Peter Sallis is one of those actors you probably know more by his voice than his face. He was one of England’s many go-to workhorse actors, appearing on stage and on screen, but usually in minor roles. (These include tiny parts in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” the Timothy Dalton “Wuthering Heights” from 1970 and 2005’s “Colour Me Kubrick.”) But his most famous turn was a biggie. He was the voice of Wallace, the absentminded, cheese-loving inventor of the beloved “Wallace and Gromit” stop-motion animation series — one of the great British exports of the ’80s through the early 2010s. It’s reported that Sallis has died. He was 96 years old.
Sallis’ passing leaves us bereft of one of movies’ and television’s most soothing sounds. Hearing him say, in his Northern English drawl, “Cracking good cheese, Gromit,” caused a Pavlovian chill in fans of the franchise, which spanned four award-wining shorts, a television show (2010’s “Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention,” Sallis’ last credit) and, sadly, only one (delightful) movie: 2005’s “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”
Apart from supporting characters — including Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter in “Were-Rabbit” — Sallis was often the only voice you heard on “Wallace and Gromit.” After all, Gromit was his dog, who, of course, never spoke. He didn’t need to; he had one of the most expressive faces in animation, even if it was often used for Buster Keaton-style deadpan, regular there to show his loving exasperation with his owner/flatmate.
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A rare kind-hearted mad scientist, he was always coming up with harebrained contraptions that got him and Gromit into trouble. In our favorite “W&G” product, the Oscar-winning short “The Wrong Trousers,” Wallace’s oversized, mechanical trousers are commandeered by a devious penguin (posing as a chicken, with a latex glove over his head, natch), who wants to rob a bank.
We’re speaking of the “Wallace and Gromit” franchise in the past tense. That’s because we’re not sure if it will continue after Sallis’ passing. Aardman, the peerless stop-motion animation house that made the series (as well as “Chicken Run” and the “Shaun the Sheep” series), did retire their characters in 1996, only to repeatedly revive them, as a world without more “Wallace and Gromit” just seemed to grim to bear. And now that he’s gone, it is. Still, it would be surreal and sad to hear someone taking over for Sallis — much like the disconnect when you hear someone voice Kermit after Jim Henson’s death: The voice is similar, but something’s off.
Instead, we can honor Sallis’ legacy by gorging on the “Wallace and Gromit” work we do have. Friends from England tell us it’s tradition there to spend Christmas Day watching a big movie — “Gone with the Wind,” or the original “Star Wars” trilogy” — as well as the original three “Wallace and Gromit” shorts. Might as well make that a tradition here as well.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge