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.

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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.)

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