One of the more familiar archetypes of Earth culture is the figure of the Elder, the gift-giver, the bearer of ancient knowledge: the Wizened Old Man. A staple of culture since at least the days of Homer, the Wizened Old Man has helped along narratives by imparting warnings, dispensing information, and offering counsel during trying periods. This figure has taken various forms down through the years, has mutated in different ways, but the idea remains the same. One knows it when one sees it. Here is Running Downhill’s take on the ten greatest Wizened Old Men of all time. [Editor’s note: We here at RD realize that, yes, occasionally, this figure is female, but that’s a different list for a different time. Also, we realize that this list is skewed a little towards modern culture, but that’s just because we don’t read much].
10. Gandalf the Grey / Gandalf the White (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) – The tall, imposing, ancient (thousands of years) old wizard called Gandalf first appears in Bilbo Baggins’ neighborhood in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. He arranges for Bilbo and thirteen dwarves to travel to Erebor to recover the Dwarves’ treasure from the Dragon Smaug. Gandalf also holds a map and key that the companions require to complete their quest. Throughout the book, he comes and goes, dropping by to offer advice and assistance. Gandalf is fond of fireworks, being really really well-read, and mutton.
9. Sir Alec Guinness – Actor in at least 64 films between 1934 and 1996, made both in Hollywood and at Ealing Studios in England, Sr’Alec has all the requisite features of a Wizened Old Man: grey beard, resonant voice, knighthood, and a certain degree of crotchetyness. He also has the uncanny ability to change physical appearance, coming in many guises depending on the situation (e.g. Bridge on the River Kwai vs. Kind Hearts and Coronets). Also, and perhaps ironically, purported to hate his Wizened Old Man role in the Star Wars films, a trick which is surely just more elderly guile.
8. Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid Trilogy) – Mentor to Daniel-san, the Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi cleverly disguises his wisdom under cover of being a lowly pool cleaner and general house servant. He sets Daniel-san on the path to California, and later world-wide, Karate glory, offering physical, mental, and spiritual training through use of metaphor and eating utensils.
7. Yoda (Empire Strikes Back, etc.) – Little green alien, bow-legged, mostly bald but with fuzzy hair, big floppy ears, and a cane, Yoda most closely resembles Ed Asner circa 2035. Obi-Wan Kenobi sends young Luke Skywalker to Yoda for aid in rediscovering the path to heroism after Luke petulantly blows up a moon-sized space station. Yoda offers all of the spiritual guidance and training that Obi-Wan could not (Obi-Wan, as it turns out, was too petulant himself, and probably just lazy). Yoda cleverly disguises himself as infirm, when in fact, as apparent in Attack of the Clones, he can flip around and fucking cut up motherfuckers better than just about anyone else in the Galaxy. Also, Yoda is a possible stroke victim, as demonstrated by his lack of proper syntax. Also hides behind alternate identity as the subject of an eponymous Weird Al Yankovic composition.
6. Vin Scully – Mr. Scully has been the broadcast voice of the Dodgers (both Brooklyn and L.A., motherfuckers!) since 1950. That’s right: he’s been broadcasting baseball since before humans could even communicate orally. He dispensed valuable knowledge and broadcast the 1955 Series, when the heroic Dodgers. led by Jackie Robinson and Johnny Podres, finally overcame the evil, foul Yankees. He provided the magical “stuff” necessary for Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to totally frigging handcuff the potent Minnesota Twins in 1965. His generous gift of mystical analgesic honey cakes allowed Los Angeles all-time hero Kirk Gibson to hit a tater on essentially no working body parts in 1988. And HE’S STILL DISPENSING VALUABLE INFORMATION AND OTHER THINGS to this very day. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Scully’s wisdom and caginess can overcome the Derek Lowe signing, although one probably wouldn’t bet against it.
5. Q (James Bond books and films) – Q is the ultimate 20th-century supernatural aid-giver. After MI-6 successfully ID’s the threat, James Bond seeks out Q’s advice and gadgetry, receiving aid the forms of magnetic watches, inflatable rafts, Aston Martins with machine guns mounted front and rear, atomic-bomb pens, prophylactic devices, etc. Q is perhaps less Wizened than others on the list, but he fits the archetype fairly well.
4. Grandpa – He’s always there with a story, a piece of friendly advice, and a song. He’ll drive one to town early in the morning and buy one a donut (talk about a boon!). He’ll show one how to bait a hook. How much more wisdom does one want?
3. Henry Fonda – Actor in 115 films, Henry Fonda was an Old Soul. Even at the age of 35 (The Grapes of Wrath), Fonda already hid wisdom behind ice-blue eyes (disguised cleverly by black and white cinematography). Always the prevailing voice of reason (e.g. Twelve Angry Men, The Ox-Bow Incident), Fonda is made all the more wise by his momentary loss of self-control in the face of unworldly gorgeousity (Claudia Cardinale). Even in this villainous moment, his wisdom is apparent, because who wouldn’t go nuts around her?
2. Louis “Studs” Terkel – Holder of infinite Americo-historical knowledge, lover of baseball, and general man about town, Studs Terkel is a national goddam treasure. For one thing, he don’t take no shit from nobody, no-how. For another thing, he realizes that nostalgia can sometimes be silly (hey, everybody, maybe America wasn’t as together during World War II as we like to think!), and for yet another thing, he realizes that corporate culture and plain old-fashioned greed can siphon off the joy and rightness of human labor. Also, look at the picture, and one sees it, yes?
1. Lester Freamon (The Wire) – Simply the best murder police of all time. Lester sticks mostly to carving doll house furniture while chaos prevails all around him in the offices of a Baltimore Police special task force, Lester’s game is dispensing timely advice, mentoring the young detectives, and then shutting the hell up and letting things play out. All of the traits of a Wizened Old Man are present in Lester in spades: unending experience, tons of knowledge, gruff exterior disguising a friendly heart, greying hair, beard, and bowleggedness. Clear bonus points as well for listening to the ORIGINAL Erma Franklin version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” on his radio. Lester Freamon is as wise and helpful as any old man there ever was.