This past Wednesday, Toy Story fans were deeply saddened by the passing of Don Rickles, legendary comedian and the voice of Mr. Potato Head. And as soon as the news broke, speculation began as to what this would mean for his character’s future in the film franchise. Instead of addressing this at the time it was announced, however, I decided to wait a while and see what, if any, further information came out in regards to the impact on Toy Story 4. We still don’t know a lot, but here’s what we do know so far…
On Thursday, Pixar issued a tribute statement by John Lasseter:
This doesn’t give us a lot of insight into Pixar’s plans for Mr. Potato Head, but I honestly didn’t expect them to give any sort of definitive answer at this time. It’s still very early, and they want to treat such a sensitive situation with the utmost respect to Rickles and his family. The fact that they call Mr. Potato Head an “essential part of the Toy Story ensemble” does give an element of hope that they may try to find a way to make him live on, in Toy Story 4 and beyond.
And on Friday, The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that no voice recording had been done for Mr. Potato Head’s role:
Rickles, though, had not yet recorded new material for Toy Story 4, his rep confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. Pixar has been doing rewrites on the film, and Rickles had not yet been called in to record his voice tracks for Mr. Potato Head’s role in the fourth film.
The mention of rewrites coincides with the recent news of a new Toy Story 4 screenwriter. And while it is unfortunate that Rickles can’t live on in the upcoming film, I think having recorded nothing can be considered as better than having recorded only a little. Had he completed some recordings, Pixar would have then been faced with the dilemma of finding someone who could match his voice flawlessly to complete the rest, which would be a daunting (and likely impossible) task. But with nothing already existing, that opens the possibility for them to find a new actor to voice Mr. Potato Head, one who can carry on in spirit if not as an exact double.
This isn’t the first time that Pixar filmmakers have had to decide what to do with the character of a voice actor who has passed away. Shortly after the release of Toy Story 2, Jim Varney, the voice of Slinky, also died – yet they were able to re-cast him with Blake Clark in Toy Story 3, who has proven to be a seamless addition to the cast. Wheezy, on the other hand – voiced by Pixarian Joe Ranft, who died in a car accident in 2005 – was not included in Toy Story 3. Perhaps these two different approaches can be explained by how integral these characters were to the ensemble and how crucial they were to the plot of Toy Story 3. I also would imagine that the filmmakers didn’t re-cast Wheezy because it would have been unthinkable for them to replace their close personal friend.
The Cars franchise offers further examples of Pixar’s handling of the same sort of situation – after Paul Newman, the voice of Doc Hudson, passed away in 2008, they decided not to re-cast him in Cars 2, and instead included a small tribute to the character in the sequel. However, a statement made by Pixar filmmaker Jay Ward in an article about Cars 3 provides another possible answer:
Doc passed away… and no one could replace Paul Newman who did his voice. But we have some actual clips from when we were creating Cars 1 that we can use in this film.
With three feature films, three shorts, and two television specials having been made in the Toy Story world – all of which Mr. Potato Head appeared in and recorded for (even if just a little in the shorter subjects) – it’s likely that Pixar would have enough archival material to keep the character going. The only question is, could they utilize the existing recordings to get the same sort of comedic delivery and timing that Rickles was known for?
One positive, though, is that with the film still technically in the earlier stages of production, I would think it’s still a relatively easy time in the pipeline to make the necessary adjustments for Mr. Potato Head’s presence. Had the movie stuck with its 2018 release date, and were it deeper into production already, it would have been much more difficult to make changes. Now, there is time to rewrite his role by reducing it, removing it, or working in dialogue they already have recorded from previous projects. There is also time to find a worthy voice replacement to carry on the Mr. Potato Head name, if that is the path they choose. Either way, I trust Pixar to make a good decision, as they have in the past under similar circumstances.
One thing we do know, Rickles was well-loved by his fellow Toy Story cast and the Pixar filmmakers who worked with him. Tributes have been popping up all over social media, of which these are just a very small selection…
Personally, I can’t imagine Toy Story without Mr. Potato Head. His humor and snark – and underlying heart of gold – is, to me, a necessary part of the series. In fact, Don Rickles was one of the very first to confirm his return to his role, back in July 2015:
“They just signed me to do the fourth Toy Story… We start [work on it] in September, and I’m very delighted with that.”
I do hope that Pixar will decide that the best tribute will be to let the beloved character he created live on, in one way or another.
Thank you, Mr. Rickles. We are eternally grateful.
Images © Disney/Pixar.