Gene Wilders’ Willie Wonka

0b00d4fb-235f-4783-a685-01ff232bf553Love this shot of Willie Wonka – the perfect combination of joy and hope with a tinge of madness

I heard recently that Gene Wilder had died. When the media broke the news of his death they showed a brief snippet of him in his 80’s chatting away with some interviewer, and he seemed like a lovely man. Not that I would really know – I hardly knew anything about him. I only really saw him in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Yes, I know he was in other movies, especially with Richard Prior, but it is really Willie Wonka that I knew him and loved him.

There are a few famous people who get to me when I hear they have passed away, but not many. Robin Williams’ death really upset me – his fierce passion coupled with his own demons made him someone to be admired and at the same time the very epitome of vulnerability. Gene’s passing has been just as moving but perhaps in a more happy than sad way. It’s funny that we can feel close to someone we’ve never met. Maybe that says something about the depth of their personality, that they could come out of the silver screen and somehow worm their way into my very being.

As I said , it was as Willie Wonka that I remember him, and with great fondness. Apparently when the movie came out in the early 70’s it didn’t do well at the box office. I only really watched it when my kids were at an age to enjoy it (mid 90’s?), and as kids do, they watched it over and over and over and over… I loved it, but Linda got to a point where she never wanted to see it ever again. Mass exposure to something can do that to you.

But not to me. I loved it. This character with his cheeky grin, quirky mannerisms, occasionally manic behaviour and once again, a soft kind of vulnerability – his wish that the world was better, in spite of a well justified cynicism.

I suppose this blog won’t mean much to you if you don’t know Gene Wilder or if you haven’t seen his portrayal of Willie Wonka. Thank goodness for YouTube, because I don’t have to try and describe how he acts and what he says. I can show you, but before I do, here are a few of the lines that I particularly love from the movie, which will make sense when you see them in the following Youtube clips:

His comments to the children: “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak”, “The suspense is killing me – I hope it lasts”, “The snozberries taste like snozberries”,  “No, stop, please, don’t” said many times in a voice that sounds exactly the opposite to what he is saying, and finally “So shines a good deed in a weary world”.

Here is a collation of most of his witty one-liners during the movie:

Gene combines just the right balance of cynicism and hope, madness and logic, optimism and despair. His persona, and the story itself, somehow makes me feel lighter, somehow free from the norms of society, able to fly above the limits of others, and yet vulnerable, easily crushed but just as easily full of wonder.

You could argue that it was the story, and not Gene, that made the Willie Wonka movie so enjoyable. But I don’t think so. Johnny Depp’s more recent version of Wonka was okay, I didn’t mind it, but it didn’t have the depth of warmth or magic that Gene Wilder brought to the role. Just maybe Gene was tailor-made for the job.

Of course, the movie was really a pointed criticism of the way parents raised their kids, and we have Roald Dahl to thank for the cleverness of the story, and the chance Gene had to play it in the first place.

When I heard he had passed away I decided to watch a few snippets of interviews he had done over the years. He seemed like a gentle, unassuming soul, and in the world of entertainment I’m guessing it’s a rare person who can make it in Hollywood and still maintain a gentle spirit. I heard him say in a 2005 interview that he was the happiest he had ever been in his life. I hope your final years were just as happy Gene, and thank you for the memories.


Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

5 thoughts on “Gene Wilders’ Willie Wonka”

  1. I had the same experience, in that I wasn’t terribly familiar with Gene Wilder’s work beyond “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles.” But when I watched old interviews of his be struck me as a kind and deeply thoughtful person. Thank you for this lovely tribute, Terry.

    1. Thank you Heather. I really wanted to say something about Gene. I was surprised how warm and fuzzy I felt writing this. I’m glad it resonated, perhaps in different ways, with you as well. 🙂

      1. Your post did indeed resonate, Terry! As did your words about Robin Williams also, by the way. His was another departure that hit me hard and shook my faith in the universe just a little bit …

  2. “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.” lovely reintroduction to that Ogden Nash quote, too! I’m with you about the Johnny Depp re-make: lacks the magic…perhaps due in part to 21st century over-processing of special effects???

    1. Thank you for mentioning Ogden Nash! I did not know the origin of that rhyme but have just spent a little while reading about him and his poetry. Apparently the producers of the film sprinkled little quotes throughout the movie that weren’t in the book. My favourite “so shines a good deed in a weary world” (a slight retweaking of Shakespeare) wasn’t in the book either. It doesn’t matter, as it works delightfully in the film.
      I’m sure you’re right about the over-processing in the Johnny Depp version, but to me it was still his version of Wonka as well. I respect Depp as an actor (not sure whether I like him as a person) and I thought his version of Wonka was clever, but it doesn’t stir me in the same way as Gene’s. Thanks for your comment!

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