Howard “Pepper” Martin, a legendary professional wrestler and prolific actor, has passed away. Many audiences are doubtlessly most familiar with Martin from his role in Superman II as “Rocky” a belligerent townie who assaults the depowered Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) in a diner, then later gets beaten up by the re-powered Superman for his trouble. But Martin had a long career in the entertainment industry, and an even longer, colorful life. In recent years, Martin had suffered from various forms of cancer, including a successful battle with eye cancer. As of February 2022, he was reported to be in hospice care after fighting lung cancer for years and at peace with his remaining time. He was 85.
Pepper Martin was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1936, and lost his mother to a tragic arsonist-set fire when he was seven. Reportedly, he lied about his age at 16 and joined the Navy (in his words, already being large for his age); the deception was only discovered when he suffered a knee injury. Taking a job with the Westinghouse electric company, that knee injury led to him exploring various forms of physical fitness, which directly led him to a gym that trained wrestlers. In the late 1940s, professional wrestling was swiftly evolving in the United States, and Martin had found his calling.
After his first professional match in 1957, Pepper Martin swiftly became a mainstay of the rapidly growing professional wrestling industry. He remained active as a professional wrestler into the 1970s, and eventually joined the National Wrestling Alliance, one of the first and most influential organizations to merge and codify the various local wrestling scenes and groups around the country. Martin was present for some of the first televised wrestling performances in history, and had a longtime partnership with Don Owens, a wrestling promoter notable for both his forward thinking and unusual fairness in dealing with wrestlers. Eventually, Martin was the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Champion five times, and an eight-time NWA Pacific Northwest Tag Team Champion with various partners.
In the 1960s, a severe back injury led to Pepper Martin branching out into Hollywood. He eventually became friends with legendary figures like director John Ford and Western actor and NFL player Woody Strode. Martin never quite became a star like his industry descendants like Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and John “John Cena” Cena, but his work in the film and television industry was undoubtedly a clear precedent. Martin eventually starred in many episodes of television shows like the seminal police procedural Dragnet, the William Shatner-starring TJ Hooker, and the detective show The Rockford Files. He also had supporting parts in many movies, including Walking Tall (which was eventually remade starring Dwayne Johnson), Mutiny on the Bounty, and of course, Richard Donner’s Superman II.
Pepper Martin was a notable figure in many industries and had at least one scene that will stick around in cinema history for generations. He was a community leader, a longtime color commentator, and a respected giant in the world of professional wrestling. RIP Howard “Pepper” Martin.