Gene Wilder, the face of American comedies for a generation, died on Monday at age 83 from complications of alzheimer’s. Despite his long career, he is best known for one role: Willy Wonka in the 1971 musical Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. The role was a departure for Wilder, as it was a musical and he didn’t have to handle the comedy himself. It also forced him to play a dramatic, aloof character who struggled to connect with the outside world.
Here’s a look at the role that made him a global star.
1. Wilder Was Not Nominated for an Oscar for the Role
Despite what is arguably his best performance as an actor, Wilder was ignored by the Oscars. Granted, 1971 was a very difficult year, with The French Connection deservedly winning both Best Picture and Best Actor for Gene Hackman. However, Wilder’s performance defined the character for every child who ever saw the film. Even the song “Pure Imagination” wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.
Willy Wonka was nominated for only one Oscar – Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score. Wilder did earn a nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, but lost to Fiddler on the Roof‘s Topol.
2. Wilder Called Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie & The Chocolate Factory’ an ‘Insult,’ Even Though He Liked Johnny Depp
In 2005, Tim Burton directed a new adaptation of the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp in the Willy Wonka role. In one of his last interviews, Wilder called the new film an “insult.”
“I think it’s an insult. It’s probably Warner Bros.’ insult,” Wilder told Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne. “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.”
3. The Producers Considered Joel Grey, but They Realized Wilder was the Best for the Role the Moment They Met Him
Producer David Wolper told AMC that they once considered Joel Grey to play Willy Wonka. Dahl was interested in casting Goon Show icon Spike Milligan. HDirector Mel Stuart even wanted Fred Astaire, but the 72-year-old Astaire was too old at that time.
But then Wilder walked in during a New York audition and Wolper knew they had their Wonka.
We were auditioning actors in a suite at the Plaza in New York when Gene Wilder back-flipped in. Wilder’s career was just beginning — he had done The Producers, which later became a classic comedy and a hot Broadway show, but had not been that successful when it was originally released. When he walked into the room, both Mel and I knew instantly we had found our Wonka. Perfect does not begin to describe him — the role fit him tighter than one of Cousteau’s wet suits.
4. Wilder Came up With the Idea that Willy Wonka Would First Appear Frail on Screen
Wilder made Wonka his own character, which is partly why the performance remains so iconic. It’s just impossible to see anyone else in that role. In a 2005 BBC interview, Wilder explained why he came up with the idea of having Wonka look frail. It was all part of the “performance-within-a-performance” Wilder was giving as Wonka.
“I knew that from then on the audience wouldn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth,” he said.
After appearing with the limp, Wonka throws the children off balance by performing a somersault. Wilder would only make the film if he was allowed to do that.
5. His Co-Stars Loved Working With Him
In November 2015, The Today Show hosted a Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory reunion, but Wilder was not among the six cast members who got together. However, they never said anything bad about him, noting that he always talked with them during the production.
“Gene walked in and I realized that his presence — his humor, the humor in his eyes… was Wonka,” director Mel Stuart, who died in 2012, told AMC. “Sometimes in casting, someone walks in and you just know he’s the right person… He had the sardonic, demonic edge that we were looking for.”
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