Immortalized in film, TV shows, and memes, the late, great Gene Wilder’s lead in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps his best-remembered performance. Wilder died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2016, but his legendary imaging of the Roald Dahl character still captures audiences to this day.
Here are some surprising facts about Wilder and his portrayal of the inimitable candyman.
1. Making Willy Wonka Wasn’t as Fun as You’d Imagine.
Willy Wonka is a lighthearted romp of a movie, but filming it wasn’t. Director Mel Stuart was “a maniac who yelled at everyone” (aside from him), according to Wilder. After Wonka, Gene never worked on another movie with Mel Stuart.
2. Wilder Didn’t Like Playing Willy Wonka.
Despite the movie’s popularity, Wilder didn’t like playing Wonka. He would have preferred to be remembered for Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, according to Brian Mednick. Speaking with Fatherly, Mednick recalled, “He gave an interview once where he said he did not want his gravestone to say, ‘Here lies Willy Wonka,’ yet ironically he did not have much choice about his legacy,” said Mednick. “When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else. Gene wanted to be most remembered for [1974’s] ‘Young Frankenstein.’”
3. Wilder was a Reluctant Star.
In fact, Gene Wilder never liked Hollywood on the whole, according to a Larry King interview—despite his laundry list of great comedic roles. Some of his other notables include Blazing Saddles, Leo Bloom in The Producers, Silver Streak, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Too Afraid to Ask), The Woman in Red, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Another You, and Bonnie and Clyde.
4. The Somersault Stunt was Wilder’s Idea.
The first time we see Wonka, he’s limping with a cane. Then he free-falls forward—only to recover in a sprightly somersault to applause from Charlie Bucket and others. Wilder said he insisted on doing the move because “no one will know from that point on whether I am lying.”
5. Wilder Ate Pretend Wax Candy for the Role.
The chocolate river contained real chocolate, but most of the “candy” scenery was inedible. During the song “Pure Imagination”, Wilder takes a chomp out of the flower cup and chews pure wax.
6. “Gene Wilder” Isn’t His Birth Name.
It was actually Jerry Silberman. Wilder revealed his true name on the Merv Griffin show in 1979. During the show, Griffin asked Wilder, “do you know Gene Wilder very well, I mean, do you know that man?” Gene responded, “I know him a lot better now than I used to. I was Jerry Silberman, and I think I wanted to be someone else.”
7. Roald Dahl Hated Wilder as Wonka.
Roald Dahl, the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reportedly hated Gene’s performance, which he called “insufficiently gay.” According to Daniel Sturrock’s biography Storyteller, who was a friend of the late Dahl’s friend, “Roald eventually came to tolerate the film, acknowledging that were ‘many good things’ in it, but he never liked it… He had serious reservations about Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka, which he thought ‘pretentious’ and insufficiently ‘gay [in the old-fashioned sense of the word] and bouncy’.”
8. Gene Hated the Tim Burton version.
For his part, Wilder hated the remake featuring Johnny Depp, calling it “an insult.” Wilder stated, “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director [Tim Burton]. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.”
9. Wilder Never Won an Oscar.
Wilder won several awards, including a PrimeTime Emmy for his cameo in the NBC sitcom Will & Grace—the last on-screen performance of his life. But he never won an Oscar for Willy Wonka or any other role, despite his indisputable spot in comedy history.
10. Willy Wonka was a Box-Office Flop.
There were no golden ticket sales for Willy Wonka’s 1971 release—though it’s considered a classic today, it made a mediocre $4.5 million (with a budget of $3 million) in box office sales.