Roddy Piper in They Live

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)


Roddy Piper as “Nada”, tough drifter and anti-alien vigilante

Los Angeles, Spring 1988

Film: They Live
Release Date: November 4, 1988
Director: John Carpenter
Costume Supervisor: Robin Michel Bush


Released on this day in 1988, They Live followed the example of most of John Carpenter’s work by finding a cult following considerably after it came out, though it debuted at the top of the North American box office.

Adapted from Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”, They Live stars Canadian-born wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as an unnamed drifter who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work… and finds a box of sunglasses that literally open his eyes to the fact that an alien ruling class has been subliminally manipulating the public to conform, consume, and reproduce.

“Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” Carpenter had explained of the unconventional but ultimately effective casting choice. Keith David, who had previously collaborated with Carpenter in The Thing six years prior, was cast as Frank, the colleague-turned-co-vigilante who joins “Nada” (as Piper’s character would be credited) in taking on the alien forces seeking to control them. Before they join forces, Frank resists Nada’s attempts to recruit him, resulting in a six-minute street fight that remains a standout of the film alongside its iconic imagery of aliens walking among us, which Carpenter himself tweeted was a statement against “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism.”

What’d He Wear?

Nada arrives in a worn-in brown leather flight jacket detailed in the Type A-2 pattern that became iconic through its associated with American aviators during World War II. The screen-worn jacket is a commercial update contemporary to the ’80s rather than a true WWII-era mil-spec A-2, as evident by looking more closely at the type of leather and specific details like the exposed snaps, additional hand pockets, and the semi-belted back effect.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Nada’s blouson jacket otherwise reflects the overall signature of the A-2, with a shirt-style collar with hidden snaps, dark brown ribbed-knit cuffs and hem, and a front zip under a narrow storm flap fly, though the snaps securing this fly in place at the neck and waist are another modern update. Like its military forebears, Nada’s jacket has shoulder straps (epaulets) where an officer could presumably wear his rank insignia, with a pointed end that snaps closed near the neck. Each of the large hip pockets are covered with a snap-down flap, with the brown-painted snap echoing those on the epaulets and fly. As mentioned, the inset hand pockets with a vertical welted entry atop each hip pocket differs from the original A-2 design.

The back echoes motorcycle jackets designed for easier arm movement, with “action back” pleats behind each shoulder—with two ventilation grommets under each armpit—and a half-belt sewn along the back of the waist line to present a more fitted appearance. You can see more of Piper’s screen-worn jacket at Your Props.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Our hero exclusively wears the plaid flannel shirts associated with the hardworking everyman. His first shirt is a green, navy, and faded white tartan plaid with a faint yellow windowpane overcheck, styled with a point collar, front placket (with white plastic buttons), and presumably long sleeves with button-fastened cuffs. He layers it over a white waffle-woven thermal cotton crew-neck long-sleeved T-shirt.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

After finding work and an ostensible friend in Frank, Nada changes into a shirt with a similar color scheme, though predominantly dark-blue with a green and white plaid scheme. This “Perma-prest” cotton flannel twill shirt was made by Fieldmaster and, according to the Your Props listing, is a size XL (17/17½ neck) to comfortably accommodate Roddy Piper’s muscular 6′ build. The shirt design follows the traditional work shirt styling with a pair of non-matched chest pockets, each covered with a mitred-cornered flap that closes with a recessed dark-blue button matching those up the front placket.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Though the details and plaid colorway are essentially the same, contrast the ways that the check is placed on the left pocket flap to illustrate the different (and almost-identical) shirts used during production.

Consistent with his work shirt and work boots aesthetic, Nada wears classic Levi’s 501® Original Fit jeans in a lighter-wash blue denim that hardly hides the dirt of his hard-wearing life. The jeans can be identified as the venerable 501® variety due to the button-fly and cut as well as regular Levi’s fixtures like the traditional five-pocket layout with telltale brand signatures like the red tab and arcuate back pocket stitching. A pair of Piper’s screen-worn Levi’s can be seen with one of the Fieldmaster flannel shirts at iCollector.

Nada holds up his jeans with a brown tooled leather belt that closes through a brass-finished single-prong buckle.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Consistent with his profession, Nada wears rugged wedge-style work boots with the light tan “wheat” nubuck leather uppers often associated with Timberland. The boots have a swelled moc-toe, five sets of brass-finished eyelets, and brown leather trim around the tops.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

As much as I appreciate Nada’s classic workwear wardrobe, no discussion of his costume would be complete without mentioning the now-iconic sunglasses that are the key to his uncovering the aliens secretly living among him. The box he discovers in the church are full of generic and (of course) unbranded sunglasses, each identically styled with large square black plastic frames. One could argue that the design was intended as a subtle visual commentary on the Ray-Ban Wayfarer that reigned supreme as the unofficial eyewear of the eighties, thanks to its heavily publicized association with stars like Tom Cruise.

They Live informs us that these sunglass lenses offer its wearers the ability to see the world as it really is: black-and-white, with the aliens fully unmasked and all advertising stripped down to its intended messages like “BUY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”, “OBEY”, and “CONSUME”. “You see, I take these glasses off, she looks like a regular person, doesn’t she?” Nada demonstrates during a market meltdown. “Put ’em back on… formaldehyde-face!”

As the messaging of They Live may resent major brands like QUAY and Ray-Ban offering square-framed sunglasses that resemble Nada’s shades, you can truly echo the spirit of the movie with the “IRL Glasses” that were funded via Kickstarter to develop eyewear that actually filters out digital screens and advertising, as reported by Bloody Disgusting.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

One that can see…

After Nada recruits Frank and holes up in a motel, he changes into a new clean flannel shirt—this one patterned in a blue and white tartan plaid with a pale-pink overcheck—which he also layers over one of his white waffle-knit long-sleeved undershirts. The flannel shirt has a medium point collar, plain front (no placket), and two non-matched chest pockets. (This screen-worn shirt can also be viewed at Your Props, though it appears to have been additionally distressed after the film was completed and perhaps washed with a load of red laundry as the white portions now present as a light pink.)

Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (1988)

Nada’s sole jewelry is a plain gold wedding ring on his left hand. He doesn’t wear a watch, unlike the aliens who all wear gold Rolex Day-Date watches on the prestigious three-piece “President” bracelets. Considered a status symbol in ’80s yuppie culture, the Rolex goes unmentioned by name but referred to only as “expensive watches” with the actual logo removed.

What to Imbibe

Assuming you’re also out of bubblegum, you could channel Nada’s late night-in-a-motel snack combo of Uneeda Biscuit crackers and Miller Genuine Draft canned beer.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

The Guns

The grand total of seven firearms detailed below may be a new BAMF Style record for a single post, but a guy like Nada is going to need to be well-armed to effectively battle the alien forces taking over the world. (Though I hesitate to even say that, given some of the crazy conspiracy theorists today who think They Live is more of a documentary than sci-fi horror.)

Nada’s familiarity with weapons—as well as his flight jacket—suggest that he may have a military background, which he puts to use after knocking out two alien LAPD officers who confront him in an alley. He takes a nickel Colt Python service revolver from one, using it to dispatch them both:

So you bastards die just like we do?

Colt introduced the large I-framed Python in 1955 to accommodate the powerful .357 Magnum cartridge pioneered by Smith & Wesson two decades earlier, and it quickly gained a reputation for its smooth trigger, accuracy, and reliability. Offered in a range of blued, nickel, and stainless steel finishes, the Colt Python is easily recognizable with its ventilated rib atop the barrel length as well as Colt’s rounded knob-like cylinder release latch. Multiple available barrel lengths ranged from a 2.5″ “snub-nose” barrel to the massive 8″ barrel, though the Python taken by Nada has a 6″ barrel.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

After knocking out an alien LAPD patrolman, Nada takes the officer’s Colt Python to quickly amend the fact that he “doesn’t appear armed.”

Nada then pulls an Ithaca 37 shotgun from the LAPD squad car, pumping a 12-gauge round in the chamber before strolling into a nearby bank where he delivers his now-famous line:

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.

The New York-based Ithaca Gun Company developed the Model 37 prior to World War II, differentiated among pump-action shotguns for the novel loading/ejection port located on the underside of the frame. The Ithaca 37 saw some limited military usage during the Vietnam War, though it served primarily as a sporting and law enforcement shotgun through the latter half of the 20th century, particularly associated with the NYPD and LAPD.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

If you’re anything like me, you can’t see this screenshot without hearing it too.

Making his escape with Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), Nada also wields a large Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver, likely taken from the non-alien LAPD officer that he disarmed and ordered to “beat your feet”. Nada carries the Model 28 while still keeping the Colt Python in his waistband, prompting Holly to comment “no, you have two guns, you’re not sorry… you’re in charge,” echoing a similar moment in Three Days of the Condor during Joe Turner’s (Robert Redford) reluctant kidnapping of Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway).

The Model 28 is essentially a budget variant of the Smith & Wesson Model 27, both built on the large N-frame and descended from the original Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum that had introduced the .357 Magnum cartridge in 1935. Smith & Wesson introduced the Model 28 in 1954 as the “Highway Patrolman”, a no-frills service revolver that literally lacked the polish of the Model 27 but retained its reputable functionality.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Hammer cocked, finger on the trigger… that’s one precarious way for Nada to be riding with his commandeered Smith & Wesson.

Gilbert (Peter Jason) easily recruits Nada and Frank into his resistance organization’s “assault group”, escorting them to a pile of weapons spread out on a long table. Nada immediately picks up a Heckler & Koch HK94A3 carbine rifle converted to resemble the MP5A3 submachine gun, which becomes a fortuitous choice as he uses it to ably defend himself only minutes later when the LAPD busts into the meeting, guns blazing.

Heckler & Koch developed the HK94 series in the early 1980s as a variant of the MP5 that could be imported into the United States for civilian usage, configured with a 16.5″ barrel and a two-position trigger group for “safe” and “single-fire” rather than the “continuous-fire” and “three-round burst” options available on the MP5. Like the MP5, the HK94 was available with an A2 fixed stock or A3 retractable stock in addition to an unpopular SG-1 short-range sniper rifle variation.

The HK94, and specifically the HK94A3, was often featured in ’80s action movies like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Commando (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Die Hard (1988), and They Live to stand in for the MP5A3, though IMFDB notes that these “chopped and converted” HK94A3s can be easily recognized by their lack of the genuine MP5’s paddle-style magazine release, a more pronounced thumb rest, and different pistol grip. Converted HK94A3 carbines often had a “chopped” barrel, though the They Live HK94A3 retains its shrouded full-length barrel.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Nada fires a one-handed burst at the invading LAPD officers. Since the weapon is a modified HK94A3 rather than a true MP5A3, Nada’s ability to fire fully automatic is a bit of Hollywood magic.

From Gilbert’s stash of guns, Nada also grabs a blued Desert Eagle, the excessively sized sidearm that had also been a favorite among larger-than-life ’80s action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher (1989), and through the three original RoboCop movies.

The Desert Eagle was designed in collaboration between Israel Military Industries and the U.S.-based Magnum Research in 1983, initially only for the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge until larger calibers were added as refinements were made to the design. This first iteration of the Desert Eagle is known as the Mark I, followed by the Mark VII and the Mark XIX

In addition to its intimidating appearance and power, the Desert Eagle is notable for its unique gas operation, more similar to rifles than the blowback or short-recoil systems found in most other semi-automatic pistols. Indeed, its this operation that allows Desert Eagles to fire such powerful ammunition as the .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .440 Cor-Bon, and the massive .50 Action Express that remains one of the largest production handgun rounds available.

Though popular due to its usage in many movies, TV shows, and video games—beginning with Mickey Rourke in Year of the Dragon (1985)—real-life usage of the Desert Eagle is generally limited to sporting purposes as its unwieldy ten-inch length and weight over four pounds makes it quite impractical for anyone not built like guys like Arnie, Dolph, or Rowdy Roddy, who had carried Desert Eagles back to back in both They Live and Hell Comes to Frogtown.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

Only guys of Roddy Piper’s size could so convincingly pull off carrying Desert Eagles.

After infiltrating the alien base at the Cable 54 TV station, Nada and Frank arm themselves with a pair of M16 rifles from the guards. Though several evolved variations of the M16 had been developed by the late ’80s, these appear to be the original design that had been adopted by the U.S. military during the early years of the Vietnam War, identifiable by its flat “slab side receiver”, three-prong flash hider, and lack of forward assist, according to IMFDB.

Colt had internally designated this rifle as the Model 602 when crafting its derivative of the ArmaLite AR-15 in 1964, though its become better known by its “M16” military designation.

Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live (1988)

Nada and Frank with their commandeered M16 rifles.

When Nada gets cornered at the film’s conclusion, he proves to have one more trick up his sleeve… literally. Though probably too heavy in practice to have stayed there throughout the intense action, Nada keeps a subcompact Beretta 950 Jetfire semi-automatic pistol folded in the left sleeve of his waffle-knit undershirt. You gotta love a character who uses both a massive Desert Eagle and a minuscule Beretta Jetfire in the same movie!

Evolved from its earlier .25-caliber pocket pistols (consider the literary James Bond’s choice!), Beretta introduced the single-action Model 950 Jetfire in 1952. Its anemic .25 ACP ammunition allows for a simple blowback operation, fed from an eight-round box magazine though the tip-up barrel also allows the user to load a round directly into the chamber, providing a particular benefit for shooters who may lack the strength to rack a slide.

Weighing less than ten ounces and measuring under five inches long, the lightweight Jetfire quickly became a favorite for concealed carry and deep-cover, though I’m not sure if there have been any confirmed reports of users actually carrying it a shirt sleeve like our hero Nada.

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

After all that heavy firepower, it all comes down to Nada and the diminutive .25-caliber Beretta he’d kept up his sleeve.

How to Get the Look

Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)

An everyman fighting back against the repressing ruling class, Nada dresses in classic rugged workwear staples of plaid flannel shirts, jeans, and work boots, initially anchored by the durable and dashingly heroic A2-inspired flight jacket.

  • Brown leather civilian flight jacket with snap-down shirt-style collar, brass front zip under snap-down storm fly, epaulets/shoulder straps (with snap-down pointed ends), large patch-style hip pockets (with snap-down flaps), inset hand pockets (with straight vertical welted entry), shoulder pleats and half-belted “action back”, and dark brown ribbed-knit cuffs and hem
  • Blue, green, and white plaid cotton flannel work shirt with point collar, two chest pockets, and button cuffs
  • White thermal waffle-knit crew-neck long-sleeve T-shirt
  • Light blue wash denim Levi’s 501® Original Fit five-pocket jeans with button-fly
  • Brown tooled leather belt with brass-finished single-prong buckle
  • Wheat nubuck leather moc-toe work boots with 5-eyelet derby-style lacing
  • Gold wedding ring
  • Black plastic square-framed sunglasses

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.


  1. Mike

    The sunglasses are a knockoff of Ray-Ban “Drifters,” sadly a design no longer popular enough to be knocked off or even produced. I’ve worn some of the alternatives, they didn’t really work in my opinion.

  2. RM

    I wonder if, since many of his protagonists are stand-ins for himself, John Carpenter was wearing flannel shirts in the late 80s or he just dressed Nada in the quintessential outfit of the American working man.

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