Peter Ostrum had never set foot on a film set when he was cast as Charlie Buckett in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It fell to Gene Wilder to show him the ropes.
“He was the pro and I was a rookie,” said Ostrum, who left the acting business and became a veterinarian.
Wilder died Monday at the age of 83 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Ostrum said he had not seen Wilder since the film ended production, but he still took the news hard.
“It’s kind of like losing a parent,” said Ostrum. “You know it’s going to happen, but it’s still a shock. He was not in good health at the end and it was not unexpected by any means, but when it happens it hits you like, ‘Gene is gone and there will never be anyone like him again.'”
“He was a gentle man, but he was also a gentleman,” he added. “He treated people with respect and dignity.”
Released in 1971, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” adapted Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a group of kids who win a contest to tour a mysterious candy factory. It’s a movie that has aged into greatness. Though he was nominated for two Oscars and worked on classics such as “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” Wilder’s work as the idiosyncratic candy maker remains his most beloved role. It’s ironic because Ostrum notes that the movie wasn’t a hit when it was released and the reviews were lukewarm. Audiences only discovered it on home entertainment platforms.
“My gut feeling is that Willy Wonka wasn’t his favorite role,” said Ostrum. “But that’s the role now that people across the generations remember him for.”
Wilder was retiring and private on the film’s Munich set, but he was also accessible. Ostrum grew to appreciate the actor’s willingness to do the unexpected. That ability to take risks was on display in two key scenes. When Wonka introduces Charlie and the other winners to a tour of his factory, he hobbles to the gate supported by a cane,only to abandon it and fall into a graceful somersault. None of the actors knew that Wilder was planning that kind of athletic entrance.
Nor were they prepped on Wonka’s memorably trippy speech to his guests as they take a boat trip down the chocolate river. In that scene, the stuff of childhood movie nightmares, the candymaker begins chanting verse with great intensity as the ship hurtles through the water. His menacing delivery took his co-stars by surprise.
“He was so quirky,” said Ostrum. “You never knew what to expect from Gene. He never let on how he was going to read a line or convey an expression. That’s why the film works, because he made Wonka so unpredictable.”
Ostrum said that when he first met Wilder the actor had seen dailies of his young co-star running around the streets of Munich delivering papers. He joked that he was tired of seeing him run around. As shooting progressed the two formed a bond. “They would break for lunch and Gene and I would always buy a chocolate bar and share it on the way back to the set,” remembered Ostrum.
Despite having a good experience making the movie, Ostrum never acted in another film. But he credits Wilder and Jack Albertson, the veteran character actor who played Charlie’s grandfather, with helping him hone his craft.
“To have made one film and to be associated with Jack and Gene, I feel like I really found the golden ticket,” he said.