Roddy Piper and Keith David square off in ‘They Live’
Over 25 years later, movie fans are still talking about the bruising brawl at the center of They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic about a drifter (played by the late wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who discovers that malicious aliens — disguised as rich people — have taken control of the Earth. The bareknuckle slugfest between Piper and the actor Keith David, which lasts nearly six minutes, has become one of the decade’s most iconic punch-outs, thanks to its relentlessness and its lack of high-flying stunts or special effects — not to mention the pure joy of seeing two tough guys beat the crap out of each other as a high-level conspiracy rages on.
For Carpenter, casting the then-33-year-old Piper was a bold (and risky) choice, as the wrestler had little big-screen experience. But the presence of a professional fighter — by then, Piper had squared off against Mr. T in the ring, and had starred in three WrestleManias — gave the scene a pummeling verisimilitude. “I wanted a good fight! I hadn’t seen anything like that, and I thought, ‘Why not?” Carpenter remembered in a recent conversation with Yahoo Movies, discounting any suggestion that the extended slugfest was, in fact, intended as a parody of movie fights. “I had a wrestler as the star!”
The scene’s set-up is simple: About an hour into the film, Piper’s character, John Nada, realize he can spot the planet-controlling aliens (and decode their secret messages) with the help of special sunglasses. When he runs into his friend and fellow construction worker Frank (David) in a downtown L.A. alley and tells him to try on the glasses, Frank refuses. Nada then gives Frank a choice: “Either put on these glasses,” he says, “or start eating that trash can.” The resulting brawl is pure streetfight, as the two men slug each other without any cutaways, plot distractions, or earthbound interruptions. They only special effect was the actors’ stamina.
To prepare for the fight, Carpenter, his two actors, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada spent more than four weeks rehearsing the fight in Carpenter’s backyard. “You often don’t have the time for that kind of rehearsal time with actors to plan out a fight,” the director says. “They do on some really big budget movies, but we were a small budget movie.” (Indeed, They Live was made for just $3 million.)
David tutored Piper in the finer points of dramatic acting throughout production, but the wrestler naturally took the lead when it came to preparing for the fight. David had some action chops — he co-starred in Carpenter’s 1982 hit The Thing — but primarily got his professional training at Julliard, a top-notch theatrical institution that is not known for teaching students how to deliver a knee to the face.
“I was certified in stage combat, but how more qualified was Roddy for that?” the actor told Yahoo Movies. “So I took many notes and lessons from him. No one could sell giving or taking a punch better than him. It was mostly about timing: Many times, especially when somebody’s throwing a fist in your face, you want to anticipate, so you either move too soon, or you’re so glazed over and you move too late.”
Piper worked closely with David as they blocked out the fight, with the wrestler teaching his co-star such pro moves as a back suplex (a leveraged flip that slams an opponent on his back). By the time they actually filmed the brawl — which was staged on soft floor-mats painted to look like concrete — the two actors had built up a lot of trust. “I never felt safer,” David says.
The sequence is filled with close shots that roll with the action, with a crew of up to three cameramen catching different angles on the grappling, kicking, eye-gouging, crotch-kneeing, and fist-throwing. That gave Carpenter more than enough coverage to get the angles with the most realistic-looking punches — though sometimes, there was no need for camera trickery.
“I certainly hit Roddy more than he hit me,” David admits with a laugh. “One of the things about hitting for the camera [is that] you don’t have to be that close to the guy, because it’s all about the camera angles. But there were times when we’d punch a little hard or make contact harder than you wanted to. But Roddy was a great sport about that.” Adds Carpenter: “The scene is authentic — these two guys weren’t pulling punches.”
David emphasizes that though the fight is best remembered for its sheer length, physicality and WWF-style theatrics, they all worked hard to make sure it worked in the narrative. These were two friends going at it, with one desperately trying to convince the other that he’s doomed.
“What makes the fight so interesting and so wonderful was that the fight in itself without words tells the story,” he said. “We shot for three days and each section of the fight told that story, how it escalates and building up to the ultimate reconciliation.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Carpenter reflected. “Everybody knew how to take care of each other.”