Thomas Myler goes behind the scenes of the festive favourite that was adapted from Roald Dahl’s popular book …
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
With his unruly mop of curly hair, piercing blue eyes, rubbery features and expressive face, Gene Wilder was the original Willy Wonka and the star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It was a musical fantasy movie directed by Mel Stuart, with Wilder as candymaker Willy Wonka. The plot was an adaptation of the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
The plot tells the story of a poor child named Charlie Bucket, played by Peter Ostrum, who, upon finding a Golden Ticket in a chocolate bar, wins the chance to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory along with four other children from around the world.
Dahl was credited with writing the film’s screenplay, but David Seltzer was brought in to do an uncredited rewrite. Against Dahl’s wishes, changes were made to the story. Other decisions made by the director led Dahl to disown the film.
Released in June 1971 by Paramount Pictures, it had a budget of $3 million, and while it received generally positive reviews, it was not a big financial success, earning just $4 million by the end of its original run.
It has since become highly popular by repeated television showings and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’ It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score and Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory introduced the song The Candy Man, which went on to be recorded by Sammy Davis Jr. and became one of his biggest hits. Although he admitted to disliking the song, sometimes called The Candy Man Can, he found it ‘too saccharine’.
Still, it became his only number-one hit, spending three weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in June 1972, and two weeks at the top of the Easy Listening chart around the same time.
Before Wilder was officially cast as Willy Wonka, the producer David Wolper considered Ron Moody and Jon Pertwee. Spike Milligan was Roald Dahl’s original choice. Peter Sellers reportedly begged Dahl for the role.
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, who made up the Monty Python team, expressed interest in playing Wonka, but at the time they were deemed not big enough names for an international audience.
Joel Grey was the front runner for the part but director Stuart decided he was not physically imposing enough as the actor’s height was 5ft 5ins. He also learned that Fred Astaire wanted the part, but the 72-year-old former dancer may have considered himself too old.
Actors were auditioned for the role in a suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York and by the end of the week Wilder had walked in. It was then that the producer realised they could stop looking for their man. ‘The role would fit him tighter than one of Jacques Cousteau’s wetsuits,’ Wolper said. ‘I was captivated by Wilder’s humour in his eyes and felt his inflection was perfect. He had the sardonic, demonic edge that we were looking for.’
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