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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which turns 50 on June 30, got mixed reviews upon its release (THR declared that “a pleasanter, more captivating … musical for children this year is difficult to conceive,” while The New York Times dismissed it as “tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor”) and achieved modest box office success (it pulled in $4 million on a $3 million budget).
But through repeat TV airings, the Paramount release earned its reputation as a film classic — the “scrumdiddlyumptious” tale of a group of (largely obnoxious) kids who win a tour of a mysterious candy factory from which “nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out” — and would forever impact the lives of its young cast. Peter Ostrum was 12 when he was scouted at the Cleveland Play House to play Charlie Bucket.
“So I like to say I won the golden ticket,” Ostrum tells THR in a joint interview with his co-stars. Michael Bollner was a boy from Munich, Germany, where the film shot, when he was cast as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, who tumbles into a chocolate river. “It was just stinking, dark water,” says Bollner, now a tax accountant. “It was very dangerous.”
Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, recalls being shocked when Gene Wilder made his grand entrance as Wonka and tricked everyone into thinking he had a limp: “I remember thinking, ‘Has he had an accident?’ Our reactions were genuine.” Paris Themmen played the TV-obsessed Mike Teavee. “I live in the Valley,” he says. “I drive around town in a blue Tesla with a license plate that says ‘MIKE TV.’ “
So there’s all kinds of things floating around on the internet about how you guys were kept in the dark for certain scenes. Like when Gene Wilder first comes out and he does his limp into a somersault. Did you know he was going to do that?
PETER OSTRUM No, we did not. That was new to all of us.
JULIE DAWN COLE I remember thinking, “Had he had an accident?” Because we had met him. We’d met him around wardrobe and around the backstage when we were having costume fitting, that kind of thing. Then we didn’t see him for a few days. When Gene came up with this limp, everybody went quiet. The crowd went quiet. And then I remember thinking, “Oh, my goodness, he really has had an accident. This is genuine.” Which is exactly what he wanted.
How did they cook that up? Was he working in cahoots with the director?
PARIS THEMMEN It was Gene’s idea. Actually, was a rider in his contract. And he said the reason he wanted to enter that way and then surprise with the tumble is because from that moment on — in the film — they wouldn’t know whether to trust him or not.
Incredible. Then the other one is the Chocolate Room — that you were kept in the dark about the chocolate room until you got to see it. So is that true?
OSTRUM Correct. The reaction that you saw from Paris, from myself, Michael and Denise was our real astonishment, the real reaction. But Julie, you might want to ask her if she had seen the chocolate room prior to the rest of us.
DAWN COLE I had been walking past the soundstage where they were constructing the site and Harper Goff, the set director, said, would I like to see the Chocolate Room being constructed. Or course, yeah. Who wouldn’t? So of course, I dived on in there, and he was showing me around, there’s going to be this, it’s going to be this. I saw the [chocolate] river being constructed, all that kind of stuff. A little while later, Mel Stuart, our director, who was quite terrifying, quite intimidating, quite yell-y, was like, “Don’t let the kids see the Chocolate Room! I want to get their original reaction! Their initial, absolute, new reaction to this!” So I just kept quiet.
And what was Gene like? Was he intimidating? Was he fatherly?
THEMMEN Nice, sweet, gentle, quieter than you would expect, probably.
DAWN COLE Just Gene, hanging around, sitting in the corner, having a chat with Jack Albertson [Grandpa Joe] and Roy Kinnear [Mr. Salt], hanging around. Not pretentious, not theatrical, not a diva, not flamboyant, just Gene.
Some of your, not quite death scenes, but your comeuppances are so dark and memorable and traumatic in a way. We could start with Michael falling into that river and having to be juiced … or not juiced but —
THEMMEN Turned into fudge.
MICHAEL BOLLNER Bad news, boss. It was no chocolate at all, but just stinking water lying around for more weeks. And it was dark water. I had to jump in that water, which was just 15 centimeters deep. There was a hole about three meters [across], and I had to hit the hole, which was not so easy as the water was very dark. So I was always afraid that I will hit my head on the ground of the river.
So it really could have been deadly.
BOLLNER Yes. It was very dangerous.
Death by chocolate always sounds very exotic, but maybe it wasn’t so great for you.
BOLLNER The chocolate is always a good thing. You can’t deny that. I eat chocolate all day long.
Paris, I’ll never forget that one either. Can you talk about being shrunk to TV-size?
THEMMEN For whatever reason, I stuck around the longest, other than Charlie. What they did is they put paint on the cel animation for the dots, the millions of tiny pieces. And then I show up in the TV. They built a large sort of Land of the Giants TV for me to walk around in. And then they put me in the purse and there’s some ADR that I do about bending the tines of the comb and spreading lipstick around the inside of the purse and things. But all you really hear is [muffled high-pitched shouts].
Peter, so you very famously abandoned acting after this and became a veterinarian. Why?
OSTRUM I guess I just didn’t feel that that was the path that I wanted my life to go. I had a great time. I love watching theater. I love watching film. I have so much respect for people that can make a living doing that. But you have to remember being a childhood actor, it’s very difficult to transition from a successful childhood acting career to an adult career.
I’d love a quick Oompa Loompa story from any of you who have one.
DAWN COLE Well, the Oompa Loompas, there were 10 of them, nine guys and one woman, from all nationalities, all around the globe. Quite a few Brits, but German, Turkish, Persian, French. They were characters, and they liked to party, and they liked a few drinks after work. And they would go out and party. On one occasion — they were all staying in the same hotel; it was a corporate business hotel. And back in the day — it was the thing that you did if you were a businessman: You would put your shoes outside your room, and the wonderful little fairies of the night would clean your shoes. But as the Oompa Loompas got back a little bit merry, they got all the shoes from the entire hotel and tied all the shoelaces together, put them in the lift and sent the lift down to the lobby. And you can only imagine what these businessmen were coming out with their high-powered meetings, no shoes. No shoes. Those cheeky, little Oompa Loompas.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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