Picture your childhood. Think of the movies you watched, the characters you aspired to be, and the memories you made with them. Think of that one movie you could watch over and over again, falling on the floor laughing every time, quoting the lines days after. Those movies were magical, holding the ability to wipe away tears, remedy an illness, and maybe, just maybe, tend a broken heart. The magic felt from these movies, though, wasn’t just from the movie, alone. The magic was created from the talent behind the screen. The magic was created by the passion that fueled the actors.
My movie was “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.”
In 1971, “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” came out and truly led viewers into a “world of pure imagination,” where Hansel and Gretel fantasies of edible houses and candy-filled daydreams became a reality. Originally a Roald Dahl children’s book, Mel Stuart brought Dahl’s imagination to screen, directing a colorful and quizzical rendition of what I believe to be, Gene Wilder’s greatest work. Wilder, playing the wild-eyed Willy Wonka, was the mastermind behind bringing this fantasy world to life, acting as the music maker and our own dreamer of dreams. Following the footsteps of his own quote from the movie, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it,” the world has been enormously changed by this infamous and dubious chocolatier. Bringing a much-needed depth and sarcasm to Willy Wonka, he stole the show with lines that were written for his jocose, yet subtle, sense of humor. When news broke that Gene Wilder, wild-eyed Willy Wonka, had passed at 83 from Alzheimer’s complications, I was gutted, feeling as though I’d lost part of that childhood magic.
Willy Wonka was never just a movie to me. It was an escape- into a world of excitement, fascination, and enchantment. It ignited imagination. Described by Willy Wonka, himself, “There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there, you’ll be free if you truly wish to be.” Which is exactly what this movie did for me. This movie was my pure imagination and Wilder made that possible.
Wilder wasn’t just known for his whimsical portrayal of Willy Wonka. “The Producers” was his first leading role in 1968 while Mel Brooks debuted his directing career. The two talented men went on to collaborate on many more projects, developing a close relationship. “Blazing Saddles,” a comedic western, got three Academy Award nominations with Wilder as its star and Brooks directing. It seemed Wilder had other talents than acting, too. His starring role in “Young Frankenstein” debuted his ability to write, co-writing the classic horror novel turned comedy with Brooks, once again, who considered this to be his best work yet.
Celebrities, colleagues, friends, and family took Twitter by storm after hearing the news. Mel Brooks being one of the first, of course, stating Wilder “blessed every film we did with his magic, and he blessed me with his friendship,” while Josh Groban noted him as “the wonderful, the weird, the pure imagination.” Original cast members had condolences, too. Denise Nickerson tweeting, “All of us have lost OUR Willy Wonka. Love, Violet” while Willy Wonka’s own Charlie Bucket, Peter Ostrum, explained in an article with Variety that losing Wilder is “like losing a parent” and “there will never be anyone like him again.” Social media is stirring with tributes and heartfelt messages to this comedic legend.
Leaving behind an obvious legacy, Wilder will be devastatingly missed. The only thing exceeding his fan admiration was his overwhelming talent, on and off-screen. In 2008, Wilder states, “I don’t like show business, I realized. I like show, but I don’t like business.” Well, the magic Wilder brought to the screen, movie after movie, year after year, emphasized his love for show, and we can’t thank him enough. For bringing laughter into our homes and smiles across our faces. For giving us an escape. For giving us a show.
In his memoir, he asks, “What do actors really want? To be great actors?” Answering with, “Yes, but you can’t buy talent, so it’s best to leave the word ‘great’ out of it. I think to be believed, onstage or onscreen, is the one hope that all actors have.” Although Wilder wasn’t a fan of the word ‘great,’ I think viewers, worldwide, can dub him one of the greatest of them all. So friends, family, and fans, alike, are thanking Gene Wilder for one hell of a show and hailing to our wild-eyed Willy Wonka, a heartwarming and emotional, “Good day, sir!”