The ‘Willy Wonka’ Kids Remember Gene Wilder; Where Are They Now?

This week many are mourning the death of Gene Wilder, and as much as he would have liked to be known for other things, he will forever be remembered as Willy Wonka. It is well documented that Wilder was never really happy with his performance in the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but for many, they wouldn’t have it any other way, including the kids who played their roles beside him.

In 2011, those same kids, now in their 50’s, spoke to Bryan Reesman from MTV and told him what they thought of the actor. It was during the 40 year reunion of the film that Peter Ostrum said that he considered Gene Wilder a close friend and appreciated his help relating to Mel Stuart, the director of Willy Wonka movie.

“Both he and Jack Albertson (who played Grandpa Joe) were my mentors and helped guide me through the process,” said Ostrum who played Charlie Bucket in the film. “Listening to his take all of these years later, I understand Mel now, but he was difficult to work with. Both Gene and Jack guided me through the process, so I almost relied on them more than Mel.”

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Isn’t it strange how much Peter Ostrum (original Charlie Bucket) now looks like Grandpa Joe? <a href=”https://t.co/Lp0zBEJgTE”>pic.twitter.com/Lp0zBEJgTE</a></p>&mdash; Rich (@RichBigCheese) <a href=”https://twitter.com/RichBigCheese/status/770413116165238784″>August 30, 2016</a></blockquote>
<script async src=”//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

Ostrum was 12 years old when he played Charlie. His performance was so impressive, he was given a three-film contract, but he refused. He enjoyed his time working on the movie, but wasn’t really sure if the acting life was for him. During his senior year in high school, Ostrum took a film class and was inspired to try out for a number of other roles, including Broadway. With no luck, he pursued acting no more. In 1984, Ostrum received his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and now practices in Lowville, New York. For a time, Ostrum began to hide the fact that he had starred in the Willy Wonka film. He would tell people that it was his brother who played the part. Even his future wife Loretta did not know that he had acted before she met his mother. Earlier this week, Ostrum’s Wikipedia page stated that he had inherited Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Cast of Willy Wonka movie
Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) and Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket). (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Julie Dawn Cole, who played the spoiled Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka, says that Wilder was actually quite quiet on set.

“I think people thought he was going to be some zany, eccentric character the entire time, but he was normal. He was great. He was very kind and fun,” says Cole

After Willy Wonka, Cole played in the nurse trainee, Jo Longhurst, in the British show, Angels, appeared in numerous episodes of different TV series including Van Der Valk, Poldark and Tales of the Unexpected. She also appeared with Roger Moore in the 1975 comedy film, That Lucky Touch. In 2002, Cole developed the children’s acting drama school, Centrestage, served as a fitness advisor for the 2005 ITV series Fat Families and currently works as a psychotherapist. Perhaps the most interesting credit goes to her performance in the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe show, Willy Wonka Revisted: The Veruca Salt Sessions where she played a version of herself discussing her life dealing with fans of Veruca.

Paris Themmen who played Mike TeeVee saw a different side to Gene than the other kids.

“Gene Wilder was a great guy. The problem is that it was a one-way relationship,” says Themmen.

“The word on me as an 11-year-old was that I was very rambunctious. I was sort of the bratty younger brother, and for that reason, although I have very fond memories of Gene Wilder — he was a very gentle, talented, well-spoken person, albeit a little bit eccentric — I was in the way of getting his job done on a day-to-day basis. You’ll see footage of him disparaging me. On the DVD footage he says, ‘You know I love you now, but you were a handful.’ I met him three or four years ago at a Barnes & Noble where he was signing [a book], and I hadn’t seen him in years and years. I went up to him and said, ‘Hi, Mr. Wilder, it’s Paris Themmen, I played Mike Teevee many years ago.’ He said, ‘Oh, you were a brat.’ I said, ‘Yes, I understand, Gene, I know. I like to think that I’ve changed over the intervening 40 years.’ And he said, ‘Oh yes, yes, I’m sure you have.’ Basically the damage was done.”

Before playing in Willy Wonka, Themmen appeared in both radio and TV commercials as well as voiceover work and theater performances. After the movie, Themmen performed on Broadway with Ann Miller in Mame in 1967 and The Rothschilds in 1970. At age 14, Themmen refused any more acting roles so that he could concentrate on just being a kid. He later earned a BFA in theatre from New York University, founded Access International travel service for backpackers, sold real estate, worked in film production, commercial casting, became a business representative for Walt Disney Imagineering among other things. He still acts occasionally too, including appearing in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 2000.

Denise Nickerson is remembered for playing Violet Beauregarde, who turned into a giant blueberry. She remembers Gene as “spectacular and the antithesis of what you see on film. He was very quiet and soft-spoken, and when he did the Wonkatania and first did the song, there was no acting involved. This guy was a crackerjack. He was shy and one of the kindest people, totally opposite of what you’d expect.”

Before Willy Wonka, Nickerson was an active child actor who began making appearance in bit roles for shows like The Doctors. From 1968-1970, she appeared as both Amy Jennings and Nora Collins on Dark Shadows. In 1971, in addition to playing Violet, she was also cast in the musical, Lolita My Love which closed early. After Willy Wonka, she appeared as Allison on the PBS show, The Electric Company as part of the Short Circus music team. She later appeared twice as Peter’s date on The Brady Bunch and even auditioned to play the role Regan, the demon-possessed girl in the movie The Exorcist, but her parents pulled her from the auditions after they got a good look at the script. Nickerson appeared on the CBS soap opera Search for Tomorrow as Liza Walton and she appeared with Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole in the beauty pageant movie Smile in 1975. In 1978, Nickerson turned 21 and decided to leave acting altogether to become a nurse.

And what about Augustus Gloop? He was played by Michael Bollner, who was born and raised in Germany and did not speak English when he joined the cast of Willy Wonka. Boller had to have a crew member coach him on his lines during the filming.

Willy Wonka is really Bollner’s only acting credit, as his father forced him to quit acting after the movie wrapped up. Today, he serves successfully as a tax attorney in Munich.

[Photo by Cindy Ord / Getty Images]