A fascinating subject isn’t all you need to create a good documentary — but it’s a big part of it, and Jake “The Snake” Roberts has always checked that box. During both his highs and his lows, both of which have already been well-documented before this week’s airing of the WWE-produced episode of Biography on A&E, Roberts has always had a way of grabbing a viewer’s attention. While the usual issue with the WWE-focused Biography series still holds true, which is that wrestling fans won’t find much new information, Roberts’ story is so captivating it will probably reel viewers in all the same.
For those that don’t know his life story, they’re in for a wild and disturbing ride.
The episode begins with Roberts out fishing with his sons, Derek and Dustin Smith. They’re laughing, and Jake says that the last ten years of his life have been wonderful. His sons say that it’s been a long road to building a foundation of trust between them, allowing them to enjoy these moments together. Jake’s sister, Robin Smith (who competed as Rockin’ Robin) looks back on growing up with Jake in Gainesville, TX, with Jake as the helpful, caring, and cool older brother.
As he grew up, “Buster,” as Jake was known, wanted to be an architect. At this point everything seems pretty straightforward as far as looking back upon his youth, but the story takes a dark turn that requires a lot of time to unravel. In archival footage, we see Jake’s father Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith talk about how his own father had shaped him in the “right way”, namely with a lot of beatings. From there, Jake, Robin, and Richard Nabors, another sibling in Jake’s extended family, detail their father’s horrific, abusive actions that were the focus of an episode of Dark Side of the Ring.
One of the questions going into this episode was how much shared content would exist between the two shows, given the presumption that Dark Side and Biography generally aim for different audiences. Well, from Jake’s birth being the result of rape of his under-age mother to Robin’s difficult recounting of Grizzly’s abusive treatment of her, this episode doesn’t shy away from the whole story.
Even during these harrowing moments in the show, elements of what would become Jake’s calling card in wrestling, his silver tongue, seep in. With stylish, extreme close-up and black and white imagery, Roberts can still draw you in with his words as easily as ever. After continued stories of abusive relationships, including Jake detailing such treatment when in the care of his step-mother — Robin’s mother — the show is suddenly half an hour in and there’s barely been any talk of wrestling.
When that time comes, Jake remembers the moment that he gave up on architecture as he sought his father’s love and approval, and decided the only way to achieve that was in the wrestling ring at the age of 18. At this time, it starts to feel more like a standard episode of Biography, as the usual suspects of WWE programming start to pop up. Pete Rosenberg talks up Jake’s mic work and finishing move as both being arguably the greatest of all time. Bret Hart observes that what Jake lacked in training he made up for with the keen eye of a second-generation wrestler. Diamond Dallas Page identifies Roberts as a trailblazing anti-hero.
And then, completely skipping Jake’s time in the Mid-South, Stampede, World Class Championship Wrestling promotions and more, we’re presented with Jake “The Snake” Roberts in the WWF in 1986. There are two lengthy segments of the show that feature Jake’s promos, one tilted more to the babyface side and the other to his heel work — and it’s always amazing how closely tied they both are — and his memorable feuds.
Most of the time is given to Jake and, separately, Ricky Steamboat, looking back on The Snake giving The Dragon a DDT on the concrete floor surrounding the ring on a Saturday Night’s Main Event in ’86. Roberts warned Steamboat about taking the move, but Ricky insisted he could protect himself. Looking back, Steamboat describes the feeling like a grenade going off inside his head. Jake’s memorable bits with Randy Savage and the cobra, and also facing off with The Undertaker for WrestleMania VIII, are explored as the first chapter of Jake’s wrestling career is closed.
His children, Derek, Dustin, and also his daughter Brandy, say that Jake was the father that everyone wanted to have, but they had no idea what it was like in reality. Wrestling was everything to him, and they saw him on TV more than they did in person. Even Robin said that there was no family support from Jake when she was herself training for the ring.
After WrestleMania VIII, Jake says he spun out of control for the next 15-20 years. These times are covered well by the documentaries Beyond the Mat and The Resurrection of Jake The Snake, and clips from both are featured in this episode of Biography. His return to the WWF in 1996 provided a brief respite from his troubles, but he found life on the road made it impossible to stay clean (no wonder, as Jerry Lawler talks about how the whiskey he poured down Jake’s throat as part of a bit was real, which is an astonishingly bad decision when telling a real-life recovery story).
Jake’s downward spiral, “one of the worst falls we’ve ever seen in wrestling,” according to Rosenberg, tested the limits of family dedication. Brandy breaks down admitting that she was grateful when her dad stayed away, something she’s always felt but never admitted out loud. After Jake reveals that he tried to commit suicide a handful of times, he stops production for a moment as he needs a break to gather himself.
Jake has fought to stabilize his life and gain the support of some, but not all of his family. “Not everybody is okay with him,” Brandy explains. “Not everybody thinks he’s a great guy.” Bearing the “scars and callouses” of what he calls his past life, Jake feels that documentaries or shows such as this episode can only serve some good, and provide help to those who need it. Indeed, the closing image of the show features information sources for those suffering from addiction, sexual abuse, or suicidal thoughts.
Again, while there isn’t a lot of new territory broken here in this newest re-telling of Jake Roberts’ life, you will nonetheless find an engrossing story well-told and deserving of attention.
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