John Carpenter Knew He Wanted 'Rowdy Roddy' Piper For They Live From The Moment They Met

John Carpenter's films have a world-weary sense about them. From the claustrophobic body horror of "The Thing" to the dystopian movie "Escape from New York," no matter how ridiculous the sci-fi concepts that Carpenter brought, they always had a sense of authenticity and grittiness to them. So when it came to casting for his films, it only makes sense that Carpenter would want his lead actors to reflect that same type of authenticity and world-weariness. Such was the case for his 1988 film "They Live," a biting and provocative science fiction satire that follows an everyday man who gets caught up in an otherworldly conspiracy. 

The main character only referred to as "Nada," is portrayed by none other than wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper. The wrestler's performance in "They Live" helped keep the subversive film entertaining, with Piper's physicality and charm integral to Nada's character. Without Piper, Carpenter fans and even fans of sci-fi and action films, in general, would be without the famous "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum." Thankfully, Carpenter's first meeting with Roddy Piper led to his starring role in "They Live," and their first meeting wouldn't be one Carpenter would soon forget.

'Roddy has life written all over him'

In an archived interview with Starlog Magazine in 1988 (via, Carpenter spoke about what had led him to cast Roddy Piper in the lead role for "They Live." Interestingly, the casting decision would have been questionable at the time. As well-known as the wrestler Roddy Piper was, his acting credits were few and far between at the time. Moreover, Carpenter had already been successful with previous directorial efforts with the likes of Kurt Russell and Jeff Bridges in starring roles. It's safe to assume it was always an option to bring a more prominent name to portray Nada in "They Live." However, the film's story called for someone rougher around the edges:

"Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him. 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 met. You run a truck into Roddy, and he would still be standing."

The toughness and "life" that was written all over Roddy would be precisely what made him perfect for the role of Nada. The character's introduction in the film speaks volumes to this, shown immediately as a drifter looking for a means to keep himself afloat. There wasn't anything necessarily visually appealing about the character, making him an unconventional hero to root for.

The six-minute fight

Regarding the "toughness" Carpenter describes, look no further than the incredible six-minute fight scene with Keith David's character Frank. The fight took a month to prepare and choreograph and is a clear highlight of "They Live." The fight's believability and entertainment value hinged not only on the physical capabilities of Piper and David but also Piper's inherent characteristics of looking like a guy who can take a beating. As Nada spends the entire fight trying to show the truth to Frank, he takes beating after beating, only to continue to get up until he eventually manages to put the glasses on Frank.

This pivotal scene in the movie showcases exactly why Piper was perfect for the role of Nada. Had Carpenter not been a fan of wrestling, nor had he attended "Wrestlemania III," where he first met Piper and decided to cast him in the role, who knows what direction "They Live" might have gone in? Thankfully, Carpenter believed in Piper as a performer. In retrospect, it's hard to go wrong when you pair Piper's physicality and fight experience with his time in wrestling and his overall authenticity as a person and an actor. While the legendary Roddy Piper may no longer be with us, the drifter known as Nada will forever remain a well-known character in Carpenter's vast filmography.