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Gene Wilder, the Real Willy Wonka

Getty Images / Silver Screen Collection

Gene Wilder, the Real Willy Wonka

When "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" was released in 1971, few of its stars were familiar to audiences. And even with the movie's moderate success at the box office and growing classic status in the years that followed, few of its stars became household names. Only the most devoted of viewers can quickly name the actors who played the children, the grandparents, or the Oompa-Loompas. But there's one exception. Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka, and his impeccable performance helped make him a star.

Wilder, who died August 28, 2016, was in the early days of his film career when he was cast as the eccentric candy maker. He had just one leading role to his credit, in Mel Brooks' "The Producers." He was far from the first choice of the "Willy Wonka" producers to play the juicy role, competing with established talent including Fred Astaire, Peter Sellers, and Joel Grey, as well as the entire six-man cast of the Monty Python comedy troupe.

But Wilder clinched the role from the moment he walked into the audition. Director Mel Stuart and producer David Wolper both knew immediately that they were looking at Willy Wonka. According to AMC.com, Stuart was looking for "…someone with a commanding presence, who could walk the line between seeming madness and innocence, someone you could trust and fear at the same time." One look at Wilder and he was sure. As Wilder completed the audition and left the room, Stuart told Wolper he was ready to cast Wilder. Wolper agreed, but asked Stuart to give him a little time to make a good deal with Wilder's agent. Instead, Stuart dashed out the door to catch Wilder before he made it to the elevator and offer him the part.

Wilder accepted… on one condition. He had an idea for how his character should enter the film, and he would only play the role if they used his idea. In Wilder's vision, Wonka – a recluse for years, greeting an insatiably curious public on a momentous day – limps slowly, painfully out of his factory's entrance, using a cane. The cheering crowd goes silent when they see the broken-looking man who has emerged. As the hushed crowd watches, he hobbles to a stop as his cane sticks in a crack between two bricks, then teeters a bit before appearing to fall over entirely. At the last moment, he catches himself and rolls into a somersault. He jumps up and offers a smile to the shocked crowd.

Wilder explained the reasoning behind his entrance-scene vision: "…[F]rom that time on no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth." Either Stuart loved the concept, or he was simply too determined to land Wilder as his star to quibble; either way, Wilder got the role and began shaping his character long before filming even began. His creation of the opening scene was one of several ways he influenced the classic movie.

After locking Wilder in as his star, Stuart sent the future Wonka sketches of the costume designer's concept for the chocolatier's costume. Wilder wrote back with a detailed response, praising the "lovely sketches" while offering a number of revisions. It's not every costume designer who's willing to incorporate an actor's ideas into their final creation, but in this case, many of Wilder's suggestions were used as the costume designer built the perfect suit for an otherworldly eccentric.

Wilder looked at sketches that seem to have portrayed a wildly-colored suit of clothes from a very specific time period, tailored like the suits of the 1910s. He kept the aesthetic but suggested baggy tan trousers instead of acid green jodhpurs. He loved the purple velvet jacket but requested pockets. He saw purple shoes and knew they needed to be brown, an echo of the top hat, which he also loved: "To match the shoes with the jacket is fey. To match the shoes with the hat is taste."

Had the costume designer simply followed all of Wilder's direction, we might think it was a case of instructions from on high to coddle the star, but Wilder's idea for a light blue hat band and matching bow tie was scrapped. It seems that, in fact, Wilder just knew what he was talking about, and his vision really did help create the perfect look for Willy Wonka.

Having created his character's opening scene and influenced his costume, Wilder didn't stop making contributions once filming began. His masterful performance is, without a doubt, one of the key elements to the movie's success. What could have been either a sweet-as-candy adaptation or a too-sinister retelling of Roald Dahl's odd book became perfectly balanced between the two. Wilder's Wonka offered a balance of whimsy and sincerity, with a dark hint of unhingedness. He built upon the question of his believability in the opening scene, creating a mercurial character who could send a child to be stretched in the taffy pulling room one minute and turn friendly and fatherly the next.

There were two key scenes in which Wilder's work brought out emotions in his young co-stars that even they didn't anticipate showing. Wilder and Stuart worked together to make sure the movie's child actors didn't know the details of these scenes, so when Wilder began to perform, they would be as surprised by what they saw as the audience would.

The first was the Wonkatania scene, in which Wonka takes the children and their parents on a short but deeply strange boat trip inside his factory. As the lighting turns sinister and disjointed images flash on the walls, Wonka delightedly shouts, "Faster! Faster!" and sings "The Rowing Song." His delivery escalates from a quiet sing-song to a terrifying shout, and as he ramped up to the song's climax, the children became genuinely scared, thinking the strange boat ride might be driving the actor himself mad. It's a powerful scene, one that viewers still talk about today as one of the scariest things they watched as children.

Wilder's lines again weren't revealed to his young co-star, Peter Ostrum, in advance as they prepared to film the movie's final confrontation. As Wonka raved and shouted at Charlie, his face growing redder as his volume increased, the look of confusion and fear on Ostrum's face was real. He didn't know how the scene was going to go, at Stuart's insistence. Wilder worried about scaring Ostrum, and he initially wanted to tell him about the scene, but in the end, his willingness to play it Stuart's way won out, and now we can't imagine the movie ending any other way.

Gene Wilder wasn't the only Willy Wonka, of course – he shared the role with Johnny Depp, who reprised it in 2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," as well as Douglas Hodge, star of the 2013 Drury Lane musical adaptation. But for generations of the young and the young at heart, he's who we most associate with the role. That's thanks in large part to the way Wilder shaped the movie and brought his unique interpretation to the part of Willy Wonka, making it his own and creating a classic.