How Gene Wilder made 'Willy Wonka' so memorable

Gene Wilder starred in the popular 1971 movie musical as a mysterious candy maker. The role became one of his most famous. What's behind the lasting appeal of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'?

Jessica Hill/AP/File
Gene Wilder listens as he is introduced to receive the Governor's Awards for Excellence in Culture and Tourism at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., on April 9, 2008. Wilder, who starred in such film classics as 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' and 'Young Frankenstein' has died.

Actor Gene Wilder, who died Aug. 28, starred in various comedy movies that have become famous over the decades, including "Young Frankenstein," "The Producers," and "Blazing Saddles." But it was a movie based on a children's book that became one of the late actor's most memorable roles. 

Wilder starred as the title role in the 1971 musical fantasy "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," which tells the story of a young boy, Charlie (Peter Ostrum), who goes on a tour of a mysterious candy factory which is led by an unusual entrepreneur (Wilder). The film also stars Jack Albertson.

What has kept the "Wonka" movie so present in the public’s imagination over the decades? 

In addition to Wilder's charismatic depiction of Willy Wonka, a large part of the film's lasting success can be attributed to the imaginative genius of Roald Dahl, whose novel, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," inspired the 1971 film. Children throughout the generations who have connected with Dahl's book have likely seen the movie, too, Lucy Mangan of The Independent wrote on the novel's 50th anniversary in 2014.

"The language and the tropes of Roald Dahl's 50-year-old book are now firmly embedded in our culture," Ms. Mangan writes. "Some of this can be attributed to the unusual and privileged position children's books hold in our lives. The experiences we share in childhood – the books we read, the TV programmes we watch and, indeed, the sweets we eat – later become rare moments of connection between strangers, and within and among generations." 

The story's longevity found new life on screen in 2005 under the direction of Tim Burton. The 2005 remake used Dahl's title for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and starred Johnny Depp as a darkly eccentric Willy Wonka. 

But in anticipation of the star-studded 2005 remake, Los Angeles Times writer John Horn credited Wilder himself for making the film popular, describing Wilder as "a mercurial Wonka." Even Mr. Depp acknowledged that Wilder's lasting stamp on Dahl's character presented a challenge in finding a fresh perspective on Willy Wonka.

"Regardless of what one thinks of that film, Gene Wilder's persona, his character, stands out," Johnny Depp said to the Los Angeles Times in an interview with Horn on the set of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "It was brilliant but subtle.... Those are big shoes."

While Depp's portrayal did succeed in finding new dimensions for Willy Wonka, it is Wilder's character that created "a cult film whose audiences continue to grow with the passing years," writes Jeff Stafford of Turner Classic Movies.

"Probably the single most compelling aspect of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' is Gene Wilder's enigmatic performance," Mr. Stafford writes.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to How Gene Wilder made 'Willy Wonka' so memorable
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today