A-List: Wrestlers on Film
By Sean Collier
June 19, 2008

I keep waiting for Ray-Ban to come out with a line of these.

You'll indulge me, kind BOP readers, in a brief moment of introduction, before I pull the A-List out of a nearly three-year-deep pile of mothballs. The name's Sean Collier, and I'm truly delighted to be writing for you. As a long time reader of Box Office Prophets, I'm well aware of the fine quality of writing you've come to expect, and hope that I can live up to the lofty standards set by the rest of the staff. I'll be bringing you a new A-List every other Thursday; keep an eye out for a review here and there, too. And now, to diverge wildly from expectations, let's talk about pro wrestling for a while.

This Friday marks the release of Get Smart, and with it, perhaps the highest-profile role taken on by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The former WWE Champ was marked as a potential star after hosting a well-received episode of Saturday Night Live in 2000. His first big-screen role of note came as a villain in The Mummy Returns; from there, a run of middling action flicks worked to permanently lift The Rock out of the ring and into Hollywood.

Perhaps it's a testament to Johnson's star power that he's been able to establish himself without a true blockbuster under his belt. His biggest draw so far has been Disney's The Game Plan, and his action career contains more flops (Walking Tall, Doom) than hits. Despite a so-so track record, The Rock has probably made the most successful leap from tights-and-turnbuckles acting to the red carpet variety; whether the tough Agent 23 in Get Smart proves to be his iconic role remains to be seen.

Of course, Dwayne's transition is nothing new; pro wrestlers trying their gruff, scowling best at performing with their clothes on is almost as old as the business itself. In honor of The Rock stapling things to people's heads alongside Steve Carell, The A-List presents the best moments of wrestlers on film. (As a special bonus, the list will remain completely free of Hulk Hogan performances!)

Andre The Giant as Fezzik, The Princess Bride

1987 was a pretty big year for Andre. His title bout with Hulk Hogan at that year's Wrestlemania III drew a live crowd of 93,000 (or 82,000 if, unlike Vince McMahon, you believe in reality,) as well as a pay-per-view audience of millions – which amounted to pretty much everybody with pay-per-view in 1987. This match is still regarded as the biggest of all time, with Andre playing the part of the hated villain trying to destroy the all-American hero; yet, by the end of the year, he had transitioned to loveable fairy tale sidekick. As the dimwitted giant Fezzik, Andre showed comedic timing that he had never flashed in the ring, particularly in a long sequence where Cary Elwes bounces off of his seven-foot frame like a pinball. Sadly, Andre's health was already beginning to fail by the time The Princess Bride was released; he died of complications from acromegaly (the condition that gave him his mammoth stature) in 1991.

Jerry "The King" Lawler as himself, Man on the Moon

Andy Kaufman's real-life feud with Memphis wrestling legend Jerry Lawler drew mainstream attention in the early '80s, culminating with an infamous brawl during an episode of Late Night with David Letterman (Letterman, visibly perturbed on the air, was not informed that a fight was going to break out.) The revelation that the feud was staged and fully concocted by Lawler and Kaufman didn't come for a decade after Kaufman's death. Lawler didn't speak publicly about the planning of the angle until 1997. In Man on the Moon, Lawler and Jim Carrey recreated the key events of the feud; though the secret was out by then, a scene of Lawler and Kaufman discussing their success over coffee remained somewhat surreal. I was fortunate enough to meet Lawler last year; after staying quiet for so long, he's happy to talk about Andy today.

Stanislaus Zbysko as Gregorious, Night and the City (1950)

Just to prove that there was pro wrestling before even Vince McMahon Sr. was born, here's a noir relic starring one of the wrestling greats of the early 20th century, Stanislaus Zbysko. Failed hustler Harry Fabian has tried to scheme his way rich, but failed time and time again. His big plan involves taking over the local pro wrestling racket, toppling gangster-type Kristo by getting to his father, an aging wrestler. Zbykso, already 70-years-old when Night and the City filmed, was critically praised for his performance, though this was his only film role. Zbysko's feuds with early grapplers Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt sold out arenas as early as the first decade of the last century. Don't let your grandparents convince you otherwise, though – it was scripted even then. Robert De Niro starred in a 1992 remake of Night and the City; boxing was subbed in as the seedy sport of choice.

"Macho Man" Randy Savage as Bonesaw McGraw, Spider-Man

Before getting on the bad side of just about everyone, Savage was one of the biggest stars in the wrestling world. By 2002, his star had faded considerably; still, he beat out more established wrestler-turned-actor Bill Goldberg for this small part as a sinister underground wrestler in Sam Raimi's Spiderman. Savage was a bizarre choice, acting generally ridiculous throughout his screen time and looking more old and withered than menacing. However, I can't help but include this one on pure geek appeal – between The Macho Man, Spiderman, and Bruce Campbell as the ring announcer, this is some sort of 12-year-old nerd's wet dream. Let's just hope that somewhere, there's a deleted scene where Campbell pulls out a chainsaw and a boomstick and the three go at it for a good 20 minutes.

Various Wrestlers, Beyond the Mat

Most of writer/director Barry Blaustein's career is somewhat undistinguished; he directed The Ringer, wrote The Honeymooners, and is more than a bit to blame for The Nutty Professor 2. However, his pro wrestling exposé Beyond the Mat is an engaging, poignant and completely honest look at pro wrestling. Blaustein's film clears up every misconception about the lives of wrestlers and sheds light on stars big and small. It's a sad story, mostly. Mick Foley's wife and children react to the brutal punishment Mick takes during a match with The Rock; Terry Funk is told by doctors that his knees are more or less not knees anymore; Jake "The Snake" Roberts smokes crack, alienates his daughter, and revels in the rush of an 80-person crowd in the middle of nowhere. Far from a special interest piece from wrestling fans, Beyond the Mat is fascinating, careful filmmaking.

Roddy Piper as Nada, They Live

The clear lynchpin of this list, Piper's role in They Live is perhaps the best performance ever turned in by a pro wrestler. John Carpenter's campy, dystopian horror-comedy was a perfect fit for Piper, known just as much for his hilarious, intensely creative interviews as his matches. While his performance is best remembered for the (supposedly) ad-libbed line, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum," Piper is entertaining and engaging throughout, particularly in an epic five-minute street brawl with Keith David. Much of Piper's wrestling persona can be found in Nada (the bubblegum line is purported to be from an idea for an in-ring interview,) but Nada is much more complex than that; far from a static character, he goes from a firm belief in the sanctity of the American way to a panicked, jaded anger at reality. It's unfortunate that Piper never found much of a career after They Live – he clearly had all the tools to be a major action star.

One to Watch For

Currently in post-production, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler stars Mickey Rourke as a washed-up former superstar trying to fight his way back along the independent circuit. In-ring segments were filmed at live events held by Philadelphia independent promotions Ring of Honor and Combat Zone Wrestling, with Rourke in the ring, grappling with Philly-area independent brawlers. Among the current and former wrestlers appearing as foes for Rourke are Ernest Miller, Ron Killings, The Blue Meanie, and the best-named pro wrestler ever, The Necro Butcher. Marisa Tomei co-stars (presumably not as a wrestler.)