Mark Calaway never wanted to be a movie star. He was too busy being WWE’s The Undertaker.
For most of the last three decades, Calaway embodied his macabre “Deadman” persona – with black hat, duster coat and an always epic entrance – in and out of the pro wrestling ring, garnering a legion of fans but eschewing the acting path that peers like Dwayne Johnson and John Cena have taken.
“I can’t be the Lord of Darkness and then Kindergarten Cop. It would have been a trainwreck and I would’ve lost all my credibility,” says the Texas native. “The wrestling industry, that’s what I cared about. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Calaway, 55, says he “never had any aspirations of morphing my wrestling career into a movie career like The Rock did. I mean, I think he’s probably gonna make it,” he chuckles. “My goal was to be at the top of the WWE and be responsible for putting (butts) in seats and live in this character.”
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Since 1990, The Undertaker has lived up to his “Phenom” nickname, becoming one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and one of its most popular, entertaining thousands as a regular staple at WWE’s annual signature event, WrestleMania. (His overall ‘Mania record: 25-2, including an impressive series of 21 consecutive wins known as “The Streak.”)
This year’s documentary series “The Last Ride” chronicled Calaway’s time in the ring as a physically imposing, 6-foot-10-inch force of nature and an elder statesman to younger performers. And it opened a door to his personal life with wife Michelle McCool and their 8-year-old daughter Kaia, showing his transition from wrestler to full-time family man.
On Sunday, 30 years to the day since his debut as the Undertaker, Calaway returns for “The Final Farewell” at Survivor Series (streaming on the WWE Network, 7 EST/4 PST). “I would never say emotional,” he says of his swan song, “but on the inside, I’m sure it’s going to be a very unique night.”
Calaway talks with USA TODAY about his legacy as Undertaker and what’s on his TV (besides wrestling):
Many fans remember your 1990 debut. As we watch Undertaker walking to the ring, what’s going on in Mark Calaway’s head at that moment?
Mark Calaway: Mark Calaway at that moment is so nervous that he can barely get one foot in front of the other. This is a brand new character, and in the ring, you’ve got “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, you got Bret Hart, all these top-tier guys, and I’m about to basically toss them all around. I already knew in my head that this character was going to walk slow, but I’m so excited on the inside, I’m like, “Slow down.” And I was moving slow, but in my head, I want to get there and get started.
What has it been like the last couple years letting the world see the real you after three decades never breaking character?
Calaway: It’s been challenging opening up and lifting the veil, because for 30 years that was unheard of. You just don’t do it. There’s some days I’m thinking, “It’s really cool that I’ve given people a peek on the inside” and then there’s other days where I’m like, “I don’t know if I should have done this or not.”
Can you fathom the deep impact you’ve had on a couple generations at this point, or will that take a while to process?
Calaway: I can’t tell you how many times now that I’m getting out and doing more personal appearances – well, obviously pre-COVID – the amount of people that come up and tell me their story and thank me. It’s humbling to know how your work and what you do can affect people that you’ll a lot of times never meet or never see.
Undertaker’s not an instant-gratification character, like Hulk Hogan high-fiving fans or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin chugging beers. It probably takes some time to figure out what you meant to folks.
Calaway: Oh, absolutely. I don’t hardly ever make eye contact. It’s part of what I do. But I think there’s a lot of people that identify with that. If they felt like they’d been bullied, they don’t make eye contact with people and they feel different and they look at me as being different in what I do. Then they put it together.
What do you want your daughter to take away from your career as she gets older?
Calaway: I want to make sure she understands that if you’ve got a dream, you got to go for it and you got to go all in for it. Work ethic and integrity and treating people the way you want to be treated, those are the things that I want to instill in her.
You’ve been a part of people’s TV diet for 30 years. What do you watch?
Calaway: Mostly sports. I love boxing, MMA, college football. I need a new series. I loved “Dexter” (and) “Sons of Anarchy.” I love “Yellowstone,” man. Probably not as much as I should, I watch our (WWE) product. (Laughs) I think I don’t watch it as often because I put myself in, like, “Ahh, I should be there!”
Can you actually sit back and enjoy it as a fan?
Calaway: I can to a certain degree. But a lot of times I catch myself talking to the TV like they can hear me. It’s hard to be just a straight fan, because I want everybody to succeed and to develop into their potential. So I’m kind of like, “Oh man, don’t do it. It didn’t make sense. Don’t do that. Why would you do that?” You would actually laugh if there was a camera watching me watch wrestling. I have these conversations and it’s pretty amusing, I’m sure.