30 Years Ago: ‘No Holds Barred’ Leg Drops Hulk Hogan’s Acting Career
Hulk Hogan made his entrance into movies when he played a bit – but memorable – role in the 1982 blockbuster Rocky III as Thunderlips: “The ultimate male against the ultimate meatball,” a boast referring to himself and the titular character who would engage in a pro wrestler-versus-boxer contest. Yet it wouldn’t be until June 2, 1989 when Hogan would star in his own film, No Holds Barred, a box office bomb which fell victim to poor scriptwriting and unfulfilled hopes that Hulkamania would translate into Hollywood success.
Hogan’s initial foray into the movies resulted in his dismissal from the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) by promoter Vince McMahon Sr. who, according to the wrestler in his 2001 biography Hollywood Hulk Hogan, told him in the spring of 1981, “If you leave to do the Rocky movie, you’ll never work for this company again.” The blond behemoth ended up sending some pre-release stills from Rocky III featuring himself and Sylvester Stallone to the Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association, who seized upon an obvious opportunity and snatched Hogan up immediately.
The recognition provided by Rocky III soon garnered the attention of Vince McMahon Jr., who had begun to take over the WWF for his father in 1982. The promoter enticed Hogan to return to the organization by laying out a vision of expanding the WWF beyond the Northeast territory it had been relegated to since its inception, taking it national with the Hulkster as the champion and face of the company.
McMahon’s dream came to fruition and then some, appealing to the MTV generation via the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” and making pro wrestling an essential part of pop culture with Hogan its flagship performer. Come 1988, with Hulkamania at its peak, it only made sense to push the movement even further into the mainstream by putting it on the big screen.
McMahon decided to produce the film project and pay Hogan himself rather than leave it up to a film studio, exerting as much control as possible over its development so as to keep a close eye on his biggest star. “[Vince] was concerned I would make this movie and never wrestle again,” Hogan said.
Neither Hogan nor McMahon were happy with the script turned in by Dennis Hackin, a screenwriter who had previously composed the 1980 Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy, so the pair decided to redo it themselves in what turned into an epic three-day marathon of brainstorming. When they emerged from a hotel room in Redington Beach, Fla., the story of No Holds Barred was, for the most part, complete.
“It was a Vince production and it was an extension of that Hulk Hogan character onto the movie screen,” recalled Bruce Prichard, then a member of WWF creative, on an episode of his podcast Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard. “You had already seen him in Rocky III before that, but now it was a way to take that Hulk Hogan character that people knew in the wrestling ring and make it a little bit bigger.”
Banking on a total suspension of disbelief by the audience, all things identifiable with the Hulk Hogan character – down to his in-ring color scheme of yellow and red – are abandoned in presenting Rip Thomas, the protagonist of No Holds Barred. Like the real-life Hogan, he’s the WWF heavyweight champion, a role model for children and inside the squared circle known to use his unbreakable will to overcome insurmountable odds in the battle of good versus evil. In this case, the epitome of wickedness is Zeus, played by Tiny Lister, a towering ogre with a uni-brow, one cloudy crossed eye and large black “Z” logoed on the left side of his head – sort of like a reverse Pittsburgh Steelers helmet.
The plot to No Holds Barred is both predictable and sophomoric with Kurt Fuller as Brell, the nefarious chief of World Television Network who, faced with sagging ratings, attempts to lure Rip to the company to give it a boost. The wrestler declines, which leads the slimy Brell to resort to underhanded tactics ranging from bribery to gang assault to hiring a femme fatale (Joan Severance) to spy on Rip. When the latter has a change of heart and becomes morally sound, a plan – subsequently thwarted – is devised to have her raped, throwing into question the PG-13 classification given to the film.
Toilet humor is invoked often, but none more than perhaps the most infamous scene of the movie, when Rip disposes of a bunch of Brell’s goons and sets his sights on the limo driver who kidnapped him. Tearing the car door off its hinges, we see the entire backside of the hapless lackey is soaked. Lifting him by his collar, Rip asks, “What’s that smell?” and is met with a sputtering, “Doo…doo…dookie!” which induces the wrestler to contort his face and ask “Dookie?”
Yes, the limo driver is so fearful of what Rip will do to him that he has pooped his pants.
Finally, Rip is sent over the edge when Zeus attacks his younger brother Randy, played by Supernatural’s Lucifer, Mark Pellegrino, in his first major acting role, leaving him paralyzed and his sibling having no recourse but to avenge the tragedy. Interestingly, that storyline would be the primary plot point for Kickboxer, which could come out three months later.
When Zeus and Rip meet to do battle, it can’t be contained in a soon wrecked ring – a six sided one for some reason – and with the referee quickly knocked out, the film’s tagline of “No ring. No ref. No rules.” is achieved. The fight makes its way to the arena’s catwalk where Zeus is knocked off and into what’s left of the ring, collapsing it and being left for dead. Rip then chases down Brell, who accidentally touches live wires and electrocutes himself to death.
No Holds Barred landed at No. 2 at the box office the weekend it came out, trailing far behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was in its third week in the top spot. The film was out of theaters by the end of the month with a total gross of just $16 million, but was given a second life that December with a WWF pay-per-view event dubbed “No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie.” Subscribers would see a presentation of the movie in its entirety followed by a pre-taped event including a steel cage match pitting Hulk Hogan and Brutus Beefcake against Zeus and Macho Man Randy Savage.
Like in the film, Hogan came out on top, but the flop of No Holds Barred left him with a less than promising acting future, taking on small roles or starring in instantly forgettable features like Mr. Nanny and Santa With Muscles. Lister, due to his size and unique looks, continues to get character parts in films large and small to this day.