Sometimes, there are characters in genre pictures that are so darned righteous and awesome, you can’t stop thinking about them or their amazing feats long after the movie is over. This column is dedicated to those cinematic bad-asses that keep us coming back for more. And who better to salute, while kicking ass and chewing bubble gum, than the one and only Rowdy Roddy Piper as Nada from John Carpenter’s 1988 classic THEY LIVE!
John Carpenter is currently on tour in support of his two “Lost Themes” albums, and while he’s playing original compositions from those records, he’s also been peppering into his set some of the most famous themes from his filmography. When he plays a movie theme, we’re treated to snippets from that film projected behind his live band. It really warmed my heart when, a few seconds into their performance of the infamous THEY LIVE theme, a shot of Roddy Piper came on the screen and the entire audience applauded and cheered. While there’s something special about each and every one of John’s films, the thing that really gives THEY LIVE its heart and soul is Roddy Piper.
In it, he plays a down-on-his-luck nomad; A working class guy, walking through town and looking for an opportunity to make a little money, eat a meal and have a place to rest his head. He stumbles onto a construction site and manages to convince the foreman to give him a job. He is simply credited as “Nada” in the credits, which translates from Spanish to nothing. He is nothing, or simply no one.
What’s great about his performance is that there’s so much history in that face of his. There’s a reason Carpenter gives us so many close ups of Roddy. Despite not knowing the specifics, we see in this guy’s face that he’s lived life. More than likely a hard one. And he spends a lot of the earlier part of the film just observing and listening to everyone around him. He’s earnest. He’s strong willed, and for the most part, willing to mind his own business. Until, of course, those blasted glasses make their way to him.
When he witnesses an unprovoked attack on the local church, he begins to secretly investigate and that is when he uncovers a box of special sunglasses tucked in a hiding spot of the old church. When put on, they show what the real world looks like. And we’re surrounded by aliens! They’ve infiltrated every aspect of our general population and dominated every part of our society. Subliminal messages are hidden within billboards, magazine pages and even money!
He immediately steps up and knows that he has to put an end to this charade, if anything, for the sake of mankind. So besides giving him the ability to see behind these aliens’ disguises, these special sunglasses also give him the ability to shoot out a record number of stellar quips and one-liners. He rules supreme!
On the run for “murder,” he tries to recruit his coworker and sort-of friend Frank (the great Keith David) to help him expose the truth. What follows is one of the greatest cinematic fight scenes of all time. So legendary that even SOUTH PARK homaged it, shot for shot!
One interesting choice about the character of Nada – and I often wonder if this was a decision by Piper, himself, or perhaps Carpenter. Nada wears his wedding ring the entire film. Yet we never get an inkling or hint at if he has a wife or family somewhere out there. Frank, for example, was doing this hard labor to support his family. Yet, we never know for sure if Nada had a wife he left behind, was looking to send support to, or maybe he’s a widow? Leaving that one detail completely unanswered has had me wondering about it since the movie came out!
Regardless, for chewing bubble gum, taking a hell of a 10 minute beating from Frank and inarguably kicking a lot of ass, we have to give all our respect not only to Nada, but the man who played him. Mister Piper, thank you. Bubble gum or not, you’ve earned this hash tag.