This Letter Gene Wilder Wrote To 'Willy Wonka' Director Mel Stuart Shows Who The Actor Truly Was
The late great screen comedian Gene Wilder, who passed away this Monday at the age of 83, crafted an impressive number of iconic roles over the course of his storied career. There's panicky accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers, boozy gunslinger The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, and the eccentric Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. But the character he'll always be best known for is undoubtedly the enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka. From the factory owner's unforgettable entrance to his ditty about the wonders of imagination, Wilder's performance in 1971's Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is the stuff of cinema legend. And a letter Gene Wilder wrote to Willy Wonka director Mel Stuart reveals just how involved the actor was in the crafting of the character — not just in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well.
Wilder penned the note on July 23, 1970, as production was about to commence on the soon-to-be-classic children's movie. In it, the actor critiques the costume designer's sketch of Willy Wonka, offering his own opinion on what the designer should change and how the character should ultimately look:
As you can see, Wilder got many of his requests fulfilled, including the sand-colored trousers and the tasteful matching of the hat and shoes. Coming from someone else, such a long list of criticisms might have come across as harsh or — at the very least — presumptuous. (Remember, Willy Wonka was only Wilder's fifth feature film following a bit part in Bonnie And Clyde, his star-making turn in The Producers, and two now-obscure comedies.) But Wilder's passion for the film comes across in every word of his letter. It's clear he understood the character and wanted to create the best possible version of Willy Wonka in order to withstand the test of time. Mission accomplished, I'd say.
The specificity of Wilder's vision is exactly what made him such an iconic actor. He didn't just memorize his lines and come up with a few quirky ideas for his performance; he knew the character inside-out. They say that comedy is all about timing. But Wilder this letter makes it clear that Wilder brought that sense of masterful precision to every aspect of his work — not just for landing punchlines, but for creating a memorable character from the ground up… including his clothes.
That's precisely why, according to The Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg, "Most comic actors can go a career searching for a single iconic role. Gene Wilder had somewhere in the neighborhood of 10."
Images: Paramount Pictures (2)