Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was my original favorite movie. Like every former child, I remember vividly the first time I saw it. My parents were out and the babysitter popped the VHS into the VCR. Hip to my apparently short attention span, she fast-forwarded through the boring bits—i.e. the first hour or so—picking it up just as we enter the marvelous candied fun house itself and meet its whimsical, bizarre, borderline psychotic chocolatier-in-chief.
The one particular thing that stands out from that initial Wonka experience is the ominous, psychedelic boat ride through the chocolate tunnel, during which a series of random, unnerving images flash across the screen as Wonka pleasantly sings, “There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction we are going.”
Did I say pleasantly? Sorry, I meant menacingly. Predatorily. Sadistically. By the time that short ride was over, I’m not sure whether I was more in need of a lollipop or a shrink.
Indeed, reflecting on it now, I realize my first impression of Gene Wilder was one of abject terror. His Willy Wonka—a character so idiosyncratic that not even Johnny Depp could handle him 34 years later—was the stuff of nightmares for six-year-old me. That Hollywood executives in 1971 thought a movie about a moody, enigmatic sociopath would be perfect for kids is a testament to the respect that the film industry used to have for children’s intelligence and sophistication. That Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory remains one of the most beloved of all films suggests there may be hope for the human race yet.
And it’s all thanks to Wilder, a thoroughly warm and decent man who, in Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s trippy book, created a candy magnate who is endlessly charismatic and charming even as he behaves like a shrieking, irrational tyrant, merrily skipping through the halls one minute while allowing his guests to float up into a giant fan the next.
In the few interviews he ever gave, Wilder explained that Wonka’s first appearance—a cane-aided limp followed by a somersault—serves as a metaphor for his entire persona. “From that time on,” said Wilder, “no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”
And we don’t, do we? I’ve seen his performance billions of times and I couldn’t tell you whether he’s on the level at any given moment. A slave-driving CEO by trade and a recluse by habit, he makes a point of not letting anyone know—until the very last moments of the film—what he’s really thinking. He’s a mystery wrapped in a chocolate bar.
It’s for that very singularity that Gene Wilder will forever be associated with Willy Wonka in the mind of everyone who was ever a frightened child. Just as Judy Garland never escaped the shadow of The Wizard of Oz, Wilder’s Wonka first appeared to us in our most vulnerable, impressionable period, branding our memories with a visceral, almost supernatural force that few movie characters are able to do.
If Willy Wonka is a signpost from my own adolescence—a bridge between innocence and guile—then Wilder’s other great leading role, as Frederick Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, carried me across that same chasm in an entirely different way.
By age 13, I had already watched Young Frankenstein more times that I could count and, if prodded, could recite entire scenes from memory. But as it happened, I decided to pop that particular disc into my DVD player on the evening of September 10, 2001. As ever, the next hundred-odd minutes were an embarrassment of comedic riches, from Igor (pronounced “eye-gore”) telling Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced “fronk-en-steen”) to “walk this way,” to Dr. Frankenstein getting crushed by a rotating bookcase (“Put…the candle…back”), to the good doctor not only creating a living, breathing monster from spare parts, but teaching him to sing and dance (and eventually, by accident, to rape and pillage).
I imagine I went to bed that night utterly carefree, with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Then I woke up the next morning and witnessed the world turned upside down.
Now, there’s no point drawing more symbolism than necessary from this arbitrary sequence of events. The September 11 attacks didn’t happen to me personally—although I lived close enough to see the billowing smoke from a nearby hilltop—and I can’t say my own life was changed as swiftly and dramatically as the nation’s as a whole.
Nevertheless, 9/11 was certainly eye-opening to a 13-year-old suburbanite who had never given any thought to concepts like terrorism and religious extremism and who probably couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map or explain how any of the above were related to each other. (Admittedly, some days I still can’t.)
And so—at this moment—I think it’s worth mentioning how I spent my final evening of relative ignorance about the real world—the world beyond my house, my family and my values—in the company of Gene Wilder, with all the frivolity and gleeful fright that comes with it. If 9/11 was the turning point in my generation’s conception of reality, it seems fitting that an actor who could so finely juggle the wonders of childhood with the cruelties of adulthood would happen to be in the forefront of my mind at the very moment I needed him the most.
The world needs him still. That he remains so beloved, despite having not made a single movie since 1991, suggests it was the depths of his humanity—not just the heights of his acting chops—that made him such a special part of our lives.
He was the man giving out golden tickets. Little did we know that the shiniest ticket of all was him.