The 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory presented a case of an art-mimicking life when it came to the behind-the-scenes antics of one of the film’s young stars.
Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde) played the roles of the lucky kids whose gold tickets gave access to the magic treats run by eccentric confectioner Willy Wonka. And as child actors, they were taken to Bavarian Germany to explore fantasy film sets and work with budding comedic genius Gene Wilder in Mel Stuart’s highly anticipated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular novel. Charlie and the chocolate factory.
That doesn’t mean Wilder and Wonka shared so much in common.
“I think people kind of want us to tell you that he was like Willy Wonka off set, but he wasn’t,” Cole told Yahoo Entertainment in a virtual meeting with Ostrum, Bollner and Themmen commemorating the film’s 50th anniversary this week, as well as a new 4K UHD Blu-ray release (see above). “He was a lovely, kind, very modest man.”
“He was just down to earth, not pretentious, he was just a wonderful person to work with and to work with,” said Ostrum of Wilder, who died in 2016 at the age of 83.
All four Wonka the performers we spoke with had nothing but warm memories of Wilder, whose summary blockbuster also included Flaming saddles and Young Frankenstein; However, Wilder didn’t exactly share the warm feelings regarding one of the former actors (only Cole continued to work in entertainment beyond the 70s).
In the years since the film’s release, Themmen has been called a “notorious troublemaker on set” with Wilder calling him “a handful.”
“I can corroborate it,” Themmen smiles. “I was younger than the others. I was 11, they were 13, and I was naturally a bit more spirited and exuberant.
As an adult, Themmen had a brief but memorable reunion with Wilder in which the Wonka the actor confirmed his feelings. Themmen attended a fundraising screening of Wilder’s 1976 hit Silver Series at the Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut, the town where Wilder spent most of his adult life.
“I sat at the back of the room and he made his comment, and then I went up to the front of the room afterwards with my poster in my hand,” Themmen recalls. “I said, ‘Hi, Gene, how are you? I am Paris Themmen, I was Mike Teevee in Willy wonka. ‘
“And he said, ‘Oh, you were a kid! And I flashed all the way back 50, or 40 back then, and I said, “Well I’m 50 and something now and maybe not as much as a kid.” And he signed my poster, “To my favorite kid. “
Dahl’s novel was adapted again in 2005 with the directing of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp as Wonka. The character will return to screens soon in an animated origin story starring popular 25-year-old actor Timothée Chalamet (Call me by your name, Dune) as a young Wonka, from Harry potter producer David Heyman.
And original Wonka the stars agree perfectly with that.
“A good thing for them is that they don’t have to do a direct comparison because it’s a prequel rather than a remake,” says Themmen. “So he doesn’t necessarily have to be as good as Gene, which is obviously an extremely difficult thing to do. But a talented actor. I don’t know if he has the wild eyes that Gene has, but he sort of has the hair. And an overall look that is a bit similar.
“You can’t kill Wonka,” Ostrund said. “It plays out over and over again, whether it’s the original or the remake with Johnny Depp. And it brought attention back to our movie. The kids saw the version of Johnny Depp, their parents said, ‘You have to see original. Anything about Wonka is good for the Wonka story. It’s a great story and it needs to be told no matter who produces it or who does it.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is now available on 4K UHD Blu-ray at retailers including Amazon. Wonka will also be back in theaters on August 15-18 via Fathom Events.
– Video directed by Jen Kucsak and edited by Steve Michel
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