An Oral History of ‘Willy Wonka’ With the Stars of the Classic Film

With the holidays upon us, it’s time to gather with the family and watch a holiday classic. One movie that is sure to be viewed many times — whether you’re catching one of its many December airings or were lucky enough to get the 40th anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-ray as a gift this year — is the 1971 classic ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’

To celebrate the movie’s enduring fandom, we spoke with the stars of the candy-coated classic and got their first-hand account of making the pop culture landmark. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the heck was up with that boat ride through the tunnel, or learn which heavy metal icon got star struck at the sight of Veruca Salt,  has the full story after the jump.

Rusty Goffe (Oompa Loompa): Gene in that time was just beginning to be a big star. He was just in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and he was given free reign to do what he wanted. You had to trust him to be an inventor because he invented all these amazing things.

Mel Stuart (Director): It was a pleasure, both of us trying to top each other: How weird can he be? For instance, he starts talking gibberish German, that was just something we made up on the spot. You’ll even notice, further along in the picture, his hair would get more crazy, and we kept working on trying to make him as unpredictable as possible. He was supposed to look weird, twisted. We wanted an element of un-easiness about how he would react in every scene.

Peter Ostrum (Charlie): Wonderful person to work with. Acted as a teacher to me going into the process, and very supportive, and just a lot of fun to be around. He had a nice sense of humor, not threatening at all.

Paris Themmen (Mikey Teevee): He liked me less because I was the eleven year old hellion, amidst the very well-behaved Denise, Julie, and Peter. There’s footage of Gene disparaging me in various interviews. “How are the kids, Gene?” “Oh, four of them are great and one of them I’m going to strangle tomorrow.” There’s another point in the DVD footage where he says, “Oh, Paris, you know that I love you now.”

Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde): Just the complete antithesis of what you see on screen. However, when he broke into song in the tunnel — no acting involved. I’m thinking, “No one is going to come and see this movie, this man is a crackerjack. He’s scaring me!”

Themmen: When we shot the scene, they had us climb up some ladders onto the boat so that they could rock the boat around and do what they needed to do. They projected behind us those horrific scenes with the chicken getting his head cut off and the centipede and all of the other things. When I’m on the boat, I am actually being affected, I’m scared, I’m shooting my gun at it, I’m repulsed.

Goffe: I was at the back, on the wheel. When I saw it, it was scary, but then it gets even more scary when Gene sits there, and the hair’s going, and the boat’s going faster. We could only hear him singing, thinking “Why’s he doing this?” But when we saw it, it just adds to the spookiness.

Stuart: I wanted to scare. And all of that stuff on the wall was deliberately made to make it look a little bit nightmarish. You didn’t know where the hell we were going … the great thing about this film was it wasn’t produced by a studio. Quaker Oats put up the money and I didn’t have to answer to anybody. The way I did it was the way I perceived it, which was very fortunate. I didn’t have to have people from Warner Brothers go, “Oh, gee, a snake on a man’s face, that’s too much.”

Ostrum: It’s one of those scenes that you don’t really get the full impact until you’re in the theater watching.

Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt): The worst stuff never made the final cut.

Cole: I had dinner with him before the rest of the kids arrived. He’s very tall and very scary, and I was very well-behaved at this dinner because I felt like I was almost being auditioned by him.

Nickerson: He was so unapproachable. Usually had a scowl on his face. A thirteen-year-old would not just go, “Hey man! How ya doing!” You could tell he didn’t like children. But he had his interpretation of how this was going to go and he wasn’t happy with the way it was being done.

Ostrum: He’s got the characters kind of picked out in his head, what they would look like and how they would act, and then we show up, and I’m sure it was different than what his imagination led him to believe. I think it was difficult for him.

Nickerson: When we opened that door, being thirteen and small in stature, it was like an entire city, and it was all self-contained. All the colors you see on film, will never rival my memory. To this day, I get breathless even thinking about it, it was just the most awesome thing I had ever seen.

Themmen: Even though you recognized as a child actor that it’s a facade, it’s a really fun facade. It’s a beautiful, colorful facade.

Cole: [Laughs] The cat’s out of the bag now, ’cause it’s been a secret kept for many many years. Mel was adamant that we were not going to see that big reveal, but prior to it, one of the stagehands or set technicians building it said “do you wanna have a look around?” It wasn’t finished, but I had seen quite a lot of it, so I pretended. For thirty years, I’ve pretended.


Nickerson: I didn’t look at the mirror. I can tell you it was awful. Simply awful. Watch the film next time, there’s no acting involved. After all those hours I was simply pissed off and very uncomfortable. I was blue and fat.

Mel Stuart assigned a man to roll me every five minutes. And I would hang like this and hang like that, and it was hot and uncomfortable. The Oompas didn’t have their blueberry driver’s licenses so they would go to give me a push through those double doors and miss. I’d hear Mel go “Ah! Do it again!” It was a long day. I look at it now and it played very well because I was so ticked off, but I can’t really say I was giving an Oscar-winning performance. [Laughs] It truly was just how I felt.

Ostrum: Jack [Albertson] was wonderful. Jack was as low-keyed and unpretentious of any person that I could’ve worked with. Working with Jack, working with Gene, my friendship with them, made my role very easy to play. Jack was wonderful. And now I’m starting to look like Jack.

Cole: It’s the family gene. The hair. All the parents took care of their children, they parented us. [Roy Kinnear] used to tell me little poems and things to amuse me all day long. But he taught me techniques too, he was delightful. My favorite scene is the woman with the husband being kidnapped “Did you hear me? It’s your husband’s life or your Wonka bars?” and she says “How long do I got to think it over?”

Themmen: I like the one where I had to eat the exploding gum and crash back into the pots and pans. I wanted to do multiple takes but they only did one to maintain my safety because they were really copper pots and pans crashing down around me. I liked the little psychedelic room where we’re all bumping around. The one that gets smaller and smaller. What room wouldn’t ya like?

Stuart: No one’s going to believe me, it was Veruca singing ‘I Want It Now’ because it’s a fabulous song, it’s in three-quarter, the harmony, the words, everything, it’s a perfect song. Julie rehearsed it without me knowing. She and the choreographer worked on it on their spare time. And if you look at it again, her timing is so impeccable when she hits her father in the stomach on the beat, I just enjoyed that more than any other moment in the film.

Cole: Ozzy Osborne, he asked all the questions that you’ve probably asked. “Was the river really chocolate? Where did you go to when you went down the chute?” That was quite interesting.

Goffe: I’ve come across fans who when they were young and watched the movie were absolutely scared of the little orange men; their mums and dads would say, “If you don’t behave yourself the little orange men will come” and a couple of fans, who are now in their 30s will not come near me. They would stand there and go “ooh.” They were shaking in fear.

Themmen: There was a guy who wanted my signature so that he could tattoo it on his body; there was a guy who had a collection of celebrity hair who wanted some of my hair. Hopefully he won’t clone me from it; we wouldn’t want that. I’ve signed various body parts. I remember a woman that traveled around with her taxidermized dog. She was writing me letters for a while but she had her dog, that was stuffed, and it was with her, just because it was a loving friend.

Nickerson: [As a teenager] I never told anybody. I was trying to become the normal person, begin a new career, so I couldn’t very well go into a job interview and go, “by the way, I’m the blueberry.” It just wouldn’t have meshed well. It really didn’t happen until the beginning of the 90s when it started being shown at Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving.

I don’t go around proclaiming it — they may know me for ten years and not even know I was in it — but when they do find out, they have two reactions. One is a huge smile; the other one is “no way!” I always say, “I have a much better imagination than to lie to you about being a fruit in a kid’s movie. If I was gonna lie to you, I’d be Demi Moore in ‘Striptease’!” I’m so blessed, really.

Ostrum: It’s not one incident, or one encounter. But many encounters that fathers will come up to me and say that their father took them to see this film and it was the first film that they saw, and they have this kind of a bonding that took place between father and son going to see this film. Many people have told me that, so that’s neat that the film has had an influence on other people’s lives, positive influences. I get a kick out of those experiences.

Stuart: [Fans] thought it was a psychedelic trip. Remember it was the 70s and they thought “she ate the mushroom!” I have never taken a drug in my life, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Psychedelic what? But they said, “But the mushroom! She at the mushroom!” That was funny to me.

(From L to R: Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen, Denise Nickerson. Courtesy of Getty Images.)

Nickerson: Most of it was props; when Julie had to go into the mushroom, that part was cream, and when I had to chew the piece off the corner of the gummy bear, that whole thing was plastic except for that little piece. What I really ate in the film were the pieces of gum. So, Bazooka, Bazooka, Bazooka. It was back in the days before sugarless, and I had to blow bubbles for that entire movie.

Ostrum: Most of the chocolate that I had was Peter Paul Mounds brought over from the United States, not German chocolate. Some of it was a little on the stale side. So not the best chocolate experience. However, Gene and I got into a little tradition after lunch each day, we’d be walking back to set and we’d share chocolate. Real chocolate. Good chocolate. That’s a nice memory I have of Gene.

Themmen: You know, I was a little disappointed in the pure imagination room; I got the gum. The gum was, you know, gum.

Cole: The day we filmed my song, was my thirteenth birthday. I still have the birthday card you gave me.

Ostrum: Really?

Cole: Yeah, I still got it. They gave me a chocolate cake, which was fine, but as a child, I did not like chocolate. And I still don’t like chocolate.

Ostrum: [Laughs] I love chocolate.

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