Gene Wilder Agreed to Star in the 1971 ‘Willy Wonka’ on This One Brilliant Condition

Gene Wilder’s defining movie for many, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory turned 50 this year. And from 1971 to 2021, the popularity of the themes in it hasn’t waned for a moment. Wilder had a condition on which he’d play the title role though, and he laid it out to director Mel Stuart. 

Gene Wilder told a film historian that something was missing from the part

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.
Gene Wilder | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

At the 92nd Street Y in 2013, Gene Wilder told film historian Robert Osborne about some of his meetings with director Mel Stuart in a rare video interview. In particular, he shared his reaction to the screenplay. Via Insider, Wilder actually came up with one of the movie’s best stunts. 

“It’s very good. But there’s something missing,” Wilder recalled telling Stuart. And according to the late actor, he then shared the solution — an addition to a scene that would become nothing short of iconic to children of the era. 

“If I play that part, I want to come out with a cane, and there’s something’s wrong with my leg,” Wilder explained to Osborne. “And come down the stairs slowly, and then have the cane stick into one of the bricks down there. And then get up, start to fall over, then roll around, and then they all laugh and they applaud.”

It would play out as if he were weak — then a fall turns into a somersault, and Wonka lands upright with confidence, to the amazement of his child guests and their parents. 

Wilder said Mel Stuart seemed confused by the odd suggestion. “I said, ‘Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth,’” Wilder told Osborne. 

The suggestion, brilliant in its subversive and yet playful nature, became one of the most memorable scenes in a movie known for its memorable scenes. Willy Wonka became the mysterious figure of childhood lore in that moment.

Wilder said he agreed to also do the same scene without the fall, then regretted it. “I should never have said, ‘I’ll do it one time without the [fall],’” Wilder said.

The actor claimed that Stuart informed him the producers loved his idea for the scene after all, and it was put into the final version of the film. 

Johnny Depp also played Wonka in a 2004 version by Tim Burton 

In 2004’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Johnny Depp creepifies the role even further, sporting a blinding grill and a bob haircut. Opposite Freddie Highmore’s Charlie Bucket, Depp did justice to a completely unique, Burton-esque rendition of Wonka. But for many, Gene Wilder’s original version of the eccentric character is the definitive. 

Stuart said that Wilder had the capacity, up to the end of the film, to surprise him. 

“In the last scene, Gene surprised me,” Mel Stuart said in a Warner Bros. extra to celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary. He was taken aback, he said, by “the violence of Gene’s temper” in the Fizzy Lifting Drinks scene. 

“I still am always fascinated by Gene’s delivery,” Stuart said in the 13-minute featurette. “There’s nobody alive today that can do what he did in that picture. It’s a performance that ranks in the hall of fame.”

50 years after Gene Wilder, a new version of the children’s tale stars Timothée Chalamet 

Yet another new version of the foreboding Chocolate Factory tale starring Timothée Chalamet is on the horizon, and interest in the film adaptations of Roald Dahl’s timeless book is once again surging. 

Under the working title Wonka, Warner Bros will attempt to once again capture the magic bottled by Gene Wilder half a century ago; only this time, the movie will act as a prequel. 

Paddington director Paul King will helm Wonka, which is set for release March 17, 2023. Keegan Michael Key has also been cast, though little is currently known about his role in the plot. 

No word on whether any of them have come up with a suggestion as beloved and impactful as Wilder’s — but we can always hope. 

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