In a galaxy of Hollywood stars, one cameo player can boast the longest career by far. But chances are you've never seen him and you never will. He's appeared in some of the most popular movies ever, but he isn't an actor, though he was probably created by one. Wilhelm is a sound effect, more specifically a scream. In a piece that has become a favorite from our archives, David Serchuk reports on the Wilhelm.
BOB GARFIELD: From one iconic scream to another, Janet Leigh’s to Wilhelm’s. Most actors would die for a resume like Wilhelm’s. He’s appeared in some of the most popular films ever made. But Wilhelm isn't an actor, although he was probably created by one. Wilhelm is a sound effect. More specifically, Wilhelm is a scream. With a repeat airing of one of our all-time favorite pieces, here’s On the Media’s David Serchuk.
DAVID SERCHUK: The Wilhelm has punctuated the death and dismemberment of dozens of characters in some 20 to 25 movies, particularly in those associated with George Lucas. With appearances in some of history's biggest hits, from Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Toy Story, clearly this sound gets around. In addition to the aforementioned blockbusters, the scream appeared in lesser Lucas films like Howard the Duck and Willow as well as the Star Wars parody Spaceballs. Prior to being adopted by the Lucas team in 1977, the Wilhelm got its shot in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch in 1967 and co-starred with Judy Garland in 1954's A Star is Born. It even appeared in John Wayne's gritty drama The Green Berets in 1968.
[CLIP FROM "THE GREEN BERETS"] MAN: That's what it's all about, Mr. Beckworth!
[END FILM CLIP] DAVID SERCHUK: After The Green Berets, the Wilhelm went on sabbatical until it was revived in Star Wars.
[STAR WARS MUSIC] It appears in the scene where Luke and Leia bravely blast the storm troopers from across a bottomless pit in the death star. Right before our heroes swing across, young Skywalker shoots a storm trooper, who falls both into the depths and Hollywood history.
[THE WILHELM SCREAM] The Wilhelm is also in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
["RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK" MUSIC] In this film, the Wilhelm again marks the falling death of a bad guy. The Wilhelm comes into play this time while Indiana Jones fights off Nazis while simultaneously driving a truck. All the commotion causes one poorly-balanced Nazi to fall out.
[THE WILHELM SCREAM] But the Wilhelm has graced smaller films as well. Prior to its use in these hits, it gave years of service to such B movie classics as 1954's Them, where it punctuated James Whitmore's death in the mandibles of a giant ant.
[THE WILHELM SCREAM] But the Wilhelm's work in Them was not finished, for it also became the death knell of an army private later in the film.
[THE WILHELM SCREAM]
[FILM CLIP] MAN: Medics! Medic!
[END FILM CLIP] DAVID SERCHUK: The Wilhelm was popularized in name by Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning sound editor for Star Wars, says Richard Anderson, sound editor and president of Weddington Productions in North Hollywood. Anderson worked with Burtt on both Star Wars and Raiders, placing the Wilhelm in the latter film. He said Burtt, an old-time Hollywood film buff, was inspired to track the sound to its roots after noting how frequently it occurred in his favorite B films.
RICHARD ANDERSON: The earliest film that he had noticed that it was in was a film called Charge at Feather River which was made in 1953, I believe. There's a character in the movie named Wilhelm, and at one point in the movie he's riding along and an arrow flies in and hits him in the leg at which point he does this now-famous scream.
[CLIP FROM CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER] MAN: Wilhelm! MAN: Yeah! I'll just fill my pipe!
[END FILM CLIP} DAVID SERCHUK: Anderson adds that Burtt was eventually able to track the first use of the Wilhelm to an even earlier film. RICHARD ANDERSON: While at Warner Bros. he ultimately found the original source recording of it under the title "Man Being Eaten by Alligator." It turns out that this film was a 1951 film called Distant Drums directed by Raoul Walsh and starred Gary Cooper. DAVID SERCHUK: The Wilhelm also surfaced in the 1955 film In the Land of the Pharaohs, where it is again used by a character battling a large reptile; in this case, a crocodile, except this time it comes from inside the crocodile after the character is eaten.
[CLIP FROM LAND OF THE PHARAOHS]
[THE WILHELM SCREAM] Rick Hinson, president of the Motion Picture Sound Editors, showed a short compilation of films with The Wilhelm at the MPSE Gold Reel Awards last spring. Hinson says part of the attraction of the Wilhelm is that it helps sound editors personalize their projects, even if no one notices it but them, or other sound editors.
RICK HINSON: I think it's very much a sense of, of marking your film, of autographing the sound on it.
DAVID SERCHUK: Stephen Altobello, sound editor at Spin Cycle Post in New York has used the Wilhelm in three films, including the Jay-Z. documentary Back Stage. He says part of the pleasure in using The Wilhelm is that it doesn't fit naturally into the small independent films he mostly works on.
STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: I don't want to say it's a stupid sound, but it's ridiculous. It's certainly extremist. You watch it once, and you don't know it's there. You're like, okay this scene's fine. But when you watch it knowing it's there, it really does leap out of the sound track too. You're like oh, my God, that's a big - that's a huge ridiculous scream there, but it works. They always find the right spot, the right frame. DAVID SERCHUK: Sound editors like Anderson and Altobello say that often when directors notice The Wilhelm they demand it be pulled. But it seems it's become almost an obsession for Altobello, and frequently the first thing he looks for in a new project is "The Wilhelm Moment."
STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: I've even tried to mix it in, like mix it into a track so that it can't be removed. Like if you want this car sound on that TV set, you gotta have the scream. I can't even turn - you know - and I act stupid, like, "Well I don't know! That's just part of it! You know?" I tried to get it into an HBO after school special about not using drugs but the filmmaker pulled it out. I tried to get it into a film called Chicago Cab, and they were like, "You've got to be kidding me."
DAVID SERCHUK: Altobello and Hinson both admire how the Wilhelm infiltrated A Star is Born. In fact they each cited it as their favorite use of the sound. Altobello even went so far as to say he uses it as an homage to that movie rather than the Lucas films.
STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: Whoever put it in the movie in the background for one scene, that's fine; that was probably expected. But whoever found a way to weasel it into the arrangement of a Judy Garland song, that's somebody who really pulled off the ultimate, I think, because the movie stops and it's the only thing that's happening. I'll never be able to pull that off.
[CLIP FROM A STAR IS BORN]
[JUDY GARLAND AND CHORUS SINGING]
[THE WILHELM SCREAM] [END FILM CLIP]
DAVID SERCHUK: Rick Hinson of the MPSE added that another creative application of The Wilhelm is in the 1995 Disney Film, "A Goofy Movie." This use is especially interesting, he said, because Goofy himself has his own signature yodel - [GOOFY YODELING] - that in the fashion of the Wilhelm has been used in many other Disney films. The Wilhelm appears this time as Goofy carelessly drives into the ladder of some characters working on a roadside. [GOOFY SINGING] [LADDER SPILL] [THE WILHELM SCREAM] [GOOFY SINGING] In addition to being goofy however, Altobello finds the continued use of the Wilhelm somewhat disturbing. He says it's intriguing and spooky that this sound continues to be used years after the original unknown actor has probably passed on.
STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: It was one guy who really did this for whatever reason. It could have even been a sound editor. It could have been vocal talent that was hired. Did it 50 years ago, and it's still floating around. It's a really creepy concept. I always wondered about people who were relatives of, like, the woman whose voice is on "At the Tone the Time Will Be." I always thought, well what if that's some guy's, like, ex-girlfriend or something and he just calls and listens to the time?
DAVID SERCHUK: Whatever the fate of the original actor who voiced the Wilhelm, this scream of death has plenty of life left. In addition to its recent use in the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, shooting is currently under way for Episode II. And if Episode II doesn't do so well, maybe George Lucas would consider a remake of Charge at Feather River. If he does, it's a safe bet they'll know which sound to start with! [MUSIC] [BATTLE SOUNDS] [THE WILHELM SCREAM]
For On the Media, I'm David Serchuk. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Our piece on the Wilhelm first ran in 2001. Please let us know if you've heard it lately.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hauver and Dan Mauzy, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And may God or, if you like, random chance, bless us, every one.
BOB GARFIELD: Furthermore, especially [LAUGHS] for our friends at FOX News Channel, happy holidays. I'm Bob Garfield.