‘Willy Wonka’: Gene Wilder’s Trippy Tunnel Speech Made 1 Actor Think ‘This Is a Nutjob’

Gene Wilder gave an incomparable performance in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and captured the candy maker’s wacky essence. 50 years after the movie’s release, fans still rattle off their favorite scenes, which include Violet turning into a blueberry, Augustus getting stuck in the pipe, and the tunnel scene.

The latter is what some have dubbed the “shamanic boat ride” where Willy Wonka breaks into a speech. One of the child actors in that scene believed that no one would watch the film on account of the nutty character’s words.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka on the set of the film 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory'
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka on the set of the film ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ actor Denise Nickerson thought Willy was a ‘nutjob’

Denise Nickerson played Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka, and before her death in 2019, she always praised her co-star Gene Wilder. She was only 13 when cast as the loud-talking, arrogant Violet, and like the other children on set, she found Wilder to be kind.

During a 2016 interview with People, she discussed her experience working on the film. She said the first time they met Wilder, he was in character inside the chocolate factory. He came out and did his famous Willy Wonka flip and followed that up with a song. The kids loved it.

But things switched up for the Wonkatania tunnel scene where they rode down the chocolate stream. Suddenly, Wilder belted out a dark tune about not knowing where they’re going and the danger growing. It was all unscripted, as were the cast members’ authentic reactions. They were astounded.

“I was quite surprised with that, there was no acting involved,” Nickerson said. “My chin dropped, hit the ground and never came back up. I had not anticipated that, it was not in the script that he was going to go off on that tangent. I was completely speechless. I thought, nobody is going to come and see this movie this [Wonka character] is a nutjob. But good thing I’m not a producer, right.”

Nickerson acknowledged Wilder’s creative spirit

Nickerson thought Wilder’s performance was brilliant, and she told People that he was a kind man who never lost his cool. “And working with Gene, he talked in a very soft whisper, nothing much furled his feathers, you know? He was such a kind, tender-hearted man.”

She added that his portrayal of Willy Wonka came from his own imagination rather than from the book or the director’s notes. Many of his moves and lines were totally improvised, and that psychedelic-like tunnel scene remains one of Wilder’s most memorable sequences from the movie.

Gene Wilder insisted on doing 1 thing before accepting Willy Wonka role

When director Mel Stuart approached Wilder about participating in the film, he visited the actor as his home to offer him the part. During a 2002 interview with Larry King, Wilder explained how he would only accept the role on one condition. He painted a picture for Stuart.

“I’d like to do it if I can come out and all the crowd quiets down, and I’m using a cane. ‘Oh my God, Willy Wonka’s crippled.’ And I walk slowly, and you can hear a pin drop, and my cane gets stuck in a brick. I fall over on my face and do a somersault and jump up, and they all start to applaud,” Wilder said.

When Stuart asked him why he wanted to go through all those steps, he told the director, “Because no one will know from that point on whether I’m lying or telling the truth.” And they allowed Wilder to do it. Check out Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on HBO Max, Vudu, or Apple TV+.

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