While the rest of the world mourns the recent passing of diva Whitney Houston, a significantly more relevant loss has suddenly left me absolutely crestfallen. Just a few hours ago, the Canadian news media announced the death of actor Neil Hope, a.k.a. Derek “Wheels” Wheeler, of the late eighties, early nineties teen drama Degrassi Junior High. Not only is the loss of the after-school television hero devastating, it is puzzling that the news was leaked an entire five years after he actually died! At his family’s request, his death in Hamilton, Ontario on November 25, 2007, resulting from allegedly “natural causes,” was not made public until now. Given that nobody has died of natural causes in their thirties since the 1830s, coupled with the fact that both the character and the actor who portrayed Wheels were heavy alcoholics, one cannot help but imagine that the true cause of his death is something that his family is not very proud of.
Degrassi Junior High, and its subsequent Degrassi High, were both huge hits internationally despite their low-budget and relatively amateur cast. Although the entire look and cast of the show had an unmistakably Canadian veneer, nobody presented the caricature of small town Canada harder than Wheels. Rocking a mullet, rapist glasses and a faded jean jacket, Wheels spoke through a heavy, heavy rural Ontario accent. My childhood was saturated by television and looking back at that golden hour after school when I’d watch back-to-back reruns of the show, his slacker demeanour and general hoserness definitely played a role in my shitty homework completing ability.
The upshot of loving a semi-famous Canadian drama is that it is just below the radar enough for entire episodes to be posted on YouTube without them being taken down moments later. In my opinion, all the best Degrassi episodes focus on the calamitous life of Wheels, so the links below are not just a greatest hits of his character, but of the Degrassi series as a whole.Degrassi Junior High “The Best Laid Plans"
In this episode, a thirteen-year old Wheels is on the verge of losing his virginity. But when Wheels goes to buy condoms, the pharmacist turns out to be the mother of the girl he’s seeing. Classic Wheels...Degrassi Junior High “Can’t Live With ‘Em Part One”
Wheels is psyched when his adoptive parents leave him home alone while they go out to the movies. That joy is smashed to bits when they later end up dying in a terrible car crash on their way home. On top of everything, he is then forced to live with his grandparents. Bummer!
Degrassi Junior High “Taking Off”
As generations clash while living with his grandparents, Wheels fantasizes about running away. When an unexpected postcard from his birth father pushes him to hitchhike out to rural Ontario for a visit, he nearly gets molested by a salesman who picks him up.
Degrassi Junior High “Parents Night”
Having been brought up by adoptive parents, Wheels meets his dad for the first time in his teens. However, he is bombarded by douche chills when he finds out that he plays in a terrible and unsuccessful band and lives like a scumbag.
Degrassi High “Home Sweet Home”
Wheels’s life goes into a complete tailspin after getting kicked out of his grandparents’ house. Bouncing from house to house, he eventually spends the night outside in the cold on his buddy Snake’s porch.
The personal struggles of his real life paralleled those of his doomed character perfectly. Both were plagued with family issues, substance abuse problems and general bad luck. If I may be so bold, I would argue that he was the most down and out character in the history of Canadian television. While I’m sure getting beat up by Bobby Brown must’ve sucked, Whitney ain’t got nothing on Wheels. I think that if a school in East Orange, New Jersey gets to be renamed the Whitney E. Houston Academy Elementary School, then it’s only fair that some hesher, burnout technical college in Etobicoke be renamed the Derek “Wheels” Wheeler Institute of Technology.