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Rocksploitation: The Legacy Of Pro Wrestlers In Film
By: Mickael
When Bruce Lee was taken from us at the height of his popularity, unscrupulous film producers didn’t want to let the legend die. So, they began reusing footage of the deceased superstar intercut with look-a-likes to produce sequels to some of Lee’s most popular films. They marketed new Kung Fu stars under moniker like “Bruce Li”, “Bruce Le”, “Dragon Lee”, and others to try to fill the gap left by the irreplaceable and inimitable Bruce Lee. In so doing, they created a whole new genre: Bruceploitation. Kung Fu films had existed long before Bruce came along, and at the height of the genre, cheaper “chop socky” films were the “mockbusters” of the era. With Bruce’s passing came the opportunity: now no one could have THE Bruce Lee, but EVERYONE could have A Bruce Lee.

I’ve often wondered, if Bruce hadn’t passed - would there still have been shameless imitators? Jackie Chan started off as a Bruce clone... would we have missed out on the entirety of this prolific genius’ career? I think we’re in an interesting place right now in the middle of 2015 where we can see what would have happened. There is an action star that is every bit as hugely popular now as Bruce was in the late 60‘s. Like Bruce, this man came into our living rooms through a popular and long-running TV show before transitioning to films. His name? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Dwayne was always a physical specimen, playing football at the University of Miami before briefly playing in the Canadian Football League prior to following in his families' tradition and becoming a pro wrestler. In his transition from wrestler to film star, he often had to play up comedic elements or utilize his wrestling moves on camera to placate Hollywood producers that struggled to take him seriously. He has transformed from a sideshow attraction to the top-drawing film star in just 15 years. In 2013, no single actor was seen in theaters by more human beings than Dwayne Johnson. FINALLY, The Rock has proven the star power of the wrestler-turned-action-hero. Now let's examine the last 60 years of Pro Wrestlers in film.
Tor Johnson & The Luchadores - (1955 - 1979)
60 years ago, a Swedish professional wrestler named Tor Johnson was cast by Ed Wood in Bride Of The Monster. Tor, whose nickname was “The Super Swedish Angel” had been appearing in films for 20 years by that point, but he was an uncredited and generic “strongman”, “weightlifter” or “wrestler” in nearly all of them. It was Ed Wood alone who had the vision of the professional wrestler as the next movie monster.
The 400-pound Johnson went on to star in Night Of The Ghouls, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and The Beast Of Yucca Flats before poor reviews ended his film career in 1961. That same year, a new wrestling hero emerged on the silver screen, from a rather unexpected place: Mexico. Santo was a tecnico in the Luchador tradition, having wrestled under various monikers since the mid-1930’s. It was in 1942 that he adopted the gimmick of El Santo (The Saint) when his manager created a new stable of silver-dressed wrestlers. Santo became much more than just a wrestler, he was a folk hero and a legend even among his peers – Santo is rumored to never remove his mask in front of anyone, even his friends and coworkers. Because his in-ring mask didn’t allow him to eat, he traveled with a variety of masks that had open mouths for more versatility.
Santo worked with other luchadores on the silver screen, bringing his long-time rival Blue Demon, as well as Mil Mascaras, into the awesome and odd on-screen world he was creating. Mostly, these three masked Mexican wrestlers just played themselves. They would fight mummies, Frankenstein monsters, vampires, aliens, and more. Even though these were low-budget affairs, a burgeoning market of Hispanics across North America flocked to see one of the only heroes that was genuinely and uniquely Mexican. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, the Luchadores were bringing professional wrestling to a whole new audience, in a whole new way.
There are many legends of wrestlers refusing to break kayfabe, like when a minor mid-card feud in WCW between Kevin Sullivan and Chris Benoit over Sullivan’s wife becoming Benoit’s manager turned into a real love triangle. Sullivan had insisted that to keep up the story with fans, Benoit should travel and appear with “Woman” (Nancy Sullivan) even off-stage. Next thing you know, Nancy and Chris began a real relationship culminating with her divorcing Sullivan and marrying Benoit. And then they lived happily ever aft--Whoops, no, it looks like an unexpected heel turn from Benoit gave all-too literal meaning to “Till death do us part”, amirite? Anyways, Santo took this concept to a whole new level with his devotion to the character. He wore the mask publicly and privately until his retirement from the ring in 1982. A little over a year later, Santo appeared as a guest on Mexican T.V. and lifted his mask far enough for his fans to see his face for the first time in 40 years. One week later, he died of a heart attack. Following his death, he was buried with his mask on, and statues were erected around Mexico to honor him.
The Rock-N-Wrestling Connection - (1980 - 1995)
As the 80’s bloomed, a young savant transformed pro wrestling from a loose collection of regional promotions with limited local TV partnerships into a singular worldwide federation with a focus on national cable shows and the new concept of Pay-Per-Views. His name is Vince McMahon, and much has already been made of his impact on the industry. What we'll focus on instead is the infiltration of modern-era pro wrestling "Superstars" into Hollywood.
Though this technically started with Hulk Hogan’s scene-stealing appearance as “Thunderlips” in a throwaway gag in Rocky III, the evolution of wrestlers on-screen really blossomed when “Rowdy” Roddy Piper began starring in feature films, instead of the usual cameo appearances typically reserved for wrestlers. With more than 30 films to his resume in his first 30 years of acting, Piper is both the founding father of the wrestler-as-action-star formula, and it’s most prolific participant.
Many others from the “Wrestlemania Era” of pro wrestling joined the fray, with this period seeing “Captain” Lou Albano playing Super Mario on children’s T.V., Andre The Giant in The Princess Bride, Jesse “The Body” Ventura in Predator, and even George “The Animal” Steele playing Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. However, by the early 90’s a combination of outdated and cartoonish gimmicks combined with a steroid trial that left Vince McMahon’s empire teetering on the brink greatly slowed the advance of wrestlers in pop culture.
The Attitude Era & Beyond - (1996 - 2005)
Pro Wrestling was rocked by a series of unforeseen events: the ascension of WCW and the “NWO Storyline”, the birth of the wrestling anti-hero with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and a whole new generation of fans looking for a source of entertainment that was as ADD and anti-establishment as they were. The result? The Attitude Era, where sex and violence could co-mingle in a wild ecstacy unlike anything we had seen before. From ECW packing a small Philadelphia warehouse with bloodthirsty fans to WCW taking over the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, there seemed to be no place to hide from the raucous success of pro wrestling in the late 90’s.
Though the financial and cultural success of wrestling during the Attitude Era is undeniable, their crossover efforts floundered due to the inherent responsibility of anything with a cult following: to stay ostracized from the mainstream. It was okay for The Rock to show up on That 70’s Show playing his own father, because smart marks got the joke. It was even okay for Mankind and Big Show and Triple H to take over Saturday Night Live, because it was indicative of the impromptu and unpredictable nature of Sports Entertainment.

Eventually, like all adolescent phases, we do tend to outgrow them. Punk Rock sells out. Comic Books go from counter culture to big business. So, too, did pro wrestling. When WWF joined the stock market, started their own football league, and bought out the competition; it was apparent that the bad ass on the block had sold his soul. The Rock started branching out into films and working fewer events and TV tapings. Stone Cold’s nagging injuries piled up and forced him into a smaller role. Hardcore legend Mick Foley started writing children’s books. Our collective teen angst was spent, as represented by the maturation of our childhood icons.
The Rocksploitation Era - (2006 - Present)
Pro wrestling had seen better days. The WWF became the WWE, a “brand extension” to accommodate the large influx of superstars had failed. Reviving ECW was a nice departure for a month or two, but ultimately it’s time had passed. WWE transitioned from the Attitude Era to the “PG Era”, where they attempted to push the product towards younger fans with likeable and politically correct superstars like John Cena. The product became somewhat antiseptic. They were creating a wrestling show for the shareholders instead of the fans.
Not all was lost, though, from the ashes of this falling empire emerged a phoenix. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was becoming larger than the industry that spawned him. He was fit, attractive, energetic, and above all: charismatic. Upon his initial efforts in film, Hollywood seemed hyper focused on showcasing his imposing size and physique. They limited his lines. He often would fight a goon and have to throw in a wrestling maneuver or do a kip up, like audiences had so often seen him do in the ring. They thought, at first, that they had another Hulk Hogan on their hands: someone who is likeable and recognizable, but lacks the skills to carry a film on his own. So, much like a wrestler who is competent in the ring but can’t handle a mic, they teamed him up with co-stars to “carry him”: Brendan Fraser, Seann William Scott, Johnny Knoxville. If only they had known what wrestling fans already learned: Dwayne Johnson could do it all.
In 2006, he finally gets a movie that’s his and his alone: Gridiron Gang. In the film, Dwayne plays a counselor at a juvie facility who turns his troubled teens into a football team to help them build self esteem. It sounds cheesy, and it would have been had it been filled by anyone OTHER than Dwayne Johnson. Not “The Rock”, not “wrestler-turned-actor Rocky Maivia”, but Dwayne Johnson himself. Having played football at the University of Miami during an era where that team was among the most hated entities in all of sports, winning championships with style and tenacity, lent him the emotional credibility to turn an insipid dramatization of a TV Documentary into a winning film.
As of the writing of this article, Dwayne has been in 25 films and been on the poster for 20 of them. Of those, only 1 hasn’t made its money back: Faster (2010). Nearly everything else he’s made has doubled its budget in worldwide box office gross, according to iMDB. This wild success has kicked open the doors to Hollywood and allowed a whole slew of pro wrestlers (and MMA stars) to enjoy opportunities that previously were off-limits. From Mickey Rourke making a movie about wrestlers (featuring Necro Butcher) to Batista becoming a comic book movie star, there really seems to be a concerted effort to utilize the strengths of these uniquely qualified entertainers in new ways.
The Future
Dwayne Johnson, then, has done for action movies what Bruce Lee did for Kung Fu films. Sure, many had done it before, but few had done it so well. Dwayne has that unique personality that endears himself to a wide audience. Rarely have we seen the tall, muscular, good-looking minority actor who comes off as sympathetic. You root for him in every film, even though you can tell he has every tool at his disposal. The last non-white guy to be so perfect in so many ways and yet so universally loved by audiences was… Bruce Lee himself, although admittedly he was contained in a much smaller package. Even though The Rock has been with us for 20 years and will likely be wowing audiences for 20 more, he has still spawned a whole slew of imitators and opened the door to any former pro wrestler who wants to join Hollywood. His very own genre then, defined as the wrestler-turned-action-hero, could be called Rocksploitation. Not every film can star THE Rock, but every film can have A Rock.

Professional wrestlers have always been equal parts actor, athlete, and magician. They entertain massive live audiences with compelling interviews, incredible feats of strength, and sleight-of-fist trickery; whereas most of their contemporaries struggle to entertain in one way at all. Some mock their flamboyant behavior and outlandish routines, while others are caught in the cult of personality created by these larger than life figures. Wherever you stand on professional wrestling as a part of pop culture, one thing is indisputable: pro wrestlers have changed the film industry, bringing a legitimacy to the art of the action film like the Stallone’s, Schwarzenegger’s, Chan’s, and yes even Bruce Lee’s that came before them. As our parent’s generation of “expendable” action stars age out, our generation has been searching for the next great action stars for over a decade… and the whole time, they were right there on our TV.
For the nerds, I've included this infographic
showing the number of wrestling stars
being featured in films. This does not
account for TV work or animation, just
live action feature-length films.
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"Rowdy" Roddy Piper
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
"Hollywood" Hulk Hogan
"Stone Cold" Steve Austin
John Cena
Kevin Nash
El Santo
Mil Mascaras
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