Gene Wilder was behind one of the most classic scenes from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder played the part of Willy Wonka in the beloved first big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The movie was a modest success at the box office, but it soon became a cult phenomenon, while going on to be included for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In an interview from 2004, Gene Wilder spoke about being approached for the part of Willy Wonka and his mindset going into it. As it turns out, Wilder was already imagining the best way to pull off the eccentric character and presented an idea to director Mel Stuart after reading Roald Dahl’s source material. His idea became one of the most memorable parts of a very memorable movie.
“I was offered the part. I read the [Roald Dahl] book. And Mel Stuart, the director, came to my home in New York. He said, ‘You wanna do it?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, I will do it if I can come out, and all the crowd quiets down, and I am using a cane.’ Oh, my God. Willy Wonka is crippled. ‘And I walk slowly and you can hear a pin drop. And my cane gets stuck in a brick. And I fall forward onto my face and do a forward somersault and jump up, and they all start to applaud.'”
As it turns out, Gene Wilder’s explanation about the introduction of Willy Wonka confused Mel Stuart, but it displayed just how well the actor had the character figured out. When Stuart asked about the deception, Wilder replied, “‘because no one will know from that point on whether I am lying or telling the truth,'” which is a fundamental piece of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The director then asked, “Are you saying you won’t do that film if you can’t do that?” to which Wilder replied “That’s what I’m saying. And I meant it.”
The interview with Gene Wilder originally took place in 2002 with Larry King. Today, June 11th, would have been the actor’s 87th birthday. He sadly passed away in 2016 after a three-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder had a number of other very notable roles throughout his long career.
Gene Wilder partnered with Mel Brooks for a string of legendary comedies including The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, where he was also allowed to ad-lib and come up with gold. The entire Transylvania Station scene in Young Frankenstein was reportedly all his idea. When letting Wilder come on to a set, it sounds like it was best to follow his lead. You can check out the entire 2002 interview with Gene Wilder above, thanks to the CNN YouTube channel.