The Real Story of Wilhelm, aka Wilhelm Hails a Cab

(NOTE: You will not hear the legendary film sound effect known as the Wilhelm scream in this post, but you can hear it just about anywhere else, such as in the post I wrote yesterday. In fact, if you’re not already well-versed in Wilhelm lore, I suggest reading that before you go any further.)

We all know who Wilhelm is and are very familiar with his popular scream, his trademark, so to speak. But long before he made his name in action films, he cut his teeth as an extra. Arriving in Hollywood in 1931, he made many, many appearances in low budget pictures. Here’s a typical performance in Charlie Chan in Murder Over New York (1940). Wilhelm’s performance—which he does with his trusty car by his side—is pretty fleeting, so I’ll play it twice in quick succession:

During the 30s, he hailed cabs in countless films such as She Had to Eat, Time Out for Romance and Midnight Taxi (of course!), slowly but surely working his way up the ranks. He hit the big time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), once again with his faithful car, sharing the screen with Bette Davis and George Sanders!

All About Eve won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Wilhelm parlayed that success into an on-screen role in Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums (1951) However, the director was looking for a screamer not a cab-hailer. So, Wilhelm, eager to show his range, was eaten by an alligator and screamed his head off. He screamed so well he was typecast and spent the better part of the next few decades screaming in B-pictures.

Thinking his days as an extra were over, Wilhelm was surprised when producer David Zanuck asked him to hail a cab in the period film The Sting (1973). Down on his luck at the time, Wilhelm obliged…

In fact, Wilhelm hailed it so well, director George Roy Hill had him hail several cabs in the film…

Like All About Eve, The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture, which led Wilhelm to believe he could be a cab-hailing good luck charm. However, George Lucas only wanted him for his screaming abilities for Star Wars. 1 Perhaps this is why a George Lucas film has never won Best Picture Oscar.

Lucas cast Wilhelm repeatedly in his productions–screaming, always screaming–but Wilhelm got bored and waxed nostalgic for his cab-hailing days. In the early 80s, he turned his back on Hollywood and tried to make it in the music biz. He and his car headed for the new epi-center of popular music: Minneapolis. He only made one song, but what a classic it is. Of course I’m referring to his duet with Prince on the LP 1999 (1982):

Sadly, like so many others who’ve worked with Prince (such as Morris Day, Vanity and Apollonia), Wilhelm was tossed aside, and so he returned to the West Coast. Ever since, he’s been a one-trick pony as far as Tinsel Town is concerned, screaming regularly for Hollywood big shots like John Lasseter, Quentin Tarantino, and Jackson Publick.

But those with keen ears know there was a time when Wilhelm couldn’t catch a cab in this town.

Obviously, most of this post is made up. What’s not true? Everything I wrote. What is true? Every clip. In fact, I think the story behind this post–how I tracked down this damn sound–is more interesting that the extended gag you just read. That’s right, I knew if I did a blog long enough, I’d end up doing a Behind-the-Scenes post! Tune in next time for The Making of Wilhelm Hails a Cab!

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BACK TO POST 1 Wilhelm was game to yell, “Hey! That’s my landspeeder!” but Lucas balked at the idea.

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11 Comments

Filed under Film

11 responses to “The Real Story of Wilhelm, aka Wilhelm Hails a Cab

  1. Pingback: Wilhelm and Me « Peel Slowly

  2. Pauline Villa

    O.K. I’ll bite. How did you track down these sounds. Or did you add them to the clip yourself being the clever sound editor that you are. Either way, this was a very enjoyable and interesting read.

  3. Dave Paterson

    Whoever cut the BG’s for the Sting – I suspect that he is now your arch nemesis, just saying.

    • I was just thinking about that! Generally, the sound for that film is great–but, man, letting such a sore thumb of a string-of-sounds get through FIVE times is, well, sloppy. You think Reilly would let something like that make it into a film he was mixing? I certainly wouldn’t have let it leave the edit room, I know that.

  4. I have three things to say about this.

    1. Wouldn’t it be eerie if it turned out that Sheb Wooley were the one who yelled “hey, that’s my taxi”? http://www.hollywoodlostandfound.net/wilhelm/

    2. I had to look up the Prince song on YouTube just to make sure you weren’t pulling one over on us. Damn! You are a super-sleuth, Altobello.

    3. Funny story: Some time in the early ’90s, I bought a program called “Kabooom!” for the family computer. It was a program that allowed me to assign sounds to almost any Mac event (windows opening and closing, programs launching, etc.) and basically drive my family nuts. It came with a whole bunch of sound effects, many of which seem to be stock hollywood sounds. I say that because I’ve been hearing them in movies and TV shows ever since. There’s the doppler-y “honk-honnnnnnk!” of the speeding car which shows up on Law & Order all the time. There’s the oddly melodious pottery breakage that I hear all over the place. There’s the laughter of children that made an appearance in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” But my favorite is the shriek of some classic Hollywood b-movie heroine that ends in a weird cut-off guttural sound. I like to call it “Aiiiieeeeeeeee-huauck!” It seems to be go-to effect for all of TV’s campy monster-movie scream needs.

  5. Pingback: The Making of Wilhelm Hails a Cab « Peel Slowly

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