While I don’t remember exactly when I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the first time, I’m fairly certain I was of an age where the concept of time didn’t quite hold the meaning that it does in my adult life. I do remember that sitting down to watch it wasn’t a planned event. The movie was one that just happened to air on some local television channel during a weekend afternoon and I settled in to watch, commercial breaks and all. I also very clearly remember what happened next: I was transfixed, delighted and transformed, first by simply the story but ultimately by Mr. Willy Wonka himself.
The star and legend of the film, Gene Wilder passed away Sunday at the age of 83 after a private battle with Alzheimer’s. For those who consider themselves fans of Wilder, the news of his passing seemed sudden and just another cruel loss in a year so full of the deaths of so many beloved artists. It’s another unexpected loss of a little bit of light in this world and a whole lot of laughter. In honor and memory of Gene Wilder, we share four life lessons he gave the world through his work.
“Demons” don’t have to hold you back
As a young man, Wilder developed an obsession with praying that he called “The Demon” and eventually became so intense that it interrupted his life. The only relief Wilder found from “The Demon” was through acting. And while Wilder would eventually be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and receive treatment for the illness, acting remained a part of his life and brought him great success.
Your ideas matter (and can make a big difference)
When Mel Stuart approached Wilder to play Willy Wonka, Wilder had only one condition. That condition was the specific entrance of Wonka, starting out as a limping man only to finish in a flamboyant somersault. Why? Wilder wanted to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not Wonka was lying. This simple idea changed the tone of the movie, arguably for the better.
You can do more than one thing
Most people know Wilder as an actor, but he was also a writer. During his life, Wilder wrote on several of the films he worked on, most notably Young Frankenstein. He also authored several books, including the novel The Woman Who Wouldn’t. Wilder was able to use his talents in more than one medium and was successful at both.
One of the most consistent things said about Wilder is that he was kind. Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, told Variety that Wilder “was a gentle man, but he was also a gentleman. He treated people with respect and dignity.” This treatment of others with respect and dignity even extended to the end of his life. Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, told NPR that he had kept his illness a secret so children wouldn’t connect the sadness of illness to the joy that his portrayal of Willy Wonka brought. “He could not bear to be responsible for one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said.
What was your favorite Gene Wilder role? Did you learn a life lesson from his work? Please share your memories in the comments.
This month, tune into TCM as the network honors Wilder on Sept. 29, starting at 8 p.m. ET with four films and an interview with Alec Baldwin from 2008, called “Role Model.” Check your local listings.