Denise Nickerson was best known for her role as gum-chewing brat Violet Beauregarde in the movie, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but the actress — who passed away July 10 at age 62 following complications from a stroke and seizure — had a successful small screen career both before and after the 1971 Gene Wilder film.
After kicking off her career with a small guest spot on a 1965 episode of Flipper, Nickerson got her first big acting break in 1968 when she was just 11-years-old. Nickerson played Amy Jennings and Nora Collins on the gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, according to IMDB. Nickerson and her co-star, David Henesy, were at the center of a popular storyline inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, in which the siblings were possessed by a ghost named Quentin Collins (David Selby).
In a 2010 interview with Media Mikes, Nickerson revealed that she used to get “mobbed” by fans every day while coming out of the New York City studio after shooting the ABC soap. She also juggled multiple acting jobs and her schoolwork.
“I was also doing a Broadway show at night so I was getting up at five in the morning, going to the studio and doing Dark Shadows,” the actress said. “I’d get off at four, go home and eat dinner, then go to the theater. I was getting home every night around eleven. And my schooling was all through correspondence.”
Nickerson’s rotating roles on Dark Shadows made her a fan favorite on the convention circuit.
Nickerson’s breakout role in Willy Wonka came in 1971, and it paved the way for another long-running TV role on the PBS children’s television series, The Electric Company, the “older” version of Sesame Street that also featured Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno.
In 1972, fresh off her Wonka fame, Nickerson replaced future Flashdance singer Irene Cara in the second season of The Electric Company to play Allison, one of the members of the singing group, the Short Circus, per MeTV.
In another memorable TV role in 1974, Nickerson turned up as one of Peter Brady’s (Christopher Knight) dates on the ABC sitcom, The Brady Bunch. Nickerson played Pamela Phillips, Mike Brady’s (Robert Reed) boss’s daughter, in the episode “Two Petes in a Pod.” Knight played a dual role as Peter Brady and his lookalike, a new kid in town named Arthur, while Nickerson was one of two dates he juggled on the night of a costume party.
Denise Nickerson also logged acting credits on Search for Tomorrow, Owen Marshall Counselor at Law, The Magical World of Disney, and several TV movies in the 1970s. Nickerson’s final acting role came when she was 21-years-old in Don Weis’ 1978 film, Zero To Sixty, opposite Darren McGavin and Sylvia Miles.
When asked why her acting career slowed down so much in her teens, Nickerson blamed it on her move from New York to California when she was 16. Nickerson told Media Mikes the West Coast relocation was “the worse career move” she ever made because casting directors hired 18-year-olds for teen roles instead of her due to child labor laws.
“In New York, there weren’t any of the Jackie Coogan/Child Labor laws at the time, so I was able to do soaps during the day, Broadway at night and I was able to work 18 hours a day. But when I moved to California the law there said I had to do four hours of school work, then four hours of work. So at 16 they were hiring the 18-year-olds. It was really a bad career move. So I kind of limped along.”
Denise Nickerson was just 11 years old when she joined the cast of Dark Shadows in 1968. https://t.co/8cBp7TqrRe
— MeTV (@MeTV) July 11, 2019
Nickerson also noted that the average “life” of a television actress back then was about 10 years, and she revealed that due to the lack of New York labor laws, her parents squandered all of the money she made during her decade-long career.
“And it was a lot,” Nickerson said. “In a slow year like 1966 I made $46,000. But all of my money was gone.”