This Rawhide star is responsible for the most recognizable scream in cinema history
…and one of the biggest novelty songs in pop history.
A bad guy flies from the back of a cargo truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Batman throws a mime in Batman Returns. A Stormtrooper falls into a metal chasm inside the Death Star in Star Wars. Goofy drives into a construction site. A lamp knocks Buzz Lightyear out of a window in Toy Story.
What do these cinematic moments have in common? A scream. A perfectly pained cry of "Aaa-AA-aagh!"
"The Wilhelm scream" is one Hollywood's most reused sound effects — and one of it's longest inside jokes. Once you recognize it, you can't help but notice it. Every Star Wars movie (well, up until The Last Jedi) has used it. Pixar has placed the wail into most of its animated features, even Up. Just last year, it could be heard in Atomic Blonde, Baywatch, The Hitman's Bodyguard, Power Rangers and who knows how many more films. A hardcore band named itself A Wilhelm Scream. There's a popular modern, moody song called "The Wilhelm Scream." The Wilhelm scream has also inspired podcasts, YouTube channels, and more.
And yet, "the Wilhelm scream" is a misnomer. A more apt name would be the Walsh scream, as in Raoul Walsh, the director of 1951's Distant Drums, the origin of the scream. Better yet, the sound effect should be dubbed "the Wooley scream," in honor of the man who likely made the uncredited scream itself.
The film Distant Drums was not a Western, more of a "Southern," a yarn about a group of soldiers venturing into the Everglades to face Seminoles in the 19th century. Gary Cooper starred. In one scene, as the troop wades through the swamp, an alligator snaps into an unfortunate soldier and drags him under the muck. "Aaa-AA-aagh!" he wails. The first Wilhelm scream.
In post-production, six screams were recorded for the sound effect, perfunctorily labeled "Man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams." The fifth take was used for the alligator attack. Four, five and six were also used earlier in the movie when the natives attack a fort.
Two years later, the sound effect was recycled for the flick The Charge at Feather River. In that tale, a soldier is shot in the leg with an arrow. His name? Pvt. Wilhelm. So that's the origin of the name. Over the next couple decades, Warner Bros. continually pulled the Wilhelm scream from its library for movies — Them! (1954), PT-109 (1963) and The Green Berets (1968), to name a few.
The continued use of the effect was noticed Ben Burtt, a sound effects junkie in the USC film department. He used the effect for his 1974 film "The Scarlet Blade." A couple years later, he was hired to design the sound for a quirky retro sci-fi movie — Star Wars.
Lucasfilm, mostly thanks to Burtt, was the first production house to cheekily use the Wilhelm scream over and over as a geeky nod to the movies that inspired the filmmakers.
But going back to Distant Drums. An uncredited Sheb Wooley played Private Jessup in that Technicolor adventure. The actor was also asked to do some recording work in post, when he was most likely asked to scream six times. Decades later, his widow, Linda Dotson Wooley, unmasked her late husband (he died in 2003) as the man behind the Wilhelm scream.
In 1959, Wooley got his big break when he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood and Eric Fleming as a regular on Rawhide. He played cattle drive scout Pete Nolan in more than 100 episodes of the Western. The hit television series boosted his singing career, too, as he recorded multiple hit country albums under his own name and as his silly alter-ego Ben Colder.
When it comes to Sheb Wooley tunes, you most likely have heard "The Purple People Eater." You know, as in the "one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people eater." That early novelty song rocketed all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1958. If only he had screamed a little more on it. We might have recognized the true "Wilhelm" half a century earlier.