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Gene Wilder Backflipped His Way Into the Role of Willy Wonka


When he decided to make Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory , producer David Wolper knew there was one decision on which the entire fate of the project rested. “The success of the movie depended completely on the casting,” said Wolper. “To be believable, Willy Wonka had to have a magical quality about him, the joy of a child in a man’s body. For a time, we seriously considered Joel Gray.” Impish song-and-dance man Joel Gray was very much in the public eye at the time, as he’d just starred in Cabaret on Broadway. Roald Dahl wanted to cast Spike Milligan, who was best known for writing and co-starring with Peter Sellers in British radio’s groundbreaking “Goon Show.” “But we also looked at a lot of other actors,” Wolper said. “Years later, I learned that Fred Astaire had wanted to play the role, but never approached me.”

Director Mel Stuart also felt the ‘Wonka’ casting decision was one that would make or break the film. “While I would have loved to work with Astaire, because he was extraordinarily talented, I didn’t conceive of Wonka as a 72-year-old man, which was Astaire’s age at the time,” Stuart said. “Besides, we probably couldn’t have afforded his salary… I needed 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.”

David Wolper recalled the fateful day when he met his ‘Wonka.’ “We
were auditioning actors in a suite at the Plaza in New York when Gene
Wilder back-flipped in,” he said. “Wilder’s career was just beginning
— he had done The Producers ,
which later became a classic comedy and a hot Broadway show, but had
not been that successful when it was originally released. When he
walked into the room, both Mel and I knew instantly we had found our
Wonka. Perfect does not begin to describe him — the role fit him
tighter than one of Cousteau’s wet suits.”

Mel Stuart agreed.
“Gene walked in and I realized that his presence — his humor, the
humor in his eyes… was Wonka,” he said. “Sometimes in casting,
someone walks in and you just know he’s the right person… He had the
sardonic, demonic edge that we were looking for.”

Ever the
producer, Wolper kept a poker face while Wilder was in the room. He
recalled, “When Gene left the room, Mel said, ‘That’s him, that’s Willy
Wonka. We’ve got to sign him.’ I agreed, but warned Mel, ‘Don’t tell
anybody. I’ve got to make a deal and we can save a lot of money if they
don’t know how much we want him.’ With that, Mel ran out into the hall
after Wilder. He caught him at the elevator and told him, ‘Gene, you
got it. You’re the guy.’ So much for subtlety.”

Mel Stuart is
unapologetic, knowing that Wilder was worth every dollar. “Gene just
had a quality of the madness, and yet the wit and the bite and the
ability to come back and suddenly become very fatherly-like.” In the
end, Wolper grudgingly paid Wilder $150,000 to take the role of the
mischievous candymaker.

The DVD_TV enhanced version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory airs Saturday, Dec. 6 at 8PM | 7C. Click here for the complete schedule .

Read more about Roald Dahl, the man behind the story, click here.

Mel Stuart, Pure Imagination, Macmillan, 2002
“Mel Stuart Interview,” WFPL’s “On Second Thought,” 6/28/03
Jason Zasky, “Wonka Vision,”, 2002
Steven Morris, “Hollywood Finds New Taste for Dahl’s Chocolate Factory,” Guardian Unlimited, 5/27/03
David Wolper, Producer: A Memoir, Scribner

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