Let’s be honest: it’s hard to truly stand out in a lasting way in the world of professional wrestling. With wild characters populating the business, everybody’s looking for a hook to elevate them as a true one-of-a-kind. Randy “Macho Man” Savage had that indelible extra quality about him: the voice, the mannerisms, the athleticism, the wardrobe … all of it combined to deliver a performance that demanded attention and helped Savage break free from the pack.
There’s also the fickle fortune of timing: being the right person in the right place at the right time.
Actor, producer, and soon-to-be-director Kevin Makely understands this all too well, as he strives to steer his projects out of the crowd of independent films and etch a place in the public eye. In 2020, as much of the entertainment world was scrambling to adjust to the year’s challenges, Makely found himself the recipient of good fortune as his company’s Western film Badland started gaining traction on Netflix since people were stuck at home and started looking for more movies to watch, and it raced up the most-watched list on the streaming service.
And then, to top it all off, Makely was cast as Savage in NBC’s Young Rock TV series, appearing in tonight’s episode at 8:00 EST in what he describes as a dream role: as in one that he never thought could happen in reality.
Makely spoke with SlamWrestling.net about where this role fits into his career, how dressing up as Randy Savage for Hallowe’en paid off, and the day he delivered his very own Macho Man flying elbow.
Makely grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, in what he describes as a humble but happy childhood. Raised by their mother, Makely and his brother didn’t have a father figure in their upbringing, and so he gravitated to uber-male characters on TV and in the movies. “My male influences were Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage,” Makely recalls. “These guys that were larger than life — that’s what I wanted to be.”
Makely pauses to make a clear distinction here: he’s not referring to an immediate notion as a child that he would go into acting. In fact, the idea that he might grow up to be on screen himself never entered his mind. “I wanted to embody them, I never thought I could be on the screen,” he explains. “I just wanted to be big and strong and athletic, be a good guy, and be the hero.”
The entry into acting came much later, when Makely caught a train to New York City to attend an open audition call for Woody Allen’s upcoming 1998 film Celebrity. “I waited in line for eight hours and I wound up getting the part,” he recalls. “I was a glorified extra, but I was on set with Charlize Theron and Woody Allen. These are real people, and I thought, ‘I could do this.'”
Makely parlayed that small part into more acting gigs, and while he says that the wide-eyed kid who thought actors were somehow otherworldly is still in there, his success has afforded him the confidence to take on a role like Savage. “The Rock saw that I was able to embody him enough to put me in the show,” he says gratefully, with his roots as a fan coming through loud and clear.
“It is so surreal when I put on the Macho trunks.”
What makes the journey to his role on Young Rock so special for Makely is that he’s clearly not just toeing the company line when he speaks with reverence of the Randy Savage; in a way, he’s been training for this role since he was a kid.
“Macho Man was my guy,” Makely begins in talking about his wrestling fan roots. “His WWF debut was in the Poughkeepsie Civic Center in my hometown (it was in July 6, 1985, against Aldo Marino/Ricky Santana), so that’s our claim to fame! My mom would take us to see them when we could afford to get tickets, and it was a staple. I used to make ‘Russian apple sauce’ and squeeze an apple like Nikolai Volkoff, and I remember picking up my bed and flipping it over like I was The Ultimate Warrior. I’m a fanboy at heart.”
As luck would have it, that fanboy enthusiasm played a part in Makely’s audition process. “It’s funny, I had been Randy Savage for Hallowe’en two times,” he says. “One year I had a whole bunch of Slim Jims, and I’d augment the costume with the Intercontinental belt. So my agent Jay Schachter calls and says you have to get me that picture of you being Savage for Hallowe’en. He said, ‘I got you an audition’, and I thought it was for the (upcoming) Hulk Hogan biopic — I’d never even heard of Young Rock yet.”
As Makely learned more about the role and prepped for the audition, any nerves he may have felt about vying for an opportunity to play the part of one of his icons were tempered by the certainty that the whole thing was just going to be for fun. “There’s no way I’m going to get this,” Makely recalls thinking. “So I pulled out my costume and I wore pieces of it during the audition and I really just let it go. I did my own version of what I thought Savage was when the camera wasn’t on him. I didn’t do a caricature of him. They loved it, and I got it, and I never thought in a million years that that I would.”
As Makely talks more about the role, his energy ramps up and it’s hard to ignore a little Macho Man timbre popping out sporadically. “I’m geeking out a little bit,” he pauses to say. “It’s really the first time I’m talking about it in so many details.”
Now that he had the role, Makely started research to learn more about Savage that could be seen through his matches and promos. “I tried to find the real-life human being, any time when he was talking when he wasn’t doing an interview — when he was Randall Poffo,” he says. “But in reality, even Lanny (Poffo – Savage’s brother) said that he helped him come up with that schtick, and he loved it and hated it at the same time. He says, ‘The minute we came up with that schtick was the last time I saw my brother.'”
Lanny’s implication that his brother became the character of Randy Savage speaks to the philosophy featured in the premiere episode of Young Rock, in which Rocky Johnson promotes the lifestyle of working the gimmick. For that reason, Makely couldn’t find much in terms of footage where Savage wasn’t putting on at least a little Macho Man bravado.
“He’s a larger-than-life guy who never shuts it off, he only turns it up or turns it down,” Makely offers. Still, he acknowledges that it’s a challenge to walk the line between an impression and a caricature, especially with a performance as bombastic as Savage delivered. “I’m not going to play it to be funny, and I’m not going to make a mockery of Macho Man. I just hope that I did one of my childhood heroes a solid.”
With the show’s production in full gear, Makely found himself on location in Australia, pulling up the legendary orange, starred tights — which he acknowledges, due to licensing issues, have four stars instead of three, but he doesn’t care since “they still say Macho Man on the butt!”
He found himself going through the crash course in wrestling training with Chavo Guerrero, Jr., sharing similar stories as Matthew Willig and Brett Azar have previously told for their portrayals of André the Giant and The Iron Sheik, respectively. Namely: wrestling is hard and it hurts.
“Shout out to Corporal Kirchner, Sergeant Slaughter, George ‘The Animal’ Steele, and the guys that don’t get a lot of recognition,” Makely says in admiration. “They all put their heart, soul, and their life on the line every time they stepped in that ring, and they do it for us. They deserve the applause and they deserve the respect, man.”
While Makely makes no claim to know what it would be like to wrestle every day, he’s proud of what he and the other actors were able to accomplish in their time. “There were no stunt doubles,” he explains. “We all took our lumps and were eager to do it. I’m living as Macho Man the whole day; at one point in between takes I had one side of the crowd yelling ‘Macho’ and side yelling ‘Man.’ Willig was telling me ‘You’re so amped up, calm down!’ and I said, ‘I can’t! I’m in the ring with Macho Man trunks on, I can’t calm down!'”
There was really only one box left to check for Makely to complete his dream experience, and it was do deliver a Macho Man elbow off the top rope. He told Guerrero right away that he was down for it, and received a rather non-committal “we’ll see” kind of answer.
With nothing seeming to come of it, and no talk of doing the spot happening again, Makely didn’t push the issue but figured it wouldn’t happen. Until he he got a call from Guerrero the night before a shoot, asking if he was still good to do it. Makely answered confidently “Oh yeah!”
Even during the next day’s shoot, though, the moment seemed to be slipping away. “I figured we’d abandoned the elbow drop, or we would have rehearsed it already,” Makely recalls. “Then Chavo comes up to me and says, ‘Ready?'”
“This is my first time up on the top rope,” he continues. “I’m not scared. The crowd is cheering; it was amazing.” He did get on last bit of advice from Chavo: “Even Macho Man gets his balance before he gets up (to the top rope). If you don’t get sturdy, don’t stand up.”
“I did the thing that I grew up watching. One of the best signature moves in WWF, WCW history. My favourite signature move.”
Makely’s experience has left him exhilarated, thankful, and ready for what’s next. As a self-described geek, he has his eye on joining the Marvel or DC universes — and wants to be sure that the Hulk Hogan biopic crew knows he’s available to step in as Macho Man.
The process of moving forward in an uncertain climate due to safety protocols is foremost on his mind. He’s very aware of what it means to have had a breakout year when it has been a tragic time for many. “I couldn’t be more thankful, that in a time when most people are struggling it’s been fairly prosperous,” he says.
Looking forward to sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, safety is his first thought. “It’s all about the new normal,” he continues. “How do we continue to make movies and do the things that we love, and how do we do it safely? If everybody would have adopted the masks and the social distancing, and really believe more in the process and prevention as opposed to either burying your head in the sand or throwing caution to the wind or whatever the case may be, I think we could have been a little farther along. But I don’t get mad at the process. It’s all about keeping everybody safe. I’m just thankful that we can continue to work and we can continue to make things, and we can put our art out there.”
It certainly seems like Makely has found his footing on the top rope, so to speak, and is ready to leap off and live out his dreams.
- Kevin Makely on Twitter
- Kevin Makely’s production company Papa Octopus Productions
- Randy Savage, Lanny Poffo, and Angelo Poffo Story Archive
- NBC’s Young Rock page
- Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and family story archive
- Slam Wrestling’s Young Rock review and interview archive