Gene Wilder, who died yesterday at the age of 83, played a young Frankenstein, a nervous accountant, and "the world's greatest lover," but to a massive swath of children-at-heart he will always and forever be the original candy man, Willy Wonka.
As the Times noted of the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1964 children's novel Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory, Wilder's performance "was a master class of gradually shattering aplomb." The first time you see it you cannot imagine a man so delightful or so mad — emotionally or psychotically. It's a smooth, arresting, intense performance that was unmatched by Johnny Depp's turn as Wonka in Tim Burton's 2005 remake.
From the start Wilder gives Wonka a mysterious quality; he's impossible to read. As it turns out this was by design. Wilder wanted Wonka to appear fragile but in full control. There's one scene in particular towards the end of the film in which Wilder (as Wonka) tests Charlie and his grandfather and chides them for sneaking into a room and tasting a product not yet ready for public consumption. Wilder delivered an unforgettable metaphorical punch in the gut, bringing Dahl's mad hatter of a chocolatier into a shivering reality. The scene has the capacity to frighten children to this day. "You stole Fizzy-Lifting Drinks! You bumped into the ceiling, which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get ... nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!"
Moments later, he's done an emotional 180 and consoles the crestfallen Charlie. Wilder is out of breath and exuberant again; he's your cool, rich, candy-making uncle. And all he wants to do is make your candy-filled dreams come true.
Long live Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. Relive some of his most memorable scenes as a world class candy man below:
The Candy Man Can:
Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry:
The Augustus Gloop song:
Veruca Salt wants it now:
Charlie passes the test:
• Gene Wilder Dies at 83; Star of ‘Willy Wonka' and ‘Young Frankenstein' [NYT]
• Universal Studios Is Opening a Willy Wonka-esque Chocolate Factory Restaurant [E]