On May 16, 1990 one of my childhood heroes, Jim Henson, suddenly passed away after contracting a rare bacterial infection with a 75% survival rate. On the very same day iconic singer, Rat Pack-er and chronic smoker Sammy Davis Jr. died away after an extended battle with throat cancer.
Guess which story received the most media attention?
On February 11, 2012 Whitney Houston's body was discovered in her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Five days later, Ontario police confirmed that Neil Hope, the actor who portrayed Derek "Wheels" Wheeler on the popular Degrassi Canadian television series, was found dead on November 25'th, 2007 in a boarding house in Hamilton.
People are still talking about Whitney.
Stories like this continue to highlight just how out of step I am with the general populace. Yes, Whitney Houston was a tremendous talent but she was never a major component in my life. On the other hand, when I first saw this particular kid on Degrassi Junior High back in 1987, he so reminded me of myself that I watched that show religiously for the next five years.
Mercifully I didn't grow up in an alcoholic household like Wheels and his real-life counterpart, but we did share several key characteristics. We were both painfully shy around girls, huge music fans and we harbored the same terrible predisposition for mullets and massive 80's era eye-ware.
Just like any other pathetic soap opera fan, I'd curse the Degrassi writers every week for pulling Wheels through a veritable knot-hole of misery. In one episode he gets drunk right before his big date with class strumpet Stephanie Kaye, ruining any chance at romance. Then his adoptive parents get killed by a drunk driver. After he moves in with his maternal grandparents he grows increasingly sullen, combative and sneaky.
Eventually Wheels ran away from home, hoping to move in with his deadbeat dad. During this horrible odyssey he nearly gets diddled by a pervy traveling salesman (!). When he finally arrives at his destination, his dad's new fiance takes one look at him and tells him to hit the bricks. He's sent packing back to his grandparents, who eventually kick him out when his chronic deception and thievery becomes unmanageable.
I'm tellin' ya, 80's kids in Canada were addicted to this show. As screwed up as viewer's lives might have been, at least they could point to Degrassi and say, 'Well, at least I'm not as messed up as that kid'. Well, some of the times, anyway.
In one last kick to the cube-sack, Wheels gets drunk at a post-graduation summer party and crashes his car, maiming show favorite Lucy Fernandez (Anais Granofsky) and killing a fellow motorist. After pleading guilty to charges of criminal negligence, Wheels gets tossed in the slammer for what seems like an inordinately long sentence.
I remember watching all this and screaming at the T.V. like an eighty year old woman watching re-runs of Knot's Landing:
"What are you doing, you idiot!? After Joey's parents were kind enough to take you in, you're stealing from them now? What the f#@k is wrong with you!?!"
After the School's Out television movie effectively nuked the Degrassi universe in 1992, Neil Hope seemed ready to move on. He wanted to be get out of the spotlight, work a normal 9-5 job, and have a life like everyone else. To someone who'd been in front of a camera since the tender age of seven, I'm sure this life sounded pretty appealing. But after toiling away in a series of anonymous, low-paying and creatively dead-end jobs, I think he began to realize that he'd made a tremendous mistake.
When the Degrassi franchise was re-booted with The Next Generation in 2001, classic characters like Joey (Pat Mastroianni) and Caitlin (Stacie Mistysyn) returned as semi-regular cast members. But all they did with poor Wheels was give him a few perfunctory scenes where he gets out of jail, seeks forgiveness from Lucy and is harshly brow-beaten by Snake (Stefan Brogren). To this day, I'm not sure if this was just the extent of what the producers were willing to do with the character or if Neil chose to keep his distance from the series.
As a result, I had little interest in watching this new iteration of Degrassi, even though I knew that creators Yan Moore and Linda Schuyler were still serving up entertainment that was vastly superior to maudlin, superficial crap like Saved By the Bell or Dawson's Creek. Besides, I wasn't exactly in the show's target age demographic anymore.
In this W5 "where are they now" segment from 2005, Neil talks at length about his head-space at the time:
Clearly, after ten years in the spotlight, Neil had fallen in love with the concept of anonymity and what most people would consider to be "a normal life". But when he realized that the life as an average working drone in our society wasn't particularly lucrative, rewarding, or fulfilling, I think he began to fear that he'd turned his back on his first best destiny. This is further born out in a recent article featuring an interview with Neil's former fiance Christina Boulard:
"Boulard met Hope when they were both working at a Money Mart in Hamilton.
'I’ve gotta work,' she said he told her. 'I’ve gotta make a living.'
He moved on to blue-collar jobs, including one at United Furniture Warehouse. But Boulard said he always talked about becoming a director, but never reached out to Degrassi’s producers or former castmates."
I'm sure it's just a matter of time before Canadian journalists start snooping around for salacious tidbits surrounding Neil's death. I, for one, will ignore the negativity and hope that he was reasonably happy wherever he was and passed away just because his time was up.
Instead of focusing on sensationalism, I really wish the media would ask the only two questions that have been lingering with me ever since I heard this sad news:
(1) Why did such an iconic and charismatic Canadian cultural icon feel that he had no choice but to
keep toiling away in obscurity instead of directing that film?
(2) Why are so many of us afraid or unwilling to ask for help when we really need it?
"Everybody wants something they’ll never give up,
Everybody wants something, they’ll take your money and never give up"
EPIC Today, I was relieved to discover that genuine closure was given to Neil and the character of Wheels in a 2003 episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation wherein the three members of Zit Remedy finally reunite and reconcile.
FAIL Headlines like this kinda make me want to punch someone's lights out.