Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures
As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Mickey Rourke struggles with issues many real-world wrestlers — notably Jake "The Snake" Roberts — have faced over the years.
As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Mickey Rourke struggles with issues many real-world wrestlers — notably Jake "The Snake" Roberts — have faced over the years. Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Lions Gate Films
Beyond the Mat captured The Snake (background) and his most famous gimmick: using reptiles in the ring.
The documentary Beyond the Mat captured The Snake (background) and his most famous gimmick: using reptiles in the ring. Lions Gate Films
Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky says his research on the pro-wrestling world led him to "many guys who had similar journeys" to the heights of fame and back.
Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky says his research on the pro-wrestling world led him to "many guys who had similar journeys" to the heights of fame and back. Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Mickey Rourke might have been left pulling staples from his back after a particularly violent match in The Wrestler, but one real-life figure who may have influenced the film once had to detach a snake from his face.
Like Randy "The Ram" Robinson — the central character in The Wrestler — Jake "The Snake" Roberts was a gifted showman, a faded icon and an absent father. And like Randy, he, too, struggled with drugs and failing health later in his career.
His story was told nine years before The Wrestler, in a documentary titled Beyond the Mat. Barry Blaustein, the director of the earlier film, says he loves The Wrestler.
"Someone asked me if I was sorry I didn't make The Wrestler," he says. "I said I did make it; I made the nonfiction version of it."
Blaustein says that director Darren Aronofsky got all the details right, and that Rourke was superb. But Blaustein couldn't help but notice the similarities — down to the encounter between Randy and his daughter.
In The Wrestler, Rourke's character reaches out to his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Beyond the Mat includes a similar scene in which the aging wrestler confronts his estranged daughter, Brandy.
Nothing about Roberts' life was sugary or sweet. Born in 1955 to a 13-year-old mother, Roberts fought with and fought for the attention of his father, also a professional wrestler. He turned pro and flourished, realizing that psychology was as important to a good match as crisp moves or a sculpted physique.
After advancing through wrestling's minor leagues, Roberts broke huge in the 1980s, when Vince McMahon, president of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation, had the idea to give Jake "The Snake" an actual snake.
Of course, those who cavort with snakes sometimes feel the bite themselves. In one match, the cobra bit Roberts in the face.
Big-time wrestling eventually turned on Roberts. As he became addicted to drugs, his real-life chemical dependency was incorporated into the script for his matches.
But as tragic as Roberts' biography is, it's far from unique, Blaustein says.
Aronofsky agrees: "It's sad to say what has happened to Jake is not that original a story for pro wrestling," he says. "We met so many guys who had similar journeys, who were big stars and just didn't take care of themselves and ended up in really, really terrible situations."
Aronofsky says he and Wrestler screenwriter Robert D. Siegel weren't aware of Beyond the Mat until after they had begun working on their movie.
Blaustein says he got a call from Aronofsky's office asking for Roberts' phone number, which he didn't have.
Roberts turned down a request to speak to NPR, saying that he didn't want to talk about The Wrestler or be interviewed for this story.
Today, Jake "The Snake" Roberts markets his own direct-to-consumer DVDs and appears in small gyms and halls mostly in the Southeast.
His fictional incarnation might receive more star treatment this weekend: Randy "The Ram" Robinson could be the role that wins Mickey Rourke an Academy Award.