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BEE CAVE, TEXAS — Mark Calaway is a creature of habit.
When he’s not at his home overlooking a luscious green fairway of the Spanish Oaks golf course, he sticks to his regular haunts. Like Schmidt Family Barbecue, where the staff treats him like any other customer, though he is assuredly not. Really, Calaway is often able to live something akin to a regular life around town.
Or, as regular as life can get for someone who just spent three decades portraying a fictional supernatural character not just on television but pretty much everywhere else.
He no longer wears all-black outfits as a rule, but he sticks with the stuff he likes: shirts by Roots of Fight and camouflage hats, likely involving Texas in some fashion. He doesn’t have to sneak around when he wants to enjoy a meal with his family or go grocery shopping. If you approach him at the airport, you’ll find him friendly and amenable. This is a new development. Ten years ago, if you tried the same thing at the airport, he’d stare at you until you went back from whence you came. If that didn’t work, he might growl at you.
That’s really not the case around Bee Cave. He doesn’t go unrecognized, obviously. He is gigantic, and if that weren’t enough to turn heads, he’s been a world-famous celebrity for 30 years. Fans walk up and ask for an autograph or a selfie, and he obliges. But if they’re expecting an encounter with Calaway’s dark passenger, they’ll probably walk away disappointed.
Those days are dead and buried.
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“I’m just Mark,” he says on the fourth episode of The Last Ride, which premieres Sunday on WWE Network.
And mostly, he is.
From the moment Calaway debuted on WWF television at the 1990 iteration of Survivor Series, the public rarely got a glimpse of the human behind the Dead Man gimmick. It was by design.
Calaway felt the character he’d been tasked with portraying could be something truly special, even in Vince McMahon’s early 1990s WWF. The company overflowed with characters. Most of them were forgettable. Some were unforgettable for the wrong reasons. But from the moment he walked through the curtain, Calaway’s Undertaker was different. Announcers have spent 30 years telling their audience that a chill goes through the building during the iconic Undertaker entrance.
You know it’s not actually true. This guy isn’t really dead. There is no chill in the air, as Jim Ross and Michael Cole have claimed on WWE broadcasts. And yet, if you’ve ever found yourself in an arena for The Undertaker’s epic arrival, you might find yourself thinking: maybe?
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The key to maintaining that mystery and wonder was simple. Never let them see anything but The Undertaker.
For all but his friends, family and the people behind the curtain, Mark Calaway ceased to exist. That’s the way things used to be done, back in the old days. It’s known in wrestling parlance as kayfabe, and the art traces its roots back to the earliest days of worked pro wrestling and carried on right up through the dawn of the ’90s. After McMahon admitted that his company promoted scripted entertainment, kayfabe had a time-limited shelf life.
Today’s pro wrestling business is largely kayfabe-free. WWE has embraced social media and encourages the men and women on its roster to share their real lives with the fans at home. The idea is, if they feel like they really know the person, they’ll become more invested in the character.
And sometimes, that’s true. But then sometimes, Braun Strowman posts a photo on social media. And it’s hard to figure out how, exactly, a photo of a shirtless Strowman riding an electric scooter through a downtown city with a pack of other shirtless men is supposed to help us further embrace the Braun Strowman, Giant Monster we see on television, who has recently had choice words for Calaway’s alter ego.
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“Don’t get me started on Braun,” Calaway says shortly before starting on Braun. “I think the world of Braun. I realize that times are a lot different now. But how do you be this on TV, and then you go on social media and be this other thing? These guys will go out and be great heels on TV, and then you go on their social media and they’re just goobers.”
Calaway says The Undertaker character, were he to debut today instead of 30 years ago, just wouldn’t work. I asked Ric Flair if he agreed with Calaway’s take—Flair was also known for living his gimmick 24/7, but for very different reasons than Calaway—and he vehemently disagreed.
“Absolutely, it would work,” Flair says. “Look at Bray Wyatt and The Fiend. It would be a lot tougher because of social media and now Mark has his kids and family. But I gotta disagree with Taker. He would make it work.”
The great ones always do.