They Live marked wrestler Roddy Piper’s first big movie role, and here’s why John Carpenter cast him and his fight partner Keith David. Movies about alien invasions of Earth are quite common, but few are as unique in tone and presentation as 1988 cult classic They Live. An expert blend of sci-fi, horror, and action, They Live presents a more insidious alien threat, one that didn’t invade with explosions and lasers, but instead preyed on humanity’s own greed and self-interest to silently take control of society over decades.
Blessed with a typically great score composed by Carpenter himself, one of They Live‘s best assets is its somewhat eclectic casting. That includes Meg Foster as Holly Thompson, who possesses a pair of blue eyes so striking some directors have actually had her wear contact lenses to dull the effect. At the head of the line is of course Piper, who became a pop culture icon in the mid-1980s as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, one of the lead antagonists to Hulk Hogan during the WWE’s vaunted Hulkamania era.
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Piper had spent much of his wrestling career as a villain, so was on the surface a bit of an odd choice to play a sci-fi/action hero. Thankfully, John Carpenter taking a bet on Piper’s ability to do the job paid off, leading to a film and performance that have become legend. Piper was ably backed up by an excellent turn from David as Frank who, despite being a friend, engages in an epic back alley brawl with Piper’s character. Here’s why both men were cast in They Live.
Why Roddy Piper & Keith David Were Cast In They Live
While it’s unclear what John Carpenter thinks of today’s wrestling scene, in 1987 he was a big fan of what WWF was putting out. So much so that Carpenter attended WrestleMania 3 in Detroit, Michigan, which featured the mammoth main event of Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant. Elsewhere on the card, Roddy Piper – now a good guy – was competing in his first “retirement” match against Adrian Adonis. Carpenter met Piper backstage and was instantly impressed with him, leading to Piper’s casting as They Live‘s Nada.
Carpenter found Piper to be perfect for what he was looking for in They Live‘s hero, a truly rugged man who looks like he’s lived a life, and not like the typical visually impeccable Hollywood leading man. Piper’s appearance and manner also stood in stark contrast to the glossy, pampered Ronald Reagan-era values the aliens and their human co-conspirators enjoyed in They Live. These qualities were due to Piper having truly led a rather rough existence, as he’d left home as a young man, getting into wrestling when he was still a teenager. That era of wrestling was a lot rougher than the business today, and Piper had to scratch and claw for over a decade before he really started to become a star in the late-1970s NWA. He also battled back from countless severe injuries.
With Carpenter having set Piper as his believably tough alien-fighting protagonist in They Live, the writer/director decided to write the secondary hero role of Frank specifically for Keith David. Carpenter had come away impressed with David’s work in The Thing and was eager to work with him again. Plus, David’s large stature made him believable as someone who could hold his own against and alongside Piper, and not just be a standard sidekick. Thankfully, the pairing proved to have great onscreen chemistry.
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