Gene Wilder in 'Willy Wonka' Was My Childhood -- & Probably Yours, Too

 

I still remember the feeling I got when the opening credits for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory started rolling. I had a fluttering in my chest when I saw that oversaturated Technicolor yellow listing the credits, with unbelievably happy music blaring and -- perhaps the best thing of all for a kid with a sweet tooth -- image after glorious image of chocolates and candies being made.

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And then there was the first time seeing Gene Wilder in the film, limping down the steps of his infamously enigmatic factory, only for him to fall into a perfect somersault, his cane and top hat magically staying in place. As a kid of the '80s, I was hooked. This was physical comedy, but totally nuanced, too.

Wilder said in a 2013 interview with the Daily Beast that the physical comedy was his idea. "I thought the script was very good, but something was missing," he said. "I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, 'What do you want to do that for?' I said because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."

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When I heard Wilder died yesterday at the age of 83 from Alzheimer's complications, I -- like pretty much everyone else -- was gutted. Wilder was unique in the fact that his face, probably more than that of any other star from the '60s, '70s, and '80s, was pasted in our collective memory as the man in the velvet jacket who had a love of Shakespeare, Mozart, and torturing evil little kids.

There's something so perfect about Wilder's performance in the 1971 film. It's totally hilarious, but also a bit unhinged. Let's remember, shall we, that creepy ferry ride on the chocolate river that is more like a bad acid trip than anything else.

Or the actual horror once you realize that a little German boy was being whooshed to a fudge-making room or that a little rich girl might be incinerated with a bunch of rotten goose eggs while you continue your tour of a candy factory. 

And watching all of that as a kid, before The Hunger Games or even Harry Potter was A Thing, gave me a strangely grown-up understanding of the world without the gut-lurching dystopic feel. Sometimes, there were just Augustus Gloops or Veruca Salts in your life, and in the world of Wonka -- and Roald Dahl, the genius behind the slightly sinister book -- bad kids got what was coming to them.

IRL, that sadly didn't mean your enemies were turned into giant blueberries, but it taught, in a weird sort of way, that karma is a bitch. That, of course, was cleverly sandwiched between all of the chocolate, cakes, Fizzy Lifting Drink, and Everlasting Gobstoppers.

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Wilder made Wonka a moralistic man without making him feel preachy the way, say, the dad from 7th Heaven did. The gist of it was simple, even for kids to understand -- if you're an upstanding, true-hearted, cabbage-eating child, you get everything you've ever dreamed of, before maybe dying in a freak Wonkavator accident with your grandpa Joe.

Or, in the words of Wonka: "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There's nothing to it."

So, today I say good-bye to this huge part of my childhood, and remember a truly talented actor who brought so much joy -- and sweets -- into my life.

 

Images via Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Mirrorpix/Splash News

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