He lit up the screen as the complex and twinkly-eyed Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But what was Gene Wilder really like when the cameras stopped rolling? Well, one of the movie’s child stars has revealed the answer – and it might come as a surprise.
In 1964 Roald Dahl published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course, he would later become a major children’s author and would be known for books such as The BFG and Matilda. But this was one of his earlier works, following on from the success of The Gremlins and James and the Giant Peach.
A few years after its release, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was adapted into a movie. It is stated that Dahl himself penned the screenplay, but in actuality a writer named David Seltzer was brought in to adapt it. And the many changes that were made – including adding musical numbers – did not sit well with the author.
In fact, Dahl was so unhappy with the finished product that he would not sell the rights to the book’s sequel, Charlie and the Glass Elevator, which was published in 1971, the same year as the movie’s release. According to his buddy Donald Sturrock, who wrote the 2010 biography Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, he called it “crummy.” Sturrock added, “Roald eventually came to tolerate the film, acknowledging that were ‘many good things’ in it. But he never liked it.”
Today, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a widely known and loved movie. But interestingly, that wasn’t the case when it was released. The entire budget was just $3 million – which wasn’t a large amount even back then – and this was provided by Quaker Oats, who invested in the film to boost their brand.
To keep the costs down, the producers filmed the movie in Germany. But it earned just $4 million domestically when it came out and therefore was not considered successful. It wasn’t until years later that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory started earning fans and went on to be hugely popular.
Nevertheless, critics received the film reasonably well despite its relatively poor performance in theaters. Wilder was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and the movie also received a nod at the Academy Awards for Best Original Score. However, in both of these instances, it lost out to Fiddler on the Roof.
The story follows an ordinary boy named Charlie Bucket, who comes from a poor family. But his life changes drastically when he finds a coveted golden ticket and wins a visit to the Wonka chocolate factory and the chance to take home a lifetime supply of candy. The other winners are Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Augustus Gloop and Mike Teevee.
Charlie Bucket may be a typical child, but the other winners are not. In fact, they each represent different examples of what Dahl considered poor character. Veruca Salt is extremely spoiled while Violet Beauregarde is obsessed with chewing gum. Meanwhile, Augustus Gloop is exceedingly piggish, and Mike Teevee is addicted to watching television.
It doesn’t take long before their trip to the chocolate factory turns into something of a nightmare. That’s because the children in turn suffer drastic fates when they refuse to listen to Wonka’s instructions. In the end, Charlie proves himself to be of high moral standing, and the chocolate-maker reveals that he is actually inheriting the factory.
According to those involved, making the movie was certainly an interesting experience. Director Mel Stuart wanted genuine reactions from the child actors – and that’s why he didn’t tell them just how ominous that famous boat ride scene would be. He also hid the chocolate room from them until filming so that they would truly be surprised.
Sadly for the youngsters, the set wasn’t actually made of candy. The river was made with food coloring and water, and the buttercups were really wax. As for the wallpaper that Veruca Salt licked? “It didn’t taste nice,” actress Julie Dawn Cole told Chuck the Movieguy in 2011, adding that it really tasted just like wallpaper. “It wasn’t the most pleasant thing to film.”
Although he may not have foreseen it at the time, the movie would become the one that Wilder was best known for. Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11, 1933, the actor started out on the stage. But he then landed his first film role in another cult classic, Bonnie and Clyde.
Wilder then appeared in The Producers before he won the part of Willy Wonka. But despite the fact that he was not a major movie star at the time, he still had an ironclad idea of how the character should be. And he wouldn’t take on the role unless the makers met a very specific demand.
According to a letter between the actor and Stuart, Wilder had the following condition for agreeing to play Wonka. “When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp,” he requested in the note. “After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet.”
And it didn’t end there. “As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane,” Wilder continued. “I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
Fans of the movie will know that this is exactly how Wilder makes his entrance. So why did he want his first appearance on screen to play out this way? Well, he believed it perfectly represented his character. The star added, “From that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Wilder went on to appear in the movies Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. But while he was known for his comedic roles, it wasn’t always fun and laughter for the actor. In fact, he had a difficult childhood that by his mother’s terminal illness made even tougher.
As a child, Wilder attended the strict Black-Foxe Military Academy, where he was picked on for being Jewish. On top of being bullied and beaten up by his peers there, the star has confessed that he had been sexually abused. When he was a teenager, he also developed an obsessive compulsive need to pray.
Wilder turned to acting as an outlet. But eventually, he gave up the industry altogether and focused instead on writing books. The star believed that there just weren’t enough good roles out there – and he had also tired of fame. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he told Alec Baldwin during a 2008 Turner Classic Movies special. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”
Despite this, the public liked Wilder a lot. And when he died at the age of 83 in 2016 after struggling with Alzheimer’s, fans went into mourning. So it may not be a surprise that the actor has always been a subject of curiosity – making it all the more special when one of his co-stars gave an insight into what it was like to work with him.
Interestingly, Wilder is not the only one from the movie who made the surprising decision to quit show business. Michael Bollner, who played Augustus Gloop, didn’t continue a career in Hollywood after Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and instead started an accounting business. And Denise Nickerson, who portrayed Violet Beauregarde, stopped acting in 1978.
Mike Teevee actor Paris Themmen stayed in the industry but went behind the camera for a change and worked in production on Something Borrowed and The Owner. Even Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket, turned down the offer of a contract for three movies and shied away from the limelight. Instead, he went on to become a veterinarian.
And Julie Dawn Cole, also known as Veruca Salt, has become a therapist. However, she hasn’t entirely quit acting and has appeared on British television shows such as Casualty and Holby City. In addition, Cole opened a children’s school of acting called Centrestage.
The same year that Wilder passed away, Cole released a memoir. It was appropriately titled I Want It Now, a reference to the musical number her character performs in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And in the book, the former child star detailed her experience on the set of what has become a cult favorite movie.
Cole decided that it was the right time to finally put pen to paper because she was “aware that there are parts of one’s life that your kids never hear about,” she told Fox News. “And too much of it disappears with time. I wanted to tell them. Happily, my kids are very interested and apparently, many other people are interested in it too!”
Although a long while has passed, and Cole was just a child when she made the movie, she had saved her memories of her time working on it. Back then, the young actress was only 12 years old. However, she didn’t have a related guardian take her to the set each day because her mother, a single mom, worked full time.
Cole revealed that she had landed the part of Veruca because she had been at theater school and had gone to several auditions. And she also declared that she had gotten along well with the other child actors and had had a crush on Ostrum. But it was her perception of Wilder that was particularly fascinating.
At the time, Cole got in touch with her mother to tell her what Wilder was like in person. And she held onto that note for many years. “I wrote a letter to my mom back home describing my initial impression of Gene Wilder, which is nice because I would have otherwise forgotten,” the former actress told Fox News.
Cole continued, “But in my letter to my mom, I said, ‘Today I met Mr. Wilder. And he’s not as tall as you would imagine or I to be. He’s got reddish hair down to his shoulders.’ … [I remember] Gene came in rather dapper in his purple velvet coat with those wonderful twinkling blue eyes. Not as I imagined!”
So why was it that Wilder was nothing like Cole expected? Well, the star revealed that it had been “how ordinary he was” that had come as a surprise to her. “He was not a diva. He was not an ego,” she said. And she added, “He was kind, he was considerate, he was fun to be around and he was patient.”
What’s more, Cole praised Wilder’s behavior when it came to working with a group of children who were all excitable. “You’ve got a group of kids bouncing all over the place high on chocolate and sugar,” she explained. “And yet he was so tolerant and very generous with his screen time.”
As well as treating the children with kindness and respect, Wilder remained humble. Cole revealed that he never acted as if the movie was all about him – even though he was the star and the kids were unknowns. Instead, he proved that he was a team player through and through.
“Some stars just want all the limelight for themselves. They want all the laughs. They want all the moments,” Cole added. “Gene was never that person. And I think that’s evident in his work. Not just in Willy Wonka, but everywhere else. He recognized the strength of being an ensemble.”
And Cole echoed the same sentiments during an interview with the BBC after Wilder’s death. She described him as “very kind, wonderful, endearing” and again mentioned that he had been “patient” – especially given that he was working with a group of children. The star even revealed that one of her fondest memories was of the screen icon trying to make her laugh during filming.
Clearly, Wilder had an impact on all the children that he worked with. In fact, Ostrum admitted after the treasured actor’s passing that it had been a joy to work with him – and that Wilder had made him feel like an equal. “I have very fond memories of Gene,” Ostrum told The Hollywood Reporter.
Ostrum continued, “Even though I was a youngster, he treated me with respect, like a fellow actor. He expected me to be professional, which I thought that I was. He was a great teacher.” But he confessed that he hadn’t gotten to know Wilder quite as well as he would have liked.
Evidently, Wilder remained focused, and Ostrum explained that he “was fairly private and would keep to himself” on the set. “Gene was very much in the role. It wasn’t that you couldn’t approach him – he was very approachable,” he added. “But he was serious about what he did and wanted to get it right.”
Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains a classic more than 45 years after its release, another movie based on Dahl’s story came out a lot more recently. This time, Johnny Depp portrayed the candy maker and Tim Burton served as the director. And 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an immediate hit, drawing in $475 million at the box office.
Nevertheless, there will only be one Wilder. And it’s clear that his co-stars will never forget him. “He was just a joy to work with and what a legend,” Cole said to the BBC. “What a wonderful thing to be part of.” Meanwhile, Ostrum told The Hollywood Reporter, “He was an icon for our generation. And a very humble man.” And when it comes to being linked to the star, he added, “I guess I did win the golden ticket.”