Legendary comic actor Gene Wilder is likely best known to those under the age of 40 as the original screen version of candy tycoon Willy Wonka. Before Johnny Depp and Tim Burton came along, there was only one movie adaptation of Roald Dahl's oddball novel "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a trippy 1971 musical starring Wilder as the inimitable chocolate factory owner.
The film is nominally the story of young Charlie -- a boy who has won a tour of Wonka's mysterious chocolate production facility. However, the movie's altered title, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," reveals its true star. Wilder's hilarious performance as the eccentric bonbon industrialist makes the movie, and is central to the film's lasting appeal and cult status. Where Depp's take on Wonka was just plain strange and over-the-top, Wilder imbued the character with a wonderful weirdness that was at once charming and a little unnerving.
According to recently unearthed letters between Wilder and director Mel Stuart, the "Producers" star had a very strong hand in making the character so memorable. Wilder accepted the role of Wonka only on the following conditions:
"When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause."
Wilder's request was exactly how Willy Wonka made his first appearance in the film, and is easily one of the most memorable character introductions in movie history. See it for yourself below.
Wilder later revealed why he wanted Wonka to make this kind of entrance, stating that "from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."
Another letter between Wilder and Stuart reveals just how much input the future "Blazing Saddles" actor had in Wonka's costume and appearance. During pre-production, the meticulous actor laid out changes that he wanted see to Wonka's costume, including what type of pants the character should wear, the colour and cut of his jacket, and even the placement of pockets. An example of Wilder's attention to detail: "The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special."
Most, if not all, of Wilder's suggested changes made it into the final costume. Seemingly tiny alterations that helped the actor better inhabit the character of Wonka and make his peculiar personality even more distinguished. Depp may have played Wonka, too, but Wilder will always be the definitive insane chocolate factory owner in our books.
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