Roddy Piper found wrestling as a means to get off the streets. He’d help put wrestling in mainstream consciousness in the ’80s while chasing his dreams in Hollywood, too, setting a path for wrestlers such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Dave Bautista, and John Cena soon to follow. He died in 2015 but made an impact that will be felt forever.
Roddy Piper and His Influence in Wrestling and Hollywood
Wrestlers acting in mainstream films has always been a strange concept. From Hulk Hogan’s cameos and bit parts in Gremlins 2 and Rocky 3 to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s awful CGI giant half-scorpion in The Mummy 2, it has taken a long time for wrestlers to be taken seriously in acting roles.
But the tides have been starting to turn in the last few years, with Dwayne Johnson becoming the 2018 highest-paid actor in Hollywood, Dave Bautista’s star on the rise with recent success in The Avengers film franchise, and John Cena seemingly being primed to be the next Hollywood megastar. It has taken all three a while to reach this peak, and it appears to have big box office success, you need to step away from the ring and focus solely on your acting career.
The first wrestler to pull off the transition of “retiring” from the ring, to starring in a number one box-office movie was none other than Rowdy Roddy Piper. Roddy Piper starred in over fifty films and television shows with a variety of great performances, yet still struggled to get away from being typecast as a wrestler.
Roddy would work odd jobs, live in youth hostels, and on the streets before trying his hand at professional wrestling at just 15 years old. It wouldn’t be long before he started rising through the ranks of the wrestling world, being dubbed Roddy Piper after a promoter learned he could play the bagpipes. In these early years, Roddy Piper would often work seven days a week, sometimes performing three separate shows in one day, driving to each city in between matches.
Moving his way up the ladder in the territory system gained Roddy Piper a lot of attention. Due to his improvisational skills and natural ability on the mic, he would be used in increasing amounts of interviews and even commentary roles, eventually leading to being hired full-time by Vince McMahon and the WWF (now WWE) in 1984.
Joining the WWF
Joining WWF would give Roddy Piper a chance to once again show off his top-notch mic skills with the invention of Piper’s Pit; a weekly interview segment where Roddy would interview the other wrestlers, usually berating, attacking or insulting them in the process, claiming, “Just when they think they have the answers, I change the questions!”
The segments became one of the main staples of WWF television, giving Roddy a chance to build storylines and use the show as a platform to catapult himself to the top of the company, with his eccentric high energy performance and witty improvised lines.
It was these segments that made film director John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) first notice Roddy, and also lead to the crossover promotion with the newly devised Music Television (MTV).
Known as the Rock’ n’ Wrestling Connection, WWF and MTV entered into a mutually beneficial cross-promotional campaign. Cyndi Lauper (hot off the success of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time”) began appearing on WWF television, most importantly in an appearance on Piper’s Pit. As per usual, Piper had succeeded in getting his guest Lauper riled up, leading to a confrontation at the next WWF event.
WWF’s The War to Settle the Score was a big televised wrestling event airing on MTV. The main event featured Hulk Hogan (with Cyndi Lauper in his corner) vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper in a WWF World Heavyweight Championship match. The match ended in interference, and Piper was disqualified, leading to Lauper and Hogan’s “friend”, fellow celebrity and A-Team star Mr. T joining in the ruckus. The ensuing chaos led to Roddy kicking Lauper in the head. The storyline became national news. Piper would then feature on talk shows and news channels claiming Lauper had it coming and subsequently became the most hated man in America.
The importance of the Piper and Lauper feud in building the 80’s wrestling boom period can’t be overstated. Roddy Piper was well on his way to becoming a household name, albeit as a sickening heel character. The following month he would headline the first-ever WrestleMania against Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, with his partner Paul Orndorff, and continued using this heel persona in a high-profile feud with T, helping build the rise of Hulkamania in the process. After all, what’s a hero without a good villain.
On his WOOOOO! Nation podcast, close friend and fellow wrestling legend Ric Flair had some wonderful words to share about Roddy’s acting: “Roddy Piper brought more energy and more action to a scene or segment on TV than anyone in the history of this business. For all that Hulk Hogan brought to the WWE in the 80s, which Hulk brought a lot, he had to have someone to go against. There were a lot of bad guys or heels around, but the focus of the heel nation was Roddy Piper. He drove the business, and the rest of them revolved around him. Roddy Piper was the catalyst that drove the machine, and to be very successful in a promotion; you have to have a good guy and a bad guy.”
Roddy Piper in Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
After finishing off his feud with Mr. T at WrestleMania 2, Piper took a break from wrestling to pursue a few film projects. His first film was a supporting role in a forgettable ’80s comedy called Bodyslam (1986), where he played a wrestler who is mistaken for a musician by a record executive (another A-team star; Dirk Benedict). Based heavily on the rock ‘n’ wrestling connection, it received average to positive reviews and would lead on to Roddy’s first starring role the following year.
Hell Comes to Frogtown is a post-apocalyptic action film in which the hero, Sam Hell, played by Roddy Piper, is the last fertile man on earth. He is enlisted by the government to help rescue a harem of fertile women from Frogtown, so he can presumably impregnate them and continue the human race. In order to do this, he must travel through a desert wasteland with his female soldier accomplices, whilst wearing a government-issued chastity belt which will explode if he tries to escape the soldiers on his way to Frogtown. If that isn’t high-concept enough for you, halfway through the film, we learn Frogtown is run by giant humanoid frogs.
It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds; a shameless Mad Max rip-off with giant frogs, misogynistic themes, terrible dialogue, awful acting, and Roddy Piper constantly getting electrocuted in the balls. It is also a must-see movie, despite Roddy’s own objections in his highly recommended autobiography.
“Unfortunately, the movie really got a lot of attention,” Roddy Piper said. “I guess some people have actually bought it. I try to tell them, ‘Listen, you’re wasting your money.’ But the more I talk them out of it, the more they buy it!”
One thing that is noticeable in the film is that Roddy is by far the best actor in it, and although some of his lines are delivered quite well for a wrestler turned leading man, playing a character other than Rowdy Roddy Piper came with its share of challenges.
In episode 30 of the Piper’s Pit Podcast, Roddy remembers filming an early scene where his character signs the government contract. “You know I did Hell Comes to Frogtown. I hope you’ve never seen it, but probably you have. Here’s a little inside scoop. So, I’m sitting in the chair, and I’m the last potent male in the world, and I’ve gotta repopulate the earth after the Armageddon. I have a little chastity belt on, and I’m supposed to sign a contract. My name’s Sam Hell, and they give me the contract, and I sign it, and I’m doing the scene, and I sign it and dot the I, and I’m like, “Wait a second, there’s no I in Sam Hell. (laughs) I wrote Roddy Piper!”
Meeting Director, John Carpenter
For better or worse, people did end up seeing Frogtown, including director and huge wrestling fan John Carpenter, who was hot off an incredible streak of hit films (Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) and became eager to cast Roddy after seeing Frogtown dailies.
“In Hell Comes to Frogtown, there was a scene that was cut – I don’t know how John Carpenter saw it – and he saw the director saying, ‘Roddy could you do this? Roddy, could you do that?’ John determined, ‘Yeah he’s directable. I’ll go with him.’”
“He wanted an actor who actually might have worked with his hands in his life,” said Roddy, “But also a guy who, when he saw something strange was happening, he’d figure it out and kick some ass. That was me.”
Roddy always expressed surprise that the director saw him as an actor since, in his mind, he was “so course” at the time. Carpenter cited Roddy’s role on “Piper’s Pit” as more than enough acting to know he’d found his man.
“This is what I wanted,” Carpenter said to Roddy in 2014. “You were the character. You weren’t polished. That was what was so appealing. I didn’t try to make you into something you weren’t. I tried to take what you were and bring it to the screen in this character. It was your talent and your ability and your past knowledge. You knew how to wrestle, knew how to fight. And you’d lived life, I could see it on your face.”
The pair had dinner the night before WrestleMania 3, where starring in a Carpenter movie was a no-brainer for Roddy. The two discuss the meeting in episode 37 of Roddy’s podcast:
Roddy Piper: It was WrestleMania 3, and we’re having dinner, and somebody gave me a bottle of Christal. I poured Orange juice in it. John said, ‘Pass the rolls. Here’s the butter. You wanna star in my next movie?’ ‘Sure, here’s the pickles.’
John Carpenter: That was it. When we sat down, I looked at you, and I thought here he is.
Piper: What did you see? Please be brutal; everybody else is.
Carpenter: Your face. I saw life in your face, somebody who had lived life as opposed to somebody who was soft, and college-educated and like a traditional Hollywood eighties movie star. No, no, I saw somebody who could work on a construction gang, who could put things together on his own. I thought this is it. I knew you could perform because I’d seen you on Piper’s Pit, I watched you. I watched what you did, so I knew you had it. I just didn’t know you had the ability as much as you did because you played some subtle things. Some really subtle things for a guy who is just stepping into the film world. You had made one or two movies before, but this was the first one that challenged you. Movies are a different discipline, to go from the road to this, and you guys were on the road all the time. You were ready to go, that’s what I loved about you. You wanted it. There was a drive. You could see that this was a step in the right direction, and you got to star in this movie.”
Roddy “retired” in the ring the following night at WrestleMania 3, saying goodbye to fans, putting behind him the many violent, bloody battles of his past, and moving on to focus on his acting career.
“I’d been doing it for like 12 years. I knew that my body had taken such a beating. So, when I got this movie, I really really went for it. I’m not afraid to work.”
Roddy Piper in They Live (1988)
They Live features Roddy Piper as a mysterious drifter named Nada, who walks into Los Angeles looking for work and accidentally discovers aliens are living amongst us, controlling the media and lower-class citizens with subliminal messages. He discovers this by finding a pair of sunglasses that help him see the aliens, as well the messages they have hidden in our advertising.
The character of Nada is a no-nonsense, hard-edged type who is quick with the witty one-liners, similar to the character of the Hot Rod that Roddy had played on television and in arenas around the world for years.
Since the early days of Piper’s Pit, Roddy Piper had written down his ideas and quips for use in his interviews. One day on set he shared it with Carpenter, leading to one of the most well-known one-liners in movie history: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…..and I’m all outta bubble-gum!”
John Carpenter explains, “You gave me the sheet of paper that you had from all of the interviews you’d done over the years with various wrestlers. You’d written down phrases in the middle of the night, on airplanes, you had to come up with stuff to say in them interview days. All the time, you had to do it constantly. I believe your line ‘I’m all out of bubble gum’ was when you were facing Playboy Buddy Rose. You had written it down. That’s where it came from. You just gave it to me and said, take a look at this. Here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve written. Here’s where I came from. I started reading it and thought this is some great stuff.”
Another way Roddy’s wrestling background helped the movie was in the famous six-minute-long fight scene between Nada and Keith David’s character Frank. The scene takes place mid-way through the film and features Nada desperately trying to get Frank to wear the sunglasses so that he will also see the hidden reality of Los Angeles.
Roddy and Keith choreographed and rehearsed the fight for over six weeks, and it took three days to film, something Roddy and Keith often refer to as the most fun they have had working on a film set.
John Carpenter remembers planning this memorable fight scene:
“The fight was choreographed and planned and thought out and acted by the two of you. When I was writing the script, I thought to myself, ‘I have Roddy Piper in my movie.’ Roddy Piper knows how to fight. Why don’t I put the biggest movie fight of all time in this movie? We can have a fight, where Keith David and Roddy Piper can fight over one of the issues of the movie, which is the sunglasses. And Keith was an actor. He was trained at Juilliard; he was not a street kid. He was not a tough guy, and you guys worked it!
That was a really really well-constructed fight, and you guys came on the set ready to go — no stunt guys, nobody. It was put together with intelligence and knowledge. That’s the thing; you knew what you were doing. I couldn’t be happier with that damn fight.
Anybody who understands and loves movies loves that fight. Martin Scorsese loves that fight, of all people. It’s all about loving what we did. Twenty-six years ago, we did that movie, and here we are still talking about it. It’s unbelievable.”
Due to a lifetime of hard-hitting wrestling matches, tolerating a bit of pain was something Roddy was more than accustomed to. But during the shooting of the movie’s climax, where Nada is shot, Roddy got a little more than he bargained for when a special effects technician rigged his blood-packed squibs.
“So we’re on top of the Bank of America, and it’s one of the last scenes where I’m shooting in, and they’re blowing up all the stuff, and all-day there was this fat guy, who proceeded to tell me all day, ‘Damn, I’ve been in this business 27, and half years, I must have squibbed everybody.’
Squibs, so everybody knows what that means, is back then you had a little bit of gunpowder and some fake blood and then they put them all to wires and when you got shot they ran a copper rod down to some posts, and then they blast out, and all the blood would come out.
So okay, it’s time, and they’re a little worried about me, with the flames and whether I’d blackout or not. I ain’t gonna blackout, but he said it’ll sting a little bit. Here we go. (Roddy mimics explosions) I thought to myself he was right about that, that did sting a little bit. And then he goes ‘oh damn, I put them in backward.’ (laughs) I wanted to throw him off the roof.”
Funnily enough, the final scene no longer features any blood or squibs at all, so it appears the technician never got to rig them twice. Maybe he was thrown off the roof.
And so, Roddy found himself starring in another high concept sci-fi action movie, but this time with the skill and care of a fantastic director, it became a smash hit at the box office and has become a cult favorite which people still love to this day.
Roddy Piper – Wrestler, or Actor?
When Roddy wisely refused, Roddy was ousted from the wrestling world, kick-starting a power struggle dynamic between Vince and Roddy that lasted many years.
Roddy writes about it in his book, “McMahon sent a message to me: ‘You tell Piper that Hogan and I are the only true-blue WWFers.’ Until that time, Hogan and I were known to the promotion as ‘The Franchise.’
“But after WMIII, McMahon made it clear that I was not part of the family anymore. What he did not realize is that I have never had a family other than the beautiful one I have created myself through God’s help. McMahon told me, “The WWF doesn’t need Roddy Piper.” I then looked him in the eye and said, “Roddy Piper doesn’t need WWF,” and I proceeded to go on to get a number one hit movie, the first wrestler in history to accomplish this feat. I knew McMahon was dead wrong because all of the education I had been given by the old-timers showed me that even if I went out and got a number one movie, I could come back to the WWF and still be untouchable. And I did come back to do voice-overs as well as wrestle. But, folks, as the stakes rise, so does the psychology.”
Vince and Hogan would go on to make No Holds Barred together that year, but the less said about that, the better.
Roddy would return to WWF sporadically throughout the next few years, usually as a special guest attraction at WrestleMania, but struggled to find a film role as lucrative as They Live. He seemed to be typecast as the wrestling guy, presumably not helped by his need to return to WWF when his acting roles weren’t taking off.
Roddy explains, “I’ve often been asked how wrestling helped my acting ability. To be honest, it was probably the worst thing I could have done. When They Live came out, a critic for the New York Post wrote: ‘Anybody who thinks wrestlers are actors is wrong’. That, of course, was a direct attack on my acting, but these are the same people who were criticizing my wrestling by writing that it was all acting. When I was on the mat, I was considered an actor. When I was on the big screen, I was called a wrestler. I don’t think it was me who was confused. There’s a simple explanation for this. Wrestling does not help acting. You could say that acting is an implosion, while wrestling is an explosion. Basically, they are opposite.”
Roddy Piper and Jesse “The Body” Ventura in the TV Show Tag Team
Roddy would get another chance at breaking into the mainstream in a TV series with fellow wrestler-turned-actor Jesse Ventura, in 1991’s Tag Team. In a joint production with Disney and Corelco, the two would play wrestlers who were banished from the ring (echoing real life for the pair) and were forced to become cops (a little further from reality).
The two friends discussed the show on Jesse’s podcast:
Roddy Piper: We must have a world record for coming closest to having a television series and not getting it. Let’s start from the beginning. Jesse already had the lead in a series about an ex-wrestler who becomes a policeman, and it was Disney and maybe NBC together. And credit to you Jesse, I wanted to be a part of the project, it was a great project, and I believed in it, and Jesse said, “Hey if you go and see them and do the audition, I’ve got no problems with that.” So that was very cool for those fans out there who don’t know. Normally a wrestler would sabotage you, stuff your bagpipes full of toilet paper as Freddie Blassie did to me, but with Jesse, not a problem. Then we had to go in, Jesse and myself, to this room where the executives were, and do an audition for lack of a better word, and we’ve got great chemistry. And we get a pilot, and they’re going to pick it up, I can’t remember if it was 13 episodes or 6.
Jesse Ventura: They picked us up for 13, and they even brought in the Magnum PI writing team, remember that? We had the writers from Magnum PI.
Piper: They decided to have a house in Venice in California, where they were going to shoot exteriors during the show. So, they said to me, “Hey if you want to live in the house, we ain’t got no problem with that.” I thought that was very kind of them. So I moved into the house! So, Jesse and I went to the office at Disney, and we got our call sheets. We got up at 6.45 the next morning, and everything’s wonderful, we’re ready to go, we’d shot the pilot, and I get back to the house, and I get a phone call from Jesse, “You’re not gonna believe this,” “What?”, “We’ve been put on hold.”
Ventura: It was Disney and Corelco. They had a pending lawsuit where they were on opposite sides of the lawsuit, and they were the two people that were producing our show. We got caught in a lawsuit between two entities, and it had nothing to do with our show other than they were co-producing it, and then they’re in a legal battle over a whole other thing, so they allowed the whole thing to go down the toilet.
Piper: Aw Jeez. We had a call sheet! We were a few hours away!
Ventura: It would have been a great show. Let me give the premise for the people that don’t remember Tag Team. It was a great premise; it was gonna be like The A-team. It was not going to be very serious; it was going to be a seven o’clocker at night that the kids could watch. It was basically this; two wrestlers get kicked out of wrestling, and they become cops. It actually came from the idea from a six-year-old boy. The writer who wrote the script was sitting watching wrestling with his son, and he said, “Gee Dad, wouldn’t it be neat to see two wrestlers become cops,” and that’s how the whole thing started, that was the background on the whole thing.
I needed another wrestler, that’s why I had no qualms about bringing Roddy in. Number one, because Roddy did such a great job in They Live acting, so I knew he could act, and number two I needed someone in the ring with me that knew what the hell he was doing, and so it was a natural thing for us two to get together. I’ll tell you, Roddy, if they had flown with that, I believe our lives would have changed because I, to this day, believe Tag team would have been a huge hit.
Piper: Me too. I believe it would have opened up a lot of doors for a lot of other people and for ourselves and for our families. There were no egos. None at all. We all went in with our hearts.
Ventura: The other thing too; you and I did all our own stunts, so they didn’t even have to do hard cuts for stuntmen, because when we jumped off of buildings, we did it ourselves.
Piper: And this is Hollywood. They felt so bad they got us a massage.
Ventura: (laughs) remember that? We did all our own stunts, so they got us a massage at the end of the day. I remember that now.
Piper: That’s gotta be the closest to having a series and not getting it in the history of Hollywood. I don’t know how much closer you can get.
Ventura: And I heard they had already spent a million dollars. On the set and everything else and they just let it flush right down the toilet, and that was the end of that. There went our pilot, and there went history, I guess. Roddy, if you think about it, if Tag Team went, I probably never would have been governor.
Piper: You know that’s correct. If Tag Team had taken off, your life and my life would have taken completely different directions. In my case, much for the better, but in your case, I don’t know. Having the ability, the will, and the intelligence to make yourself a governor of a state, from a background of pro wrestling and, of course, the service that you did for our country. No-one else has done it before. So, I don’t know if it would have changed your life for the better, but it would have mine anyway, I was hanging by a thread (laughs).
Unfortunately for Roddy, it never had a chance to be picked up for a series, but it seemed a fun premise, and although invented by a six-year-old boy, it still has more intelligence involved in it than Frogtown.
Watch the pilot episode for the Roddy Piper and Jesse Ventura TV show that never got picked up, Tag Team:
Roddy Piper – Back to the WWF
After the disappointment of Tag Team falling apart, Roddy Piper was once again back with the WWF. He had a short run through 1992 with a career-best performance against Bret Hart at WrestleMania 8, in which Piper’s brilliant character acting and Bret’s never-matched technical wrestling skills created the perfect blend of in-ring storytelling, resulting in one of the greatest matches of all time. Piper would then return back and forth sporadically for the next few years, most notably before WrestleMania 12 in 1996.
At WrestleMania 12, Roddy almost found himself in a feud with OJ Simpson. Here is how this match almost went down!
An Exit Plan
Roddy would next find himself in WCW (WWF’s biggest rival) in 1997, in a move he attributes to being purely for the money, and the acting opportunities working for the Turner Broadcasting Company would afford him. In this short run, he would feud with his old colleague and real-life rival Hulk Hogan, in matches titled “Icon vs. Icon,” which would largely be the two occasional actors fighting over who was the bigger Hollywood star. Roddy would defeat Hogan in the ring this time, echoing his greater celluloid success.
Roddy would also continue acting in various roles before returning to WWF (now rebranded as WWE) in 2003. However, before returning, Roddy had been interviewed by HBO for a documentary on the many young deaths of professional wrestlers.
During the interview, Roddy lamented on how hard it was to break away from wrestling.
“Wrestling has a tremendous entrance plan. You come in, and it’s, ‘Oh boy, here you are!’ You rock the world and everything’s wonderful. It’s got no exit plan. What would you have me do at 49? My pension plan, I can’t take it out until I’m 65.”
Roddy Piper continued, “Look, I’m not gonna make 65; let’s just face facts, guys.” Sadly, his foresight was true. Roddy only made it to 61.
Roddy being back with WWE in 2003, was a short-lived affair. After the HBO documentary aired in the months following Roddy’s return, it didn’t sit too well with McMahon that Roddy appeared on a documentary that was so critical of the wrestling business (McMahon also appeared on the program having a character damning outburst). Roddy was fired following the documentary airing, and the ongoing power struggles between the two continued.
Roddy Piper would continue acting for the next few years, in various B-movies and TV roles, including a scene-stealing turn in the hit sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as the crazed wrestler, Da Maniac. Roddy appeared as the character in two separate episodes, once in 2009 and again in 2013.
In an interview for IconvsIcon.com, Roddy remembers working with the gang.
“What a wonderful bunch of people, man! Unbelievable! I am an experimental model as far as my business goes! With the explosion of wrestling in ’85 and in ’87, I did They Live, so there are a lot of very nice people that grew up watching different events that I did. The same is true with the cast of It’s Always Sunny.”
Roddy’s, in his varied career, was still landing fantastic roles, and it appeared his improvisational approach learned in Piper’s Pit still stood the test of time.
Roddy continued, “Charlie was real cute. (laughs) I guess I can be a little intimidating. You don’t realize when that when you are in my shoes. We were doing this scene right at the bar, and I locked right into Charlie and grabbed him by the pants! He didn’t know me yet, as I was only on set for maybe five minutes. They thought maybe I was getting a little rowdy! They tried to get through the scene, but they broke down. That broke the ice all the way around ’cause I started laughing! I wasn’t meaning to be that mean! It started a real bonding experience with everybody there. When you see the scene when they are at the bar, about three and a half minutes in, check Charlie out ’cause you will see him breaking down! Now you know what happened! I guess I scared him! (laughs)”
Roddy would continue staying in the public eye with many reality TV appearances, such as on Celebrity Wife Swap, WWE Legends House, Storage Wars, as well as coming back for many guest spots on WWE events. He eventually brought back Piper’s Pit in podcast-form and was starting to get into the world of spoken word comedy shows.
Unfortunately for us all, Roddy Piper died on the 31st of July, 2015 of a Cardiac arrest. He was 61-years-old. Throughout his long and varied career, he had reached many people, and his death caused an outpouring of emotion from all his friends and former colleagues across the world.
From his former boss:
In a 2014 Piper’s Pit podcast episode, Roddy had the chance to thank John Carpenter, the person who took a chance with him and helped him the most with his acting career:
“During the time I was with you, I grew up a lot. I want to thank you. The movie wrapped and boom it was gone. I never had a chance to say thank you. I was the youngest wrestler in the history of my profession. I have been voted by my profession ‘the greatest villain in history.’ I’m the first guy in my profession to go and star in a major league studio as a principal. People ask me, and McMahon liked to push the fact that Roddy Piper never held the WWE championship. But I could have had it then if I wanted. But you know what? I wanted the movie more. And you both gave me a number one hit, and more than that, you gave me so much credibility, even when I was being a jerk. And I love you with all my heart.”
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