For 30 yrs, he’s lived life as the WWE star the Undertaker. Meet Mark Calaway
“I’m only now starting to look under the hood of the Undertaker and see who Mark Calaway is, and how they fit together,” says the man who has spent his life making the fake look real.
It’s not hard to believe that the Undertaker has lost sight of who the real Calaway is. Even the greatest method actors eventually return to living as Day-Lewis or De Niro. The Undertaker, for three decades, simply didn’t break character.
The leather cloak became his second skin, the character seeped into his pores and breathed mystique into a most outlandish gimmick. But this came at a great personal cost: with each ticking minute for 30 years, the Undertaker slowly and surely consumed Calaway.
The act of living one’s character beyond the pro-wrestling ring is known as kayfabe, and all great wrestlers maintain it to some extent to blur the line between real and fake. The Undertaker practised kayfabe with a zealot’s belief. So much so that even the men he worked with, such as the great Stone Cold Steve Austin, could rarely get him to crack.
“The Undertaker never, ever, ever breaks character,” WWE legend Austin once said. “The only time I ever saw him break kayfabe was when I caught him off-guard and made him smile during a private show in Kuwait. But he quickly threw his hair over his face and covered it up. In all my time with him, just that once.”
This has meant almost never presenting himself to the media. On the rare occasion when he did, by appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show for the Halloween special in 2017, he showed up in his customary leather cloak and black hat and performed his finishing move, the Tombstone Piledriver, on a scarecrow. Then he rolled his pupils to the back of his skull and uttered his catchphrase at the audience in the gravest baritone: “Rest. In. Peace.”
So, when the opportunity to interview the Undertaker presented itself, it wasn’t entirely clear what, or whom, to expect. The answer revealed itself when the man at the other end of the Zoom call, wearing a green beanie and a matching sweatshirt, chuckled and said, “Hope you’re doing well, mister.”
Having recently announced plans to retire (not for the first time, but quite possibly the last), the Undertaker has begun revealing the real Calaway as he promotes a five-part documentary on his career called The Last Ride and a special anthology series, Phenom: 30 Years of the Undertaker (now out on Sony Ten 1 & Sony Ten 3).
Has it been a relief to lift the veil or hard to break kayfabe after all these years, I ask, and Calaway purses his lips and shrugs his shoulders. “It’s definitely been difficult. Very difficult,” he says. “You have no idea.”
“I have lived as the Undertaker for many, many years. This character has been a part of my real life and everything. So, yeah, it took a while for me to become comfortable to talk about so many things I have held so closely for so many years,” he says. “Even today, after the release of the documentary and all that, I still sometimes think, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ Because it’s so ingrained in everything I have done for so long that I catch myself saying, ‘Should I really be saying all of this?’”
He speaks in a thick Texan accent and a voice many tones higher than the Undertaker’s deep bass. All of this feels surreal; like expecting to meet Batman and running into Bruce Wayne instead. “Well, it is what it is,” he says.
By revealing the man behind the mask — or in his case the black hat pulled low over the eyes — Calaway exposes the blind commitment that brought a gimmick to life. “Once I got into it, it wasn’t that hard,” he says. “Because I was on the road all the time, I was the Undertaker all the time.”
When Calaway first signed in 1990 with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (which later became World Wrestling Entertainment), bizarre gimmicks were commonplace. Simultaneously dotting the WWF landscape were a Haitian voodoo practitioner (Papa Shango), a Ugandan cannibal (Kamala) and a mad Viking (Berzerker), to name only a few.
Calaway’s rendition of the grim reaper should’ve been just as short-lived as the rest. It would’ve failed as well, the wrestling legend Triple H said in a WWE podcast to fellow great Shawn Michaels, in anybody else’s hands but Calaway’s. And Michaels agreed: “When he first came in, we thought the character was phenomenal, but everybody felt it was going to burn out fast because there was only so much you could do with it. Now think about the fact that it’s as fresh today as it ever was. He was all in; that was very tough to do.”
“All in” might just sum it up. In the early days, neither the Undertaker nor the business was as big as they are today. To promote their gigs, these wrestlers would spend months on the road, performing in America’s backwater towns and shuttling between cheap motels. While the other wrestlers would let their hair down at the end of bruising days, Calaway never did. It was the Undertaker who joined them.
“When I ordered a drink at a bar or a delivery boy came to the motel room with pizza, he wouldn’t get this person. He’d get somebody staring at him with cold, dead eyes,” he says. “That’s one of the huge reasons why it was so successful. Because I never turned it off.”
Never turning it off came with its share of miserable in-ring challenges. Because he was the “Deadman” and dead men feel no pain, Calaway once deadpanned his way through second-degree burns caused by a flaming casket. But the worst of all was at the very beginning of his career when he almost exclusively worked with 7-ft monsters — men with zero in-ring skills who didn’t know how to pull their punches. The “stiffs”, as this tribe is known in wrestling, would seriously batter Calaway, who had to unblinkingly carry the match without once “selling”, wrestling for showing pain.
He groans at the memories. “As soon as these big guys signed up with the company, I knew that Vince was going to send them my way,” he says. “I would beg Vince to allow me to work an angle with the guys who could perform, you know. But Vince would laugh it off in the way Vince does and say, ‘your time will come’. It did, when Rodney came around [in 1992].”
Rodney Anoa’i, a 450-pound Samoan better known by his ring-name Yokozuna, was a rare co-worker whom the Undertaker introduced to the real Calaway. “As soon as I saw Yoko, I knew I wanted to work with him. I was in the middle of an angle with Giant Gonzalez then, but Yoko and I formed this friendship I cherish to this day and soon we got the green light to take it to the ring,” says Calaway.
In a ludicrous storyline, even by the low-bar set in that era, Yokozuna would “kill” the Undertaker at a main-event in 1994. The truth is Calaway needed an extended break due to a bad back (when he returned a few months later, the company had run out of new monsters and instead involved him in a storyline with a fake Undertaker. The fake was played by Brian Lee, who later reprised the role in Akshay Kumar’s Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi).
But make no mistake, Calaway and Anoa’i enjoyed every minute of it while it lasted. “You could not believe how physically gifted he was, how athletic. He moved like a 500-pound cat,” Calaway says. “It was because he played the heel so well that I could finally sell and get some sympathy from the crowd. He was the first to make it believable that someone could do some real damage to the Undertaker.”
In 2000, Anoa’i died of complications arising from obesity, an occupational hazard in his case. He was 34 and weighed over 900 pounds. Similar occupational hazards — usually steroid use — claimed a number of his contemporaries from that era, but Anoa’i’s death had a devastating effect on Calaway. “I miss him every single day,” he says.
Around the same time, the Undertaker was suffering from a professional low as well. The WWE had evolved with the times and the old, gimmicky era had given way to a fresher and edgier one known as the Attitude Era. To keep abreast of the changes, the Undertaker gimmick was shelved for the American Badass — a bandana-wearing, tobacco-chewing biker. It didn’t work with his fans, so he brought back the Deadman in 2002, but in a far darker avatar, rid of the cartoony grey tie and inked with a teardrop tattoo instead.
The Undertaker went on to rack up the most Wrestle Mania wins, saw his fan following boom, and set new standards for longevity in the field.
“I would be lying if I say I could envision just how successful the second coming would be,” Calaway says. “People in my business don’t have this kind of longevity. Luck has shined on me.”
A character as eternal as the Undertaker doesn’t age. But the shy man behind it has. He’s 55 now. “At this age, it takes ten times the effort for half the reward. I have had 18 surgeries to repair different wrestling-related injuries,” he says. “Not a day goes by when I don’t wake up in some sort of pain. But I don’t say this for sympathy. I wouldn’t change a thing. I knew in the beginning that it wasn’t going to be an easy life.”
Lives, plural: the Undertaker and the surreptitious Calaway.
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