A tough business, a tough man, a tough DVD

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 12, 2005

Jake Roberts terrifies me. Always has.

Remember when he’d do interviews with &uot;Mean&uot; Gene Okerlund on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) programs about 15 years ago, and speak in that Vincent Price-esque voice that made you think this was the type of guy who was just itching to go Charles Whitman on someone? I had nightmares about the guy. Still do.

But the truth is the Roberts also exuded a sort of morbid curiosity – and not just because he was considered a master of wrestling psychology. Never one with a bodybuilder’s physique, pretty boy looks or a luchadore’s arsenal, Roberts’ act was the creation of a wrestling persona – and according to those that knew him, it wasn’t entirely an act.

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&uot;I don’t know that you can separate Jack Roberts the performer from Jake Roberts the person,&uot; WWE president Vince McMahon said in the 1999 independent film &uot;Beyond the Mat,&uot; which included a profile of Roberts, &uot;because I’m not sure that they’re not one and the same.&uot;

The WWE’s newest DVD, &uot;Jake Roberts: Pick Your Poison,&uot; delves even further into that theory.

That Roberts has had one of sports entertainment’s longest struggles with drugs and alcohol outside the ring is hardly anything new to wrestling fans. But while &uot;Beyond&uot; only spent a brief period of time describing them and basically only showed Roberts’ dark side (he came off as having a serious &uot;Poor me!&uot; thing going on), the DVD goes a bit farther.

The film starts off with a poem that sounds sort of biblical, written by Roberts himself.

&uot;When I die, I feel it won’t be from another’s sword,&uot; it reads, &uot;but by the unstoppable heartbeat of dreams.&uot;

Then comes Roberts’ life story from his own mouth – and within 10 minutes, it’s almost impossible to hear.

He talks about being born to a 13-year-old, and raised by an alcoholic grandfather and tobacco-chomping grandma who died with Roberts was 11. Roberts says he was sexually abused by his own stepmother, and laughingly discusses beating the hell out of his pregnant sister, who was herself eventually murdered.

And we’re not even to the wrestling part yet. Truth may or may not be stranger than fiction, but it’s sure scarier.

Eventually, Roberts got into the ring, mainly out of spite for his jerk father Grizzly, he says. The first five years of his career are covered in about a minute, and we find that Roberts’ finisher changed from a kneelift to the DDT – which he’s basically credited for inventing in the wrestling world – by accident.

Eventually, he moves on to the WWE, and became Jake &uot;The Snake,&uot; carrying a python to the ring (there’s a hilarious clip of him having an animal fight with Ricky &uot;The Dragon&uot; Steamboat and his kimono lizard). Steamboat, McMahon, Ted Dibiase, Bruce Pritchard, Jim Ross, Hulk Hogan and others all praise him – but the foreshadowing is there, and it hits hard.

Back in 1987, Roberts himself was doing an interview with the Honky Tonk Man, who smashed a guitar into Roberts’ head. While that’s not an uncommon sight in today’s wrestling programming, this guitar wasn’t fixed – and two of the discs in Roberts’ neck were ruptured, says he.

From there, we jump partially backwards into his life outside the ring. It turns out that Jake started drinking in high school. While recovering from his neck injury, he got all but addicted to painkillers and other medication.

&uot;At first, you like it,&uot; he says of the drugs and drinks, &uot;but as time goes on, it’s something you need… I could find just about any reason to drink. I’d work, get my alcohol, get my pills and go to sleep. The next day, I’d do it again. I was in the ‘Have To’ stage. I had to have a drink, had to have a pill, had to have cocaine.&uot;

His wife sometimes had to dig vomit out of his mouth while he slept so he wouldn’t choke on it. His children were afraid he’d leave and never come back. His friends Curt Hennig, Big Bossman and Road Warrior Hawk died, and Jake wondered why it hadn’t been him.

For a while, things get light and descriptive again, and it’s a fun walk down memory lane. We take a hilarious look at Jake’s feud with Andre the Giant, and find that Jake would have had a program with the Ultimate Warrior had Warrior not, the WWE says, held them up for money. Jake had a python bite Randy Savage in the ring, which is something I couldn’t believe they got away with back in 1992.

Then things get a bit sappy with history reversion. Jake left the WWE in 1993 because he wasn’t allowed to be a booker, he says, and the reason he didn’t get going in World Championship Wrestling was because the higher-ups (his longtime battles with Bill Watts are only touched on, but would require a full DVD on their own) didn’t want him to. He gets credit for all but single-handedly creating &uot;Stone Cold&uot; Steve Austin, and his feud with Jerry Lawler, which in reality lasted about a month and maybe five people cared about, gets much more DVD time than it should. Then Jake went to Extreme Championship Wrestling for all of a night, moved to the United Kingdom, got arrested for animal cruelty and came back to the United States, only to get arrested for drugs, though these things get hardly a mention.

Finally, we wrap things up, and, unlike &uot;Beyond,&uot; this DVD gives us a sense of hope for Roberts’ future. There’s a clip of the standing ovation he received on an episode of WWE Raw back in March, and he talks about being hopeful for the future.

Should we believe him? Better yet, should we stand behind him? Well, that’s up to the individual. But maybe the message here is that it’s never too late to fix what’s wrong. As long as you’re alive, you’ve got time to live right. What’s in your past is behind you, and it needs to stay there. The film doesn’t say, &uot;Jake did it, and so can you!&uot; because we don’t know that he has. But even if he fails, people facing the same problems can succeed. For him, and for us, there’s a choice – and there’s a chance.