When you think famous elves, an image of Will Ferrell dancing around in yellow tights and pouring maple syrup on spaghetti usually springs to mind. But before Buddy, there was Hermey — a misfit elf who dreams of being a dentist in the stop-motion Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
The Rankin-Bass production is the longest running holiday special of all time, and it celebrates its 50th anniversary on December 6.
But Paul Soles, the actor who voiced Hermey (and later Spiderman in the 1967 animated series), tells TIME that he doesn’t have any special plans to watch the movie on its anniversary.
“Because you can’t avoid it!” Soles, 84, says. “It plays three or four times — it’s hard to escape… I don’t believe I own a copy, but I do watch it, it’s nice to be reminded of a good time.”
When Soles was cast as Hermey in 1964, he never dreamed that character would sing on TV sets around the world for decades to come.
“I had a day job as the host of a national current affairs show in Canada,” Soles says. “[Working on Rudolph] was fun. It was a playground. An after school play in the park. It was not unlike ice cream on pie after a good meal.”
And that ice cream-covered pie has withstood the test of time, although over the years Soles says he has had to confront rumors about Hermey’s sexuality.
“I don’t know if it’s because of the Adam Sandler rule or Seth Rogen rule of comedy, but people have questioned if Hermey is gay,” he says. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think elves are thought of anything other than neutered.”
Regardless, Soles believes the movie has persevered because of its charming embrace of misfits — from a red nosed reindeer to an elf who eschews toy making for dentistry. But Soles himself isn’t a big fan of the profession.
“I’ve had one of the most horrible careers with dentists over my lifetime. I just hated it,” he says. “Up until about ’07 I had to go to the dentist once a year to have a tooth out. And I got so upset, I went to a dentist in Toronto and said, ‘Take them all out! All the ten or 12 that are left!'” (He now wears dentures.)
But as Soles sums it up: “I guess what Hermey was appealing for was that he was there to help people, not hurt people.”
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