Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Film

Read Gene Wilder's handwritten letter about 'Willy Wonka'

The iconic role of Willy Wonka has been interpreted in very different ways by multiple actors. While Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp had their own unique approaches to Roald Dahl’s unforgettable creation, it is Timothée Chalamet who is set to take the role into a new era since he will star as the titular character in Paul King’s upcoming film Wonka.

Many are already looking forward to Chalamet’s spin on Willy Wonka but some fans still insist that Gene Wilder was the perfect actor to play the role. Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a bonafide classic, featuring Wilder in one of the most recognisable roles of his oeuvre which had a definitive impact on his career.

Although the film was initially marketed as an experience meant for children, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory transcended those self-imposed limits. Roald Dahl was not satisfied with the casting of Wilder and preferred someone like Spike Milligan but the combination of the surreal vision of the film and the extraordinary screen presence of Gene Wilder created something truly magical.

When signing onto the project, Wilder had a very specific condition. He wanted his first appearance to be special in order to keep the audience guessing about fact and fiction. In order to do so, Wilder envisioned himself entering with a cane and faking a limp before showing the audience that he was perfectly capable of deception.

Wilder explained: “As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realise that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

Stuart was very confused about this particular detail but Wilder told him why he thought it was crucial: “From that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” The director offered the role to Wilder in 1970 and he was very involved in shaping the psychology of the character as well as Willy Wonka’s unique physical appearance.

In a letter to Stuart, Wilder explained why some of the initial details of the costume meant for Willy Wonka was not what he wanted. While the team had conceptualised the character as an anachronistic presence, Wilder insisted that Wonka was a mysterious eccentric whose entire personality was shrouded by a thick veil of delightful ambiguity.

Read the handwritten letter below.

“Dear Mel

I’ve just received the costume sketches. I’ll tell you everything I think, without censoring, and you take from my opinion what you like.

I assume that the designer took his impressions from the book and didn’t know, naturally, who would be playing Willy. And I think, for a character in general, they’re lovely sketches.

I love the main thing — the velvet jacket — and I mean to show by my sketch the exact same color. But I’ve added two large pockets to take away from the svelt, feminine line. (Also in case of a few props.)

I also think the vest is both appropriate and lovely.

And I love the same white, flowing shirt and the white gloves. Also the lighter colored inner silk lining of the jacket.

What I don’t like is the precise pin pointing in place and time as this costume does.

I don’t think of Willy as an eccentric who holds on to his 1912 Dandy’s Sunday suit and wears it in 1970, but rather as just an eccentric — where there’s no telling what he’ll do or where he ever found his get-up — except that it strangely fits him: Part of this world, part of another. A vain man who knows colors that suit him, yet, with all the oddity, has strangely good taste. Something mysterious, yet undefined.

I’m not a ballet master who skips along with little mincy steps. So, as you see, I’ve suggested ditching the Robert Helpmann trousers. Jodhpurs to me belong more to the dancing master. But once elegant now almost baggy trousers — baggy through preoccupation with more important things — is character.

Slime green trousers are icky. But sand colored trousers are just as unobtrusive for your camera, but tasteful.

The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.

Also a light blue felt hat-band to match with the same light blue fluffy bow tie shows a man who knows how to compliment his blue eyes.

To match the shoes with the jacket is fey. To match the shoes with the hat is taste.

Hope all is well. Talk to you soon.

All my best,
Gene.”

(Credit: Letters of Note)

Follow Far Out Magazine across our social channels, on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.