents to help his co-stars, helping to set up Bret Hart's comeback win for the Intercontinental title at Wrestlemania VIII.
Later Career and Hall of Fame
Following a sabbatical, Piper returned to WWE in 1996 as interim president and again figured into a central storyline, culminating with his "Backyard Brawl" beating and disrobing of Goldust at WrestleMania XXII. But the fissures with the organization were beginning to show, along with the toll taken from years of physical punishment in the ring.
Seemingly fed up, Piper sat for an eye-opening interview that aired on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in June 2003, in which he bemoaned the deaths of his old friends and blamed his employers for failing to take care of the wrestling talent. He departed WWE days later, but eventually patched things up with CEO Vince McMahon, leading to his emotional induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in April 2005.
Piper remained a central figure after his enshrinement, pairing with fellow veteran Ric Flair to claim the World Tag Team Title from the Spirit Squad in November 2006's Cyber Sunday, before easing out of the ring as he approached his 60s.
Film and TV Appearances
His innate entertainment abilities translating to an array of screen credits, Piper notably starred in John Carpenter's cult sci-fi favorite They Live (1988) as John Nada, a vigilante who takes on society's brain-controlling aliens. He later joined several WWE colleagues in the reality show Legends' House, and found a new format for his storytelling by way of a stand-up comedy act.
Piper had four children with his wife, Kitty, who have spoken of the difficulty of the husband and father being on the road for most months of the year. Additionally, Piper's convincing performance as a grade-A jerk led to multiple attempts on his life.
Two of the Hall of Famer's children, Colt and Teal, have followed their father's footsteps into the pro wrestling ring.
Death and Legacy
Piper died on July 31, 2015, of a heart attack.
Piper is remembered as one of the great villains in WWE history, as well as one of the seminal figures of the golden age of the 1980s. His influence has been felt by wrestlers of subsequent generations like Ronda Rousey, the former MMA champ who adopted the "Rowdy" moniker for her WWE debut in 2018.
“Biography: 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper," which airs Sunday, April 25 at 8/7c on A&E, focuses on “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who is universally considered one of WWE’s greatest villains. During his Hall of Fame career, he played the role of the antagonist against a who’s who of WWE greats, while amassing more than 30 championships. Watch a preview:
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