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The 'Willy Wonka' Club: Meeting the Cast 40 Years Later

Willy Wonka Cast 2011
Bryan Reesman

While it is considered a classic today, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" was not a hit upon its 1971 release and was even criticized by some people who thought it was mean to children.

But in directing the adaption of the Roald Dahl book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," director Mel Stuart crafted a tale for adults, not kids. That is probably a big reason why it has endured and influenced everyone from "The Simpsons" to Marilyn Manson, on top of the brilliant performance from Gene Wilder as the eccentric yet calculating candy maker. And let's face it, kids love it too. They get it.

The imaginative story about five children who win a tour of Willy Wonka's top secret confectionary plant -- and the chaos they create with subsequent consequences they did not foresee -- is filled with all sorts of great characters, from Wonka to the irrepressibly bratty Veruca Salt to the singing Oompa-Loompas. And then there is the good hearted Charlie Bucket, the only child not spoiled by his parents and trying to hold on to good values.
 
Five of the cast members and director Mel Stuart were in New York this week to promote the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of "Willy Wonka," and NextMovie broke bread with them and collected their thoughts and stories about working on this famous film.

Willy Wonka
Warner Bros.

What's your fondest memory from the set?
Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt): Just the people. Good people.
Rusty Goffe (Oompa-Loompa): All of it. I loved the entire experience from when I arrived in [Munich, Germany, where they filmed] to when I left. It was an amazing experience.
Julie Dawn Cole: I cried all the way home [after we left]. This has been your family for three or four months, and then you go, "Bye."
Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket): Just the whole process. When you're doing it, you have no idea how it will come together. To see the finished product at the premiere was incredible. There were different scenes that I was not involved with, so I had no idea how they would be incorporated, like the vignettes of people finding or not finding the golden ticket and the Dan Rather nightly news scene. Those are great.
Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee): For me, it was the Chocolate Room and the stunt with the exploding gum in the Inventing Room. It was dangerous because they yanked the back of my pants with a wire, and I tumbled into a stand which was full of copper pots and pans so that they could clatter on and around me. That was fun. I might've gotten clunked in the head or not, I don't know. It doesn't matter. I wanted to do it again, but they said it was fine, they got it. They didn't want me to get clobbered.
Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde): The Chocolate Room. When he opened the door, you truly had no idea [what to expect]. I was standing at the top of the stairs, and it wouldn't have mattered even if I knew what I was looking at. It's something I will never see again, and on film it doesn't even portray [what it was really like]. Even when I see it and hear the music now, it takes me back like I was there.

Also Check Out: 'Willy Wonka' Is an Everlasting Masterpiece on 40th Anniversary Blu-ray 
 

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Warner Bros.

Tell us about working with Gene Wilder.
Peter Ostrum: It was great. He ended up being a close friend, and both he and Jack Albertson (who played Grandpa Joe) were my mentors and helped guide me through the process. Listening to his take all of these years later, I understand Mel now, but he was difficult to work with. Both Gene and Jack guided me through the process, so I almost relied on them more than Mel. He knew what he wanted, but it was difficult for him to convey that to his actors. He knew what he didn't want.
Rusty Goffe: Gene Wilder was awesome. I had known Gene Wilder from "The Producers" and "Bonnie and Clyde," and he was just becoming a big, big star. He was an amazing guy to work with, this genius of comedy. He was absolutely sensational.
Julie Dawn Cole: But also quite quiet. I think people thought he was going to be some zany, eccentric character the entire time, but he was normal. He was great. He was very kind and fun.
Mel Stuart (director): We both came to the conclusion that he [Wonka]'s got to be kind of a nutball, that you shouldn't know what he's up to you. You always have to be surprised. When we went into the factory to see the Oompa-Loompas making the stuff, and when we were standing outside, we came up with the idea of him speaking to the people in German. It doesn't make any sense, but it's all part of the strangeness of Wonka that makes him such a character. That's very important. When we were in the boat, the craziness at the end was his, where he went over the top. I didn't know, I was filming it. Suddenly he goes into this blast of yelling and screaming.
Paris Themmen: Gene Wilder was a great guy. The problem is that it was a one-way relationship. The word on me as an 11-year-old was that I was very rambunctious. I was sort of the bratty younger brother, and for that reason, although I have very fond memories of Gene Wilder -- he was a very gentle, talented, well spoken person, albeit a little bit eccentric -- I was in the way of getting his job done on a day-to-day basis. You'll see footage of him disparaging me. On the DVD footage he says, "You know I love you now, but you were a handful." I met him three or four years ago at a Barnes & Noble where he was signing [a book], and I hadn't seen him in years and years. I went up to him and said, "Hi, Mr. Wilder, it's Paris Themmen, I played Mike Teevee many years ago." He said, "Oh, you were a brat." I said, "Yes, I understand, Gene, I know. I like to think that I've changed over the intervening 40 years." And he said, "Oh yes, yes, I'm sure you have." Basically the damage was done.
Denise Nickerson: Gene was spectacular and the antithesis of what you see on film. He was very quiet and soft-spoken, and when he did the Wonkatania and first did the song, there was no acting involved. This guy was a crackerjack. He was shy and one of the kindest people, totally opposite of what you'd expect.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Warner Bros.

What did you think of the Tim Burton remake of "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory"?
Mel Stuart: If you turn that [recorder] off, I'll tell you.
Peter Ostrum: It's totally different. Different flavors. There were parts of it that I like, but it struck a different chord for most people. You can't compare the two, and if anything it generated more interest in our film. Before it came out, we thought it would replace it as the gold standard.
Paris Themmen: For years I didn't want to answer this question. I would avoid it and didn't want to seem like a sour grapes guy. But after legions of fans have come up to my signing table at conventions and said, "The old one was great, the new one sucks," I now feel I can say that it was not as good. I could go on for some time telling you what I think they did wrong.
Denise Nickerson: I love Johnny Depp, he's one of my favorite actors, but Gene owns the role. I think Johnny Depp stuck more to the book, more to what Roald Dahl's vision was. Roald Dahl was a very formidable person sitting on the set. He didn't really joke with people.
Julie Dawn Cole: We often get asked about the thing that should not be named, the Johnny Depp version, and what we think of it. When I look at the remake, the children really weren't bad enough. It was almost ordinary. You have to go so, so far to be bad. Some of what the children did in "Willy Wonka" is now normal. That's rather worrying.
Mel Stuart:  But it's the parents who are wrong, always. You have to have children who grow up with a sense of discipline, and if they do not, blame the parents, don't blame the kids. If they're allowed to create havoc, it's not their fault, they will. They don't have a steering wheel in their brain yet, and it's the parents that form the steering wheel.
Julie Dawn Cole: Somebody asked me earlier, what was wrong with the kids? Where did they go wrong? And what was wrong with Veruca Salt? She was given no boundaries, and she was going to be bad. It wasn't her fault. It was her parents'. They didn't stop her, and children need boundaries. When you indulge children and you spoil them, that's what you get.
Mel Stuart:  Why wouldn't they want to be spoiled?

Also Check Out: The 9 Most Unintentionally Scary Movies

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Warner Bros.

Have many people have recognized you in recent years?
Peter Ostrum: I look more like Jack Albertson now than Peter Ostrum as a youngster [laughs]. Not very many people would recognize me now, and I don't walk around with a sign saying, "I was Charlie Bucket." I fly under the radar. Thinking about the kids in the film, other than my family, this group of people that we have something in common with are my closest friends and the longest friends that I have. For years and years we didn't have any contact, up until 1997 when we were reunited. Periodically we get together, and because of the 40th we have gotten together several times this year. It's like your family -- everybody's a little bit different and everybody has their quirks.
Denise Nickerson: Not at all. I think at the 30th [anniversary event], they ushered in Julie, Peter, Michael and Paris, and I went to follow them in. The woman said, "No no, PR, you're over there." I said, " I'm not with PR, I'm one of the actors." "Sure you are, PR is over there." When you look at me and hear me, yes, but I'm not as recognizable as Julie or Michael or Paris.
Paris Themmen: People who recognize me are generally either rabid Wonka fans, people with photographic memories or visual artists who see that my face is still my face. I'm talking about people without context pegging me on the street. It's impressive.
Julie Dawn Cole: Rather scarily, yes [they remember], but I was only 12 at the time, so they're a little disappointed. But sometimes people still do kind of go, "Weren't you...? Aren't you...? Did you...? I know you from somewhere."
Rusty Goffe: Exactly the same thing for me.
Julie Dawn Cole: But Rusty doesn't have the orange face. He looks different when he's orange.
Rusty Goffe: I was more pretty.
Julie Dawn Cole: Now they have set the trend for young people being orange, being spray tanned.
Rusty Goffe: I was the first.
Julie Dawn Cole: It was always an Oompa-Loompa thing. You are a style trendsetter. The green hair hasn't caught on yet.

 

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