Remembering John Fiedler (1925-2005) (Jim Hill Media, June 28th, 2005)

Remembering John Fiedler (1925-2005)
By Jim Hill

June 28 , 2005 .You know, it’s kind of bizarre that John Fiedler — the original voice of Piglet — actually died within 24 hours of Paul Winchell’s passing.

“Why bizarre?,” you ask. Well, you see, there’s this story that I had originally wanted to tell as part of yesterday’s Winchell tribute. About the very last time Paul was hired to provide Tigger’s voice for a Disney animated feature. A project that was then entitled “Winnie the Pooh and the Family Tree.”

Winchell’s first (and only) recording session for this movie came in the Spring of 1998. And — as the guys in the booth listened to the obvious rasp in Paul’s voice — it quickly became apparent that the 76-year-old performer no longer sounded like Tigger. I mean, sure, Winchell had originated this character’s voice back in that 1968 Disney featurette, “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.” But now — over 30 years later — this voiceover veteran could no longer produce Tigger’s distinctive bouncy, trouncy sound.

So — after that single session — Paul was let go from the project. And Disney eventually brought in vocal pro Jim Cummings, who was already doing Pooh’s voice for “Family Tree.” And — given that Jim had already been doing Tigger’s voice (On various Disney television shows and/or for Disney Consumer Products. Where it had proven to be very cost effective to hire a Paul Winchell sound-alike, rather than pay full price for the really-for-real Paul Winchell … Anyway … ) — it only made sense to replace Winchell with Cummings.

Of course, what Disney hadn’t counted on was all the bad publicity that would erupt as a direct result of Paul’s dismissal. The trades were immediately full of headlines like “Disney Bounces Tigger” and “Winchell gets thrown out of ‘Family Tree’.” (Which may explain the studio ultimately decided to change this film’s title. Dropping “Winnie the Pooh and the Family Tree” in favor of “The Tigger Movie.”)

Anywho … The press keeps looking for ways to keep this controversy going. Which is why reporters eventually approached John Fiedler, the last remaining member of the original vocal cast that Walt Disney Productions had assembled ‘way back in the 1960s to do those first three “Winnie the Pooh” featurettes. John was the only member of that ensemble who was still under contract to the studio.

So — hoping for a good quote — a columnist asked Fiedler point-blankly what he thought about Disney replacing Winchell with Cummings.

John replied: “I’m just glad that Jim can’t do Piglet’s voice.”

That’s a cute little story, don’t you think? Which was why I was originally thinking about weaving it into yesterday’s article. But eventually I decided against including that particular anecdote.

Why For? Well … Because that joke actually comes at Paul’s expense. It’s a laugh that only occurs because of this extremely trying time in Winchell’s life. That period when this entertainment vet just felt that he had become too old to perform anymore.

So I guess you can understand why I originally decided to spike that story. Even though it obviously showcased Fiedler’s quick wit, this veteran character’s ability to continue to surprise people with his awesome comic timing.

Well, who knew that — just hours after I’d decided to cut that anecdote out of my Winchell tribute — that I’d now have a logical reason to bring up that particular John Fiedler story.

Speaking of Mr. Winchell … I guess I should mention there’s actually sort of a happy ending to that Paul-gets-fired story. You see, just around this same time, the Imagineers were beginning work on WDW’s new dark ride, “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.” And — after they saw all those stories in the paper about Disney dismissing Winchell from the “Family Tree” project — the guys at WDI obviously thought that this was a pretty lousy way to treat a television legend.

So when the Imagineers began recording the soundtrack for this new Fantasyland attraction, they insisted that Paul come in and perform Tigger’s vocals. The guys from WDI … They really didn’t care that Winchell sounded a little raspy. What mattered to them was that the man who had originated this character’s voice was now providing Tigger’s vocals for their “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” ride.

The message that the Imagineers were obviously trying to get across to Paul was: We’re not all like those guys over at Disney Feature Animation. We actually value who you are and what you’ve done for our company. More importantly, we appreciate all the entertainment that you’ve provided us with over the past 50 years.

And — given that the Imagineers also made a point of hiring John Fiedler to record Piglet’s dialogue for this new Disney World attraction — I guess it’s pretty obvious that the guys at WDI thought fairly highly of John too.

Unfortunately, the “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” ride was pretty much Winchell’s last hurrah with the Walt Disney Company. Whereas Fiedler … He actually went on to do a number of new projects for the Mouse House after that. Providing Piglet’s vocals for “The Book of Pooh” TV series, the “Mickey’s House of Villains” & “Winnie the Pooh: Springtime for Roo” video premieres as well as the “Piglet’s Big Movie” & “Pooh’s Heffaump Movie” theatrical releases.

In fact, there’s still one more project in the pipeline — “Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween — The Movie” — that John also did voicework for. Though that video premiere isn’t due to hit store shelves ’til September 13th of this year.

Anyhow … I just wish that Winchell could have experienced what Fiedler did over the last few years of his life. That sense that — even though John was a man in his late 70s — he was still someone who could add something unique to the mix. Which is why Disney deliberately sought Fiedler out whenever they were getting a new “Winnie the Pooh” project off the ground.

But now that John’s gone … Well, given the billions that the Mouse makes off of the sale of Pooh-related products each year, it’s pretty obvious that this franchise is going to have to continue. Which is why the guys over Disney’s voice department are probably already wondering who they’re going to get to fill Fiedler’s shoes.

Maybe they’ll get lucky and find another huge talent like Jim Cummings. Someone who — thanks to their own comic genius as well as the gift of mimicry –will be able to create a close approximation of Paul Winchell’s Tigger.

Still, given that Tigger’s voice was obviously patterned after the voice that Winchell used to do for his Knucklehead Smiff character, it was fairly easy for Disney to come up a replacement bouncy, trouncy tiger. Whereas Fielder’s distinctive take on Piglet — that halting delivery, the sense that this character was constantly struggling to keep his fears under control, the obvious heart that John poured into this part — it might take Disney’s voice department quite a while to come up with an actor who can accomplish what Fiedler did.

Which was make us care about — even fall in love with — a small, fretful pig.