“With his wavy orange mane and glazed fish-green eyes, Gene Wilder conveys a beguiling look of incipient madness. In his films to date, he has seemed always on the verge of lurching into some marvelously insane enterprise.”
The Time magazine writer who commenced his recent article with these words was unusually prescient. Gene Wilder has lurched into a marvelously insane enterprise. He has become the proprietor of a candy factory so incredible that it could only be fictitious — and, of course, it is.
Wilder plays the title role in Paramount Pictures’ David L Wolper Production of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which is the screen version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.”
Having had a meteoric rise to film stardom in “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Producers,” “Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx” and “Start the Revolution Without Me,” and receiving critical acclaim for his work (he was nominated for an Academy Award for “The Producers” and was hailed by Time Magazine as “a young Chaplin” for “Quackser Fortune.”) Wilder admittedly has become very selective about scripts.
When his agent called to arrange a meeting with the producers, Wilder was highly skeptical.
“I didn’t see myself doing a children’s story,” he admits.
However, at the meeting, he was immediately impressed with the enthusiasm of co-producers Wolper and Stan Margulies and director Mel Stuart. “I could see that the film was going to be made on the highest satirical level for children and adults.” Wilder recalls, “I would have to have imaginative and physical ideas for every scene.”
For the film fantasy, Wilder is also called upon to dance and sing. Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote six songs for the film and Wilder is called upon to sing “Pure Imagination” — a title, Wilder asserts, which perfectly describes every facet of “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.”
Wilder attended Washington High School in Milwaukee and earned his B.A. in theatre from the University of Iowa. After graduation in 1955, he joined the Bristol Old Vic in England. Greatly impressed by the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” starring Lee J Cobb, he returned home to Wisconsin where he organized a three-character adaptation of the drama. Later he played opposite Cobb in the CBS Television presentation of the play.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” in Technicolor, opened Wednesday, and stars Wilder, Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe, and introduces Peter Ostrum, a 13- year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, as Charlie Bucket, the “poor but honest” young hero. It features sets by Harper Goff and special effects by Logan Frazee. The musical supervisor was Walter Scharf, with choreography by Howard Jeffrey.