Wizard World’s programming schedule kicked into high gear Friday, with its full schedule allowing for more panels and the weekend allowing for the arrival of more of this year’s big names.
Shortly after this, we headed to actor Zachary Levi’s panel. Levi ran his panel without any moderator, as he likes to do, and it was a great choice in this case. Levi is a frenetic ball of energy, and right off the bat he was throwing off some Barrowman-level silliness vibes and even channeling Tim Curry at times, but the panel was far from all “circus.”
As we expected, while most of the crowd had seen and loved Shazam!, there were still strong pockets of devoted Chuck fans, as well as what seemed like an overwhelming majority who absolutely loved Tangled. No matter why you’d come to see Levi, what you got in his panel was a genuinely kind, funny, and surprisingly wise and emotional man. While almost every panelist talks about how grateful they are to be a part of the franchise, and have such great fans, it really seems to just ooze from Levi’s pores. “You guys are the producers.” he said at the start of the panel. “If you like it, more of it is made.”
He also talked about how perfect his roles have seemed to be for him, from his earlier time on Heroes and the character he played, who was going through a divorce, echoing the darkness and struggles he was facing in his real life during his actual divorce, to his nerdy nature and sort of “big kid” attitude lending themselves well to characters like Chuck and Billy Badsen.
Owing to his ADD (according to Levi himself), topics ran the gamut, and changed quickly. One of our favorite moments during the time with Levi though, was when someone asked him what his favorite word is. Usually, these sorts of stunt questions become a sort of throwaway, but after some standard silliness (Zach likes the words “cattywompus” and calling people “Fucko”) he changed gears. “If I’m getting philosophical for a minute” he said, “then the word I like most is ‘empathy.’ “ Levi went on to give a short but impassioned speech about how much the world needs kindness and understanding, and how you need to also love yourself in order to give love to the world. While on paper it’s not a new concept, his entreaty to the audience to be kinder to themselves and the people around them was actually quite moving.
There were of course the normal questions about Shazam! sequels (which are coming) and whether or not Black Adam will make an appearance (Levi says he’s pretty certain he will, though after his standalone film, which is already on the agenda) and some questions about Levi’s plans for more theater performances (which he’d love to do) and any upcoming musical endeavors (which he had toyed with and gotten a producer for pre-Shazam! but had to shelf for a bit due to Shazam’s popularity.)
Levi also talked about his love of video games, declaring his love for the Uncharted series and praising Last of Us as one of the best stories on any size screen anywhere, with a pitch to whomever might be listening that he’d love to play Joel in any screen adaptation of the game.
Just as the panel was wrapping up, Levi took a quiet moment again, to talk about the good therapy did him. He copped to going through some really dark times, and even having some suicidal thoughts, before going through 3 months of some “pretty intensive therapy” where his therapist encouraged him to think about how he talked to himself. “Think about how you help your friends through a hard time, if they’ve failed at something” he said, “and then think about how brutal you can be to yourself.” The thing is, you really do have to find love for yourself,” the actor said, choking up a bit.
Overall, the time with Levi was some of our favorite time at Wizard World through the years. Zachary Levi, much like another very memorable guest, Carrie Fisher, seems to genuinely care about the fans that attend his panels. He genuinely wants to spend time with them, and is willing to be open as a person and not just an actor. He’s goofy, very funny and all over the place, but also joyful and uplifting in a genuine way, hoping to help people through the dark times the way he was helped, and, as he himself pointed out, the world needs more of that.
Right after Levi, The Fonz himself graced the stage at Wizard World Chicago. We absolutely loved this panel. Henry Winkler was effortlessly hilarious while telling the story of his career. He grew up with two strict German parents, who wanted him to get a job buying and selling lumber but, since the age of seven Winkler had wanted to be an actor. He said, “the only ‘wood’ I was interested in was Hollywood.”
Winkler is incredibly grateful for the Fonz, and brought him to life by being true to himself–which is something that, incidentally, Winkler says is the secret to being cool. Fonz was so cool, in fact, that he never had to comb his hair unlike similar rebel characters around that era, a signature move that Winkler added. When he was directed to go to the mirror and comb his hair, he pulled out his comb and said, “ayy, I don’t have to because it’s perfect.” He had to be true to himself, but he also had to be a professional.
Winkler also talked about life after the Fonz. He said that he felt like he was such a big celebrity, only to struggle to find work once his 10 year stint as the coolest greaser on television. He went from acting on television, to producing it. He worked as an executive producer on the original MacGyver television series, and also the reboot series.
While not working on television, Winkler has been writing—mostly children’s books. He is finishing up his 35th book, Alien Superstar. It’s about an alien who flees his home planet and lands in Hollywood, where he fits in despite his strange appearance. It’s an interesting premise, and one that thematically in line with Winkler’s own struggles with dyslexia—something overcame to become an author in the first place. Winkler had some great life advice, with perhaps the best tidbit being “if you want something, keep it at the front of your mind” and work towards it. Remember, Fonzie says cool is being authentic, and no one is cooler than the Fonz himself.
Finally, it was time for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Voice Actor panel. As we mentioned in our preview, this panel, which featured Rob Paulsen, Barry Gorden, Cam Clarke and Townsend Coleman is a treat whether or not you were consumed with the 80s (or aughts) cartoons, action figures and movies or you were just someone who absolutely admires the work of some of the best voice actors in the business.
The through line of genuine, grateful and kind folks continued here, with each member of the zany four person panel equally impressive, and impressed with each other. On a low level, too, fans of the original Turtles show couldn’t miss that to some extent, each actor played his role throughout the panel–with Paulsen being the “edgier” of the group just like Raphael was, not afraid to drop a few “not safe for saturday morning” words in and Cam Clarke, who played Leonardo shouting “LANGUAGE!” just as you’d expect.
The group was more than happy to oblige with any voice the panelists wanted, with Townsend Coleman (Michaelangelo to some, the Tick to others) had the audience roaring in appreciation when he shouted “SPOOOOON!”
The four talked about some of the quirks of the original Turtles show, including that the voice actors were expected to record together (something not commonly done in the voice acting field anymore) and how they’d actually be replaced temporarily if not available when needed. While this was pretty extreme, Paulsen actually copped to preferring to work in the same room as his fellow cast members, which led to a great discussion of some of the other greats in voice acting they’d gotten to work with. Though none of them had originally planned to be voice actors, with Paulsen wanting (and getting) more musical work, and most of the others hoping to become actors on live shows, it’s more than worked out for them, and their love for their job shines through. “We’re someone’s childhood” Coleman said at one point. “It’ doesn’t get any better than that.”
If you ask us, between the kindness, fun and humor of Levi, Winkler and the TMNT crew, we couldn’t have been happier to spend much of our day in panels.
Tomorrow brings a whole new group of big names and plenty of other panel excitement too, and we’ll have all the news from it for you right here on Third Coast Review. Don’t forget to stop by our Friday cosplay gallery to see all the great stuff we saw out on the floor, and we’ll meet you out there for all the fun this Saturday!
Contributing author: Antal Bokor