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The Whimsical Willy Wonka
How Gene Wilder brought joy and mystery to the role
The 1971 film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, stands the test of time. The movie is a musical fantasy and adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that engages children and adults’ imagination. Gene Wilder’s performance as the title character is a major reason the film is so magical.
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the film’s release, and Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka continues to bring joy to countless people. But, the story behind Wilder accepting the role of Willy Wonka shows Wilder’s true genius.
How Wilder became Wonka
In a 2002 interview on CNN’s Larry King Live, King asked Wilder how he came about accepting the role of Wonka. Wilder explained that he was offered the part and so read the book. The director, Mel Stuart, came to Wilder’s home in New York to secure his commitment. Wilder said he would accept the part on one condition, that his idea can be used for Wonka’s entrance.
In the story, Wonka had been a recluse from society, locked away in his chocolate factory, inventing amazing candy. He sets up a competition where those who find the golden tickets he has hidden inside a select few of his chocolate bars will be allowed to tour his chocolate factory and learn his secrets. The competition makes global news.
In an iconic scene from the movie, Wonka comes out for the first time in years, and the crowd gathered at his factory goes quiet. Wonka has a limp and is heavily dependant on the use of his cane. As Wonka slowly walks forward, his cane gets stuck on a brick, and to the crowd’s horror, he begins to fall face forward.
At the last possible moment, Wonka’s fall turns into an athletic somersault, and he jumps up with his hands up in triumph. The crowd erupts in applause. Wonka never needed a cane. It was all an act.
According to Wilder, when he told Stuart his plan, Stuart asked him why he would want to do that. He responded, “Because no one will know, from that point on, whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Thankfully, Stuart agreed to Wilder’s demand. Not only because it made for an enjoyable scene that set a whimsical and mysterious tone for the rest of the film, but because Wilder would have turned down the role if Stuart had refused.
Wilder’s Wonka and Joy
Gene Wilder was interviewed on NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2005. Conan O’Brien described Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as, “The best movie for children and adults to watch at the same time.”
Wilder’s portrayal of Wonka brings joy to audiences, and he experienced joy when he sees children’s eyes light up after they recognized him on the street. Wilder told Conan, “every four and a half years, I get a new crop,” as mothers allow their children to see the movie for the first time.
Gene Wilder died in 2016 at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. After his death, his family released a statement, part of which reads:
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Wilder was an accomplished actor, filmmaker, singer-songwriter, and author. Besides his portrayal of the whimsical Willy Wonka, he is best known for his comic acting, although he was certainly not one-dimensional.
Gene Wilder’s portrayal of Willy Wonka shows an uncanny ability to bring joy to others. From the film’s start to finish, Wonka keeps the audience on their toes, set up by his iconic entrance.
Luckily for the world, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is immortalized forever on the silver screen and will continue to bring joy to and inspire generations of children to come.