Gene Wilder's 'Wonka' Co-Star Reveals Secrets of Classic Shoot

Steve Granitz/WireImage; Photofest
Peter Ostrum

Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket in 1971's 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,' says the late acting giant used the element of surprise to keep the young cast on its feet.

No one has more vivid, Technicolor memories of Gene Wilder's mad genius than Peter Ostrum, who was chosen at age 12 from a pool of thousands of young hopefuls to play Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl's dark children's story.

"I have very fond memories of Gene," says Ostrum of Wilder, who died Sunday at age 83. "Even though I was a youngster, he treated me with respect, like a fellow actor. He expected me to be professional, which I thought that I was. He was a great teacher."

Now 58 and living in rural New York where he works as a dairy cattle veterinarian, Ostrum can still remember his first time seeing his co-star on the big screen — not in The Producers, the 1967 Mel Brooks classic, but rather in 1970's Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, a long-forgotten romantic comedy that paired Wilder with Margot Kidder.

"It’s set in Dublin, Ireland, and Gene picks up the poop from the horses that are still being used in Dublin at that time and sells the fertilizer to the women for their window boxes and vegetable gardens," he recalls.

But Ostrum did not actually meet Wilder until he arrived to the Munich set of Willy Wonka in the summer of 1970. He says the actor "was fairly private and would keep to himself" while playing the fantastical chocolatier. "Gene was very much in the role. It wasn’t that you couldn’t approach him — he was very approachable. But he was serious about what he did and wanted to get it right."

During long breaks between scenes, Wilder would break character and crack up the young cast of golden ticket holders. And when cameras rolled, Wilder repeatedly employed the element of surprise.

For example, during his grand entrance, he appears from the Wonka Factory doors with a cane, limps down a long red carpet, then falls face-first — only to somersault forward and land on both feet.

"We had no idea that he was going to do that," Ostrum says. "How he came up with that idea and passed it along to Mel Stuart, our director, that was between those two. But you're seeing a genuine reaction."

Wilder also caught everyone off-guard with his incantations during the psychedelic boat sequence. "Gene just kind of went off and we had not seen that side of him," Ostrum says. "I wouldn’t say it was disturbing — but it was, ‘Whoa, Gene is really getting into it today.’"

In a scene near the end of the film, Wonka verbally berates Charlie for having broken the rules of the visit ("You lose!"), only to then reveal — some might say cruelly, though considerably less so than what befalls the other children — that he was only testing the boy. 

Ostrum says he and Wilder had a short conversation about the scene before filming it, but that he had no idea how intensely Wilder was going to play it. "He really let Charlie have it, but that scene worked really well because of it. My shock, my fear when he’s telling me, 'You lose!' was real emotion. It was easier on my part not knowing what to expect. I was just playing myself."

The movie may now be heralded as a fantasy classic, but it wasn't always so. Initial reviews for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory were "lukewarm at best," Ostrum recalls. "We were obviously trying to do our best, but we had no idea that that film would still resonate. From my point of view, I only made one film — and to be associated with Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson [who played Grandpa Joe], I guess I did win the golden ticket."

Through TV airings and home video, the film earned its rightful place as a cinematic classic. The story has since spawned a 2005 Tim Burton adaptation starring Johnny Depp and a hit London musical directed by Sam Mendes, which is headed to Broadway next spring. Neither, however, can boast having that Gene Wilder magic.

"He was an icon for our generation," Ostrum says. "And a very humble man."

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