The 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory featured a case of life imitating art 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) co-starred as the lucky kids whose golden tickets granted access to the magical candy land run by eccentric confectionist Willy Wonka. And as child actors, here they were being whisked off to Bavarian Germany to explore the whimsical film sets and work with budding comic 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 all that 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 during a virtual reunion with Ostrum, Bollner and Themmen commemorating this week’s 50th anniversary of the film, as well as a new 4K UHD Blu-ray release (watch above). “He was such a lovely, kind man, very unassuming.”
“He was just down to earth, not pretentious, he was just a wonderful person to be around and to work with,” says Ostrum of Wilder, who died in 2016 at the age of 83.
All four Wonka performers we spoke with had nothing but warm memories of Wilder, whose blockbuster rêsumé also included Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein; however, Wilder didn‘t exactly share the warm feelings when it came to 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 labeled a “notorious troublemaker on the set,” with Wilder calling him “a handful.”
“I can corroborate that,” Themmen smiles. “I was younger than the others. I was 11, they were 13, and was naturally just sort of more high spirited and rambunctious.”
As a grownup, Themmen had one brief but memorable reunion with Wilder in which the Wonka actor confirmed his feelings. Themmen attended a fund-raising screening of Wilder’s 1976 hit Silver Streak at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Conn., the city where Wilder spent most of his adult life.
“I sat at the back of the room and he gave his commentary and then I went up to the front of the room afterwards with my poster in hand,” recalls Themmen. “I said, ‘Hi, Gene, how you doing? I’m Paris Themmen, I was Mike Teevee in Willy Wonka.’
“And he said, ‘Oh you were a brat!’ And I flashed all the way back 50 years, or 40 years at that time, and said, ‘Well, I’m 50-something now and maybe not as much of a brat.’ And he signed my poster, ‘To my favorite brat.’”
Dahl’s novel was adapted again 2005 with Tim Burton directing and Johnny Depp playing Wonka. The character will soon return to screens in a buzzed-about origin story starring popular 25-year-old actor Timothée Chalamet (Call My by Your Name, Dune) as a young Wonka, from Harry Potter producer David Heyman.
And original Wonka stars are perfectly fine with that.
“One nice thing for them is they don’t have to do a direct comparison because it’s a prequel rather than a remake,” Themmen says. “So he doesn’t necessarily have to be as good as Gene was, which obviously is a hugely difficult thing to do. But talented actor. I don’t know if he has the wild eyes that Gene has, but he’s kind of got the hair. And a general look that’s kind of similar.”
“You can’t kill Wonka,” Ostrum says. “It just gets played over and over again, whether the original or the remake with Johnny Depp. And that brought attention back to our film. Kids saw Johnny Depp’s version, their parents said, ‘You need to see the original.’ Anything that talks about Wonka is good for the Wonka story. It’s a great story and it needs to be retold, regardless of who’s producing it or who’s making it.”
— Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Steve Michel
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