The fun of the Bill & Ted movies comes from juxtaposition. Take two daffy metalheads from San Dimas, California, place them alongside disapproving parents, famous historical figures, or worshipful citizens of the 27th century, and watch the sparks fly. But it’s likely that the Wyld Stallyns front men will never have a better scene partner than Death (William Sadler), whom they encounter in the afterlife after being killed by their own robotic imposters in 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. At first, Death’s appearance is one more pop-culture reference in a movie full of them — just like in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, our heroes must best him in a game of skill if they want to save their souls. But then he sticks around, following Bill and Ted first to Heaven, then to San Dimas, revealing previously unseen layers: a childlike lack of sportsmanship, a fragile ego, some smooth grooves on the bass. (The film’s credits reveal he eventually left Wyld Stallyns to release a solo album but rejoined the band after it proved a critical and commercial flop.) “Many of Sadler’s laughs as the Grim Reaper come from simple physical cringing, as he conveys his embarrassment and lost dignity,” Roger Ebert noted in his review, which hailed the actor for providing “the funniest moments I have seen in any movie in a long time.”
The performance is even more surprising given that Sadler, a veteran character actor, has primarily made his name in dramas, playing either creeps (a rogue colonel in Die Hard 2, a pedophile in Kinsey) or authority figures (a sheriff in Roswell, the president in the MCU). Before Sadler reprises the role in the long-awaited Bill & Ted Face the Music, he spoke to Vulture about the origin of Death’s Czech accent, creating some of the character’s most famous lines, and bonding with George Carlin between takes.
I read that you started off as a stand-up.
Yeah, back in high school. I called myself Banjo Bill Sadler. I told corny jokes and played a four-string banjo all over Buffalo at parties, conventions, and fire halls. I enjoyed it, but when I discovered acting, that seemed far more satisfying.
Why was that?
Well, I was better at it. And I was reading the words of people much wiser and more experienced than me. The second play that I did, The Subject Was Roses — it’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning play about this dysfunctional three-person family — it just ripped my eyes open. I had so much to learn from these great writers that telling corny jokes and playing the banjo paled in comparison.
By the time you went out for Bogus Journey, how were you feeling about your career?
When I started, I did about 11 years of theater before I came to Los Angeles to try to break into movies and television. And an awful lot of that was comedy. I spent a year and a half doing Biloxi Blues with Matthew Broderick on Broadway. I was steeped in that world, but when I got to Los Angeles, they took one look at me and said: villain. “You’re edgy, evil, cold-blooded … the guy who could murder you and then sit on your chest and eat a sandwich while you bled out.” It was all these despicable humans. But I was just breaking in, so I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at villain roles. And to be honest, they’re wonderful. If you can’t be the hero, it’s great to be the villain. So I was getting cast in that kind of role over and over again, and I started wondering, Will I ever get a chance to use this comedic side of myself? Then Bill & Ted came along, and I thought, Well, here we go. Let’s give this a shot.
You fought really hard for the role. Was that unusual for you?
I guess I did. I had seen Excellent Adventure and thought it was terrific. The Reaper was an opportunity to make this wonderful transition, because the Reaper himself starts out as this scary figure. He’s Death, the most frightening image you can imagine. And then, almost immediately, as he starts to lose the games with Bill and Ted, he starts to unravel. And in the unraveling he becomes more human and more likable. I thought that was pretty wonderful, so I went for it. I put myself on tape with [casting director] Karen Rea, and I did the Czechoslovakian accent too. I told them ahead of time I was going to do an accent, and they said, “That’s probably not a good idea,” I think because they don’t think American actors do accents very well, but I knew I could nail that one because I had done it before.
How did you come up with the idea that Death should speak in a Czech accent?
That, again, I drew from my theater background. I had done a play called New Jerusalem at the Public Theater, a Len Jenkin play, and there was an actor in it named Jan Tříska from Czechoslovakia. [In Czech accent] The way he spoke, everything was like this. I thought it was funny and appropriate, so I stole it.
Did Jan ever find out you were doing his voice?
I don’t think so. I really should buy him dinner if I ever see him again. But he was just one of the actors in the show. He could read the phone book. It was just funny: The accent was always on the wrong syllable and so on.
So I did the audition with the accent and then I didn’t hear anything for several weeks. I think they went around putting other people on tape, looking at people like Christopher Lee and Christopher Lloyd. I mean, he’s Death; he’s thousands of years old. Finally, one day, I got a phone call from Karen Rea. She said, “Can you come in tomorrow and do the audition again? But go to a Halloween store and get some gray to put in your hair and black out your teeth.” I thought that was going to look awful, so I called the makeup man from Die Hard 2, Scott Eddo, and told him my problem. He said, “Come over to my apartment.” So at seven in the morning, I showed up at his apartment, and he did this old-age makeup. He made me look like a believable 80-year-old man. I got in my car, drove to Orion Pictures and did the audition again, and that apparently worked. I was old enough. Which is ironic because the makeup that they ended up using was just a big white face and hollowed-out eyes. Age wasn’t really going to be an issue anyway.
Did people treat you differently when they thought you were an 80-year-old man?
Apparently, after I left, one of the producers turned to Karen Rea and said, “He looks a lot older in person.”
I guess it was believable.
It was believable makeup, but I think, at the end of the day, it was the fact that it was funny. Because it wasn’t all that funny on the page — or not obviously funny, anyway. I think that was the edge: that I found a way to make him silly.
What was Death like in the script?
The game sequence was always there. I didn’t really bring anything to it except that silly Czechoslovakian character. I made him more vulnerable. I made him needy. At the end of it, when they’re admiring Station’s butt, I added that line, “Don’t overlook my butt.”
I love that he’s got such a wounded ego.
Exactly. He’s been humiliated. They dragged him to Heaven and back down to earth and then, finally, they let him be a member of the band, and he’s the happiest person on earth. He goes on this really wonderful journey. That was all in the script; I just embodied it for them.
The director called you “unstoppable.” He said you came up with all of his favorite stuff in the movie.
We were shooting in a hardware store one night, the sequence where we’re buying all the bits and pieces to make the robot. Once I got in this character, I couldn’t turn him off. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if the Reaper walked by somebody who’s smoking and just said, “See you real soon,” and the guy panicked and put the cigarette out? I told Pete Hewitt, the director. He liked the idea, but they hadn’t cast someone to play the smoker. So he [played] the smoker. That’s Pete Hewitt. He said, “Bring the camera over here,” and two minutes later it was on film. It went like that: a really wonderful collaborative effort.
Were you a big Ingmar Bergman fan when you took the role?
I had seen a number of his films. I think I may have seen The Seventh Seal. When I was a younger actor, I made it a point to watch the Bergman movies. I felt that was part of my training. The takeoff on The Seventh Seal, that’s all the writers, Ed [Solomon] and Chris [Matheson]. That was their humor — he’s not playing chess; he’s going to play Battleship and Twister and Clue.
I feel like that’s the Bill and Ted joke in a nutshell: You take a highbrow reference and filter it through these California dudes.
It was brilliantly written. The other interesting thing about that sequence was that it was my first day of filming. The first day I had all the makeup and the robes, the first time I had met Alex [Winter] and Keanu [Reeves], it was the day that we shot the game sequence, “best two out of three.” There’s always some nerves around the first day, and I think the producers, the director, and so on, they were a little bit nervous that this was all going to work. I remember everybody gathering around the set as we shot the game sequences. Then, the next day, when they had seen the dailies, there was a noticeable relaxation. Everybody went, “Oh yeah, that’s going to work.” I could finally relax.
I’m curious: What were your impressions of Alex and Keanu?
They were lovely to work with. We didn’t really socialize much. They were bigger stars at the time, even before The Matrix. I looked up to them. Also, there was this constant flurry of makeup folks and costume folks around my character because the white makeup kept getting on the black robes. So there was the endless picking and wiping and rubbing and then we would break for lunch. Everybody else would go and eat. I couldn’t lie down because of the bald cap and the makeup, so I ended up having to stay to myself, more or less.
Was that lonely?
Yeah. I would love to have sat with the rest of the cast and the crew and eat. You know what I mean? You had to drink from a straw, and you had to be careful. It takes so damn long to get it all on that I was always really super-careful not to screw it up. In fact, by the time we got to the wrap party, there were people in the crew who didn’t recognize me. They had never seen me without the bald cap and the boots that made me six-foot-two. That was fun.
Tell me about those boots.
They were probably six or seven inches. Very big but well designed. There was a bit of a rounded bottom so you could walk. You could roll through your steps. I practiced with them and got pretty good at it. It was harder the second time around, 30 years later. I wasn’t quite as athletic when the time came to do it again.
Do you have a favorite memory from the set?
That opening sequence, the following day, when they had seen the dailies and everybody relaxed, I think that was one of my favorite moments.
Oh, why am I forgetting this? George Carlin! One of my favorite things on the set was getting to hang out with George Carlin for hours and hours. We would joke, talk about our families. I had been writing songs and performing them in coffeehouses around Los Angeles. I made a cassette tape with 12 of my songs on it, and I gave it to George. We finished filming and we said good-bye, and everybody went off and did other things. About ten years later, I was living in New York, and I got a phone call one morning from George Carlin. He said, “Bill, you remember that cassette you gave me of your songs?” I barely remembered, but I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “I wore it out. Can you send me another one?” To this day, I honestly don’t know whether he was just using that as an excuse to get in touch with an old friend or if he actually played the tape so much that it broke, but I sent him another one. And then we lost him shortly thereafter. That was a wonderful memory from Bogus Journey.
What was Carlin like off-camera?
He wasn’t “on.” He had a performance mode. If you’re just sitting around in chairs waiting for your scene, he’s relaxed. He’s having as much fun doing this as you are. We hit it off well, I thought. He was a lovely man, and we had lots of hours to kill on the set, which is unusual for comedians. I don’t think he did a lot of filmwork, so it was all a little strange to him. I think he enjoyed having someone to talk to.
I was reading the old reviews, and it seems like most of them spotlighted your performance as the best thing in the movie. Did that have any impact on your career?
I guess the reviews helped. I remember one compared me to the best of Peter Sellers, and I thought, Wow. It was one of the highlight reviews of my career because I was such an enormous fan of Peter Sellers. But as far as it affecting my career, I don’t know that reviews actually do, you know? I mean, they help. It doesn’t hurt for people to be saying, “Oh my gosh, he was wonderful in that.” But careers are long and funny things. I went from Bogus Journey to The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile and so on. I didn’t get pigeonholed playing Death over and over, which was good. They never came to me and said, “Do you want to do Reaper Madness?”
It’s interesting that you took the role to prove you could do comedy, but you didn’t end up doing too many straight comedies after that.
If you watch Shawshank carefully, that funny side of myself, I can’t keep a lid on it. It’s a serious film, but I feel like I’m the comic relief in that.
Otherwise, I’m not sure why that is. It’s a funny thing. Careers are strange. I never got typecast as a comedic actor. You hear actors complain, “They won’t let me play anything serious,” or “They won’t let me do a romantic role,” or whatever. I think you try to find the joy in all of it whenever it comes down the river.
Thirty years later, the original films have held up. They still have a fan base; they’re getting a sequel. To you, why do you think these movies work?
I think it’s the innocent optimism that Bill and Ted both have. They’re killed, they’re murdered, and they go to hell, and the two of them look at each other and say, [Bill and/or Ted voice] “Whoa, we were totally lied to by our album covers!” You’ve got to love somebody who stays as buoyant as that in the face of a calamity. They just embody a hopefulness that we could use right now.