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Calvin: Look, I put a snowball on top of this snowman's head. Now I'll be the next William Tell, and I'll hit the snowball clean off!
This is based entirely on the legend of William Tell, though the same story has existed before his time in similar variations. In the legend, William Tell, who originally came from Bürglen, was known as an expert shot with the crossbow. In his time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were seeking to dominate Uri. Albrecht (or Hermann) Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf, raised a pole in the village's central square, hung his hat on top of it, demanding that all the townsfolk bow before the hat. When Tell passed by the hat without bowing to it, he was arrested. As punishment, he was forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter. Otherwise, both would be executed. Tell was promised freedom if he successfully made the shot. On 18 November 1307, Tell split an apple on his son's head with a bolt from his crossbow. Gessler noticed that before the shot Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not one, and after the shot asked him why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself.
- In one of the old Federated commercials in the 1980's, Shadoe Stevens (as Fred Rated) shoots merchandise off the head of a female assistant (apparently missing his last shot, as he gets a squeamish look and frantic stage hands rush past him to assist the girl).
- This ad for Gillette featuring tennis player Roger Federer.
- One PSA of old showed a fellow (in Robin Hood's Memetic Outfit) pulling off the stunt. Everyone celebrates, and that means drinks all around. So, then there are murmurs of "bet he can't do it again", and drunk logic being what it is, the whole scene is set up again, but with everyone drunk....
Anime and Manga
- Fist of the North Star used this as a Kick the Dog moment in an early episode, with one of Diamond's men forcing a villager to try to shoot a can off the head of his son with a bow and arrow. When the father can't go through with it, the scumbag takes it upon himself to "help" him, taking hold of the bow and arrow in a Hands-On Approach fashion, but deliberately shaking up the poor guy's aim just to be a sadistic asshole. When the arrow finally does get launched, Kenshiro intervenes before it can go into the boy's head, catching the arrow between two fingers with Nishi Shinkuu Ha before sending it into the mook's shoulder.
- The William Tell scene is parodied in Asterix in Switzerland, where a boy with an apple on his head is in the middle of hanging up a target when a massive sneeze by Obelix causes Asterix's arrow to be fired involuntarily. The scene is subverted by the arrow hitting the bull's eye of the intended target, when it looked like it might have hit the apple. The eyewitnesses feel disappointed, but can't explain why.
- Deadshot does it to Captain Boomerang in an early issue of Suicide Squad as part of a plan to discredit a vigilante called William Hell. Captain Boomerang is the one with an apple on his head and is not pleased with the situation.
- In The Film of the Book Naked Lunch, William Lee is shown shooting a glass of whiskey off of Joan Lee's head in what they called their "William Tell act." At the end of the movie, he attempts this again and accidentally kills her. This is based on the actual death of William Burroughs' common-law wife, Joan Vollmer.
- This happens in Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past involving an arrow, a rising pop star, and the 6th place Japanese archery champion.
"She didn't even medal!"
- Happens in A Fish Called Wanda, in the bank heist in the beginning, as the four thieves are about to get away with their bank heist, Otto pulls an apple out of his sack and places it on a bystander's head. He readies his crossbow, scaring the bystander, but he's stopped by Wanda (not the fish) before he can pull the trigger, though.
- In the strangely notorious Exploitation Film Axe, two gangsters do this to some poor grocery store clerk for amusement.
- Done in The Warrior's Way; first with a bucket of water placed above the clown's head, and then a glass of whiskey.
- In X Men First Class, Charles Xavier and Hank McCoy have to help Alex Summers, better known as Havok, to master his energy-blasting ability, which leads up to both of them standing beside his target during the final practice... but not before backing off a little.
- The Jackal: The eponymous Jackal tries out one of his new guns by having his "buddy" hold out a pack of cigarettes. He ends up blowing off a good chunk of the poor guy's arm.
- In the short Cavalcade of Archery, Howard Hill (who did the archery stunts for The Adventures of Robin Hood) demonstrates his skill with a bow by shooting first an apple and then a plum off his partner's head. The partner flees when Hill suggests a cherry, however. The short is included as a bonus feature on the DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
- Gonzo's amazing new act in The Muppets is head bowling, which involves him attempting to knock a bowling pin off Jack Black's head with a bowling ball.
- In Posse, when Jesse Lee is ordered to execute a prisoner, he instead demonstrates his marksmanship by shooting the prisoner's cigar out of his mouth
- William Tell, of course.
- Henning Wulf, or von Wulfen, of Wewelsfleth in Holstein sided with Count Gerhard in 1472 and was banished by King Christian I of Denmark. In a folk tale, the king had him shoot an apple off his son's head, and a window in the Wewelsfleth church depicted the boy with an apple on his head, pierced through by the arrow, while Henning's bow was undrawn but there was another arrow between his teeth. Between archer and boy there was a wolf.
- The earliest version of this trope may be from the 12th century, in Saxo Grammaticus' version of the story of Palnatoki, whom he calls Toko (Gesta Danorum Book 10, chapter 7).
- One related story turns the motif on its head: after matching him in swimming and in other shooting contests, King Olaf of Norway converted Eindriði Pansa (the Splay-Footed) from heathenry by shooting at either a chess piece or a writing tablet on Eindriði's son's head. The king's shot narrowly missed but the boy was unharmed; Eindriði gave in to his mother's and sister's pleas and did not try the feat himself.
- On one live episode of I've Got a Secret, Johnny Carson's secret was that he would shoot an apple atop host Gary Moore's head. He did it too...with Moore safely behind a sheet of pexiglass.
- The conceit of the British Game Show segment "The Golden Shot", in which a viewer would attempt to direct "Bernie the Bolt" via commands over telephone to shoot a crossbow bolt at an apple to win prizes.
- Two boys are playing this trope. The boy with the crossbow shoots - but hits the other boy's left eye instead. He shoots again - hitting the right eye.
Now-blind boy: "I'll go home!"
- On Gor the Wagon Peoples had a similar thing as a contest of skill - a Slave Girl would stand in profile holding a piece of fruit in her teeth and a warrior would lance it while galloping by on the local equivalant of a horse. For infinity Bonus Points they'd do it while she was facing him head-on.
- And if she really loved him she would swallow. To explain: a girl accidentally stabbed in the back of the mouth was shown to have been swallowing the blood released by the (non-fatal) injury rather than let her owner lose face by forfeiting the contest.
- In Heinrich Kramer's 1486 Malleus Maleficarum (Book 2, chapter 16), a similar story to the William Tell legend occurs: Punker, Puncker, or Puncher of Rohrbach in the Upper Rhineland is said to have been ordered by "a very eminent person" in about 1430 to prove his extraordinary marksmanship (regarded by Kramer as a sign of consorting with the devil) by shooting a penny off the cap on his young son's head without disturbing the cap. He, too, kept a second arrow in reserve to kill the prince in case he failed.
- In the first Doom novel, Flynn Taggart reminisces on the day his comrade and best friend Arlene Sanders first joined the Marines and took care of any latent Stay in the Kitchen mentality they had by participating in a William Telling contest with the best marksman in the unit. They both took a turn with an apple on the head and being the shooter, and both hit the apple. Some of the guys started calling her "Will" afterwards. It's the first hint of her marksmanship, which Flynn admits is much better than his.
Live Action TV
- One time on Bones when she and Booth were undercover at the circus doing a Knife-Throwing Act, she made him throw a knife at an oversized prop apple on top of her head. She sprang it on him all of a sudden during the show. She then puts on a prop nose, visibly worrying him (and the team watching back in the institute). Made funnier by the fact that she was wearing an eye-patch at the time.
Crowdmember: Be careful, she's only got one eye left!
- In Married... with Children, Kelly becomes a skilled archer and accepts her opponent's challenge to shoot an apple on Bud's head. She balks at going through with it, not wanting to hurt Bud, but when her opponent accuses her of cowardice, she shoots the apple without warning, causing Bud to pass out and, upon reviving, regress to toddlerhood.
- On The Muppet Show (the one guest starring Alice Cooper), a William Tell routine was playing onstage, but all that is seen are the stray arrows falling backstage. At the end, the boy has an arrow through his head. "You know me. In one ear and out the other."
- Another example from The Muppet Show has an orchestra performing the William Tell Overture and finishing with the cellist firing the bow from his cello to shoot an apple off Beauregarde's head.
- One of the German episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus begins with a William Tell sketch. It has Tell successfully shooting the apple, then the camera zooms out to show his son's body is riddled with arrows from previous attempts.
- Played with in an episode of Batman. Alfred attempts to show off his archery skills and places an apple on Dick Grayson's head. Bruce stops him saying it's not worth taking the risk so Dick places the apple on a stationary target. Alfred shoots and misses. Had they gone through with it the arrow would have hit Dick right between the eyes.
Alfred: I... uh.. I think I'll go dust the Batcave. (quickly leaves)
- One of the most famous moments of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was when he had famed actor Ed Ames (who played the Indian "Mingo" on Daniel Boone) demonstrate his tomahawk-throwing skills. Ames was to throw an axe and try to hit the head of a cowboy silhouette set up on stage - unfortunately he hit the drawn cowboy's crotch, with the handle pointing up, eliciting the longest laugh in television history.
- Done in a "Secret" game on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with Ryan Styles as William Tell and Colin Mochrie as his son. After Colin bites into the apple and finds hidden nude pictures of Friar Tuck, Ryan unsubtly attempts to Make It Look Like an Accident by attempting to shoot a grape off his head. And then doing it blindfolded.
- In The Goodies, there's an episode in which the boys are challenged to a medieval battle by a team of black knights. One of them successfully shoots a melon off of Graeme's head, nailing it to the tree behind him. Bill then has to one-up them by shooting an olive off Tim's head — he does, but nails most of Tim's hair to the tree as well.
- Actually subverted in the live-action series Crossbow, which is a fictionalised version of Tell's legend. How so? Tell (Will Lyman) faints after passing the test, thus in a Kick the Dog moment Gessler (Jeremy Clyde) makes him and everyone else believe that his son Walter (David Barry Gray, who is here renamed Matthew) is dead, via having the the kid taken away and slandering Tell to Hell and back. It'll takew a while to see that it's not true.
- In the 2000 Arabian Nights mini-series, one of Scheherazade's stories concerns a prince who sets out to obtain a great treasure. As he is justly proud of his archery skills, the guardians of the treasure tell him he must prove himself worthy of it by shooting a target balanced on a child's head. It turns out to be a Secret Test of Character: when he declines to take the shot, admitting he's not certain he won't hit the child, he passes the test.
- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The monster of "Foul Play in the Sky" was the Snizzard, a Snake-Lizard monster whose weak spot/power artifact was a golden apple atop his head. This was a Kimberly-centered episode, and Kimberly's weapon is a bow. Cue Twang! "Hello." + Blasting It Out of Their Hands, and then an arrow to the apple.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In "Superstar" Jonathan alters reality to change himself from a geek into a demon-fighting James Bond-expy. One scene has him putting on a blindfold in preparation to shooting apples from the heads of several Initiative soldiers.
- In the Northumbrian ballad of Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee, which was a source of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, William of Cloudeslee tells the king he will put an apple on his seven-year-old son's head and shoot it off at 120 paces:
I have a sonne seven years old;
- Happens in Garfield: the protagonist being the glutton that he is misses intentionally so that he can eat the apple afterwards.
- The Far Side did a strip depicting William Tell's less fortunate son Warren, balancing an apple atop his gigantic head and encouraging Dad to shoot it off. Gary Larson caught some flak for this one, as some assumed he was mocking people with encephalitis.
- Chalie Brown does it to Snoopy in this early Peanuts strip.
- Used in a Mutt And Jeff strip:
Jeff: I pitch a pretty good game of baseball! Hold still, Mutt, and I'll knock this apple off the top of your head!
- Done in FoxTrot. Roger asks Jason what sport he has taken up and Jason tells him to put an apple on his head and he'll demonstrate. Roger, wisely, flees.
- Parodied in another strip, where Jason himself undergoes this with Marcus, only they end up doing an inversion (Jason has the arrow on his head, while Marcus is about to shoot an apple at the arrow). According to Jason when Eileen witnesses this, they chose that method since they'd be "only kinda stupid" if they did it that way.
- Calvin and Hobbes. See the page quote.
- Part of Willie's Knife-Throwing Act in Modesty Blaise.
- In The Pajama Game, Heinsy tries to do this in his knife-throwing act. While visibly drunk. She ducks in time.
- In Kingdom of Loathing, one of the possible minigames (all of which have the exact same function of distributing 99.9% of the bet money to one of the two players completely at random) in the Money Making Game has the player that accepts the bet trying to do this to the player that placed it. If he hits the apple, he wins. If he misses the apple, the other player wins. And if he misses the apple, he always hits the other player. This doesn't actually harm the other player in any way.
- Invoked in the Team Fortress 2 achievement "William Tell Overkill", though to achieve that you shoot an arrow through an enemy's head.
- A trailer for another Valve game, Portal 2 has one robot attempting to shoot an apple of another's head, with a foot wide laser beam.
- One of the plays in Suikoden III, which includes William Tell... and can screw up if you pick incompatible actors as William Tell and his son. Will net a boo, but who cares, it's funnier that way!
- Suikoden II has the hero participate in a traveling circus's show by having various pieces of fruit placed on his head while knife-thrower Eilie impales them with expert precision. You can throw off her aim and get hit with a knife yourself by choosing to wimp out and move to either side before she throws.
- This quest in World of Warcraft is an obvious parody.
- One of the collectable pieces of lore in Crisis Core - Final Fantasy VII - recalled how the SOLDIER 1st Class members Sephiroth, Angeal, and Genesis often using the holographic room for training purposes, and one of their training sessions was a variation of this trope, only instead of a bow and arrow, they tossed their swords at the apple in question, with Sephiroth constantly winning.
- Happened on Tom and Jerry at least once, with the apple on Jerry's head.
- On the Classic Disney Short "The Tortoise And The Hare", the Hare shows off his speed by shooting an arrow, running ahead of it, standing under the target with an apple on his head, and letting the arrow split the apple in two.
- In The Simpsons episode "The Cartridge Family," after Bart finds the handgun Homer acquired stowed in the freezer, he aims it at Milhouse who sticks an apple in his mouth. Marge manages to find the two just before Bart could pull the trigger.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender has an example involving Firebending. In a flashback to Zuko's childhood, Azula demonstrated a "game" by fireblasting an apple set on Mai's head. She successfully hit the apple, but Mai started freaking out from having a burning apple on her head and Zuko, trying to help her, accidentally knocked her into the fountain. All this because Azula suspected Mai had a crush on Zuko.
- The extra comic "Going Home Again" shows how Zuko and Mai get together. After Azula ruins the dinner she set up by giggling in the bushes with Ty Lee, the couple go on a walk where they run into Jin. Mai, suspecting a history, demonstrates her knife throwing prowess by standing Zuko in front of a fountain, sticking a fish on his head and then chucking an icicle at the fish. She then offers Jin another icicle to try it out for herself. Jin hurls it a Zuko who dives out of the way and falls into the fountain. And to top it all off, Mai leans over him and says, "Now we're even."
- This is one of the training methods employed by Prince Derek in The Swan Princess, only the Plucky Comic Relief shoots the arrow and Derek is supposed to turn and catch it. It turns out to be a Chekhov's Gun, when they use it to take down the Big Bad.
- The Penguins of Madagascar: Kowalski wishes for a plasma blaster and then uses it to shoot an apple off Rico's head.
- An episode of Total Drama Island had 'The Reverse Willam Tell' challenge, wherein half the contestants had to balance an arrow on their heads, while the other half had to throw crabapples at their heads blindfolded to try to knock the arrow off.
- On Phineas and Ferb the trope is played with, in "Picture This".
Buford: Bet you can't shoot this apple off my head.
- Sonic does this to one of Robotnik's robots in Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. Getting up in Robin Hood garb and balancing an apple on his head, Sonic tauntingly asks the robot (Called Dragon Breath in Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine) if he's ever heard of William Tell. Infuriated, Dragon Breath throws his spiked club at Sonic, but the hedgehog's super speeds allows him to dodge just in time, so that the only damage done is that apple is split in half...and the tree behind Sonic falls over onto Dragon Breath.
- For some reason this was part of a 'Cutest Kitty' competition on The Twisted Whiskers Show.
- One scene of The Venture Brothers has Hank and Dean trying to do it to each other. It doesn't work out very well.
- Stoked!: In "Surfer's Got Talent", Broseph discovers he has an uncanny aim with a water hose and attempts to shoot a half-eaten apple off Emma's head.
- Subverted on an episode of Dexter's Laboratory, in which Dexter and Dee Dee go on a sibling vs. sibling game show. Dexter's just there for the prize, and starts one of the challenges before the host finishes explaining the rules, knocking an apple off of Dee Dee's head with a cream puff. He loses, as the host reveals that the challenge was to hit your sibling without making the apple fall.
- King Arthur's Disasters: King Arthur becomes the target for one of these in "The Ice Palace". He has to stand with an apple on his head and be shot at in turn by Robin Hood, William Tell and Sir Maragaret.
- Taz-Mania: According to "Unhappy Together", 'William Tell' is favourite game of the Platypus Brothers and Daniel gets quite upset when he thinks Timothy is playing it with Taz.
- William S. Burroughs accidentally killed his wife while trying to shoot a drinking glass off her head with a gun. This incident is revisited in the Film of the Book of his work Naked Lunch.
- This kind of trope was also done with guns, by Annie Oakley. There was a bit in her act where she would shoot the ash off her husband's cigar.
- At one point, Kaiser Wilhelm was in the audience. Annie's husband asked for volunteers, as he always did, and to his surprise the Kaiser stood up. Annie pulled off the trick, and after World War One started said she regretted not shooting a few inches further down the cigar. (She sent the Kaiser a letter asking for a second shot. To no one's surprise, he never sent a reply.)
- Obviously appeared among Darwin Award stories
- Straddling the line between Real Life and folklore are the tales of American Mountain Man Mike Fink. Several stories tell of him and his friends shooting cups of whisky off each other's heads. One account of his death says that in 1829 in a drunken stupor, when aiming at a mug of beer from the head of his longtime friend, John Carpenter, he shot low; shortly thereafter, his other longtime friend, Talbot, retaliated by killing Fink, using Carpenter's pistol.
- By Freddie Wong, with a watermelon in place of an apple and a sniper rifle in place of a bow.
- The designers of a slingshot did this using their dad as the person that was at risk for a commercial. It was never put in the ad because, after they shot the scene but before they televised it, they realized people might look at that and then try it at home. But that didn't stop one of the designers from later talking about the un-televised ad on television at a later time.