How many Willy Wonkas have there been? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory facts
Gene Wilder’s interpretation of the eccentric chief chocolatier and Oompa-Loompa boss is arguably the best known. But who were the other Willy Wonkas?
The best known and arguably best loved Willy Wonka was Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the maverick madcap chocolate entrepreneur in Mel Stuart’s 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which had been published seven years earlier.
Candidates for the role
Others had originally been considered for the role - including Fred Astaire, [Doctor Who star] Jon Pertwee and founding Goons member Spike Milligan, who was Dahl’s preferred choice to play Wonka. The author envisaged Wonka as the quintessential English eccentric, hatching the Golden Ticket stunt as a way of finding a suitable heir for his chocolate factory. Milligan and fellow Goon, Peter Sellers both auditioned for the part of Wonka but reportedly were a little too eccentric - to the point of weirdness…
In the end it was decided that Wilder, who was several years younger than all of the other chief candidates would be given the part. And while his portrayal might not have been how Dahl had originally conceived it, Wilder ended up bringing something unique to his representation of the quirky, chief chocolatier.
In 2002, Wilder told Larry King how he was offered the role: “I had read the book. And Mel Stuart, the director, came to my home in New York.. He said, ‘You wanna do it?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you, I will do it if I can come out, and all the crowd quiets down, and I am using a cane.’ Oh, my God. Willy Wonka is crippled. ‘And I walk slowly and you can hear a pin drop. And my cane gets stuck in a brick. And I fall forward onto my face and do a forward somersault and jump up, and they all start to applaud… because no one will know from that point on whether I am lying or telling the truth”.
Dahl had reservations about the film, the producer, the production company and even Wilder’s singular interpretation of Willy Wonka but other actors have played in the role during the past 50 years in adaptations for film, stage and radio of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Dark and dandy: Depp’s Wonka
Tim Burton directed a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005 with Johnny Depp bringing a slightly darker, dandy slant to the character of Willy Wonka. His performance of the oddball, Oompa-Loompa boss was well received by critics, and even earned him a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.
Even though the 1971 release remains a cult classic, Warner Bros made a move to ensure that there would be further adaptations after securing the rights to the intellectual property of the Willy Wonka character from the Roald Dahl estate in October 2016.
In 2023, Timothée Chalamet was cast in the lead role in the Warner Bros production Wonka, directed by Paul King. With a release date set for 6 December, Wonka hits the screens just in time for Christmas and has already attracted positive reviews. Variety’s Owen Glierberman described Chalamet’s performance as “deliriously infectious”.
The review concluded: “His chocolate passion is there but the kinks are gone and so is any trace of a dark side. Willy, a young man of about 25, arrives in London after seven years of sailing around the globe, during which he was scouring obscure lands for the rare delicacies that will give his candy its transcendent tastiness. He’s got his recipes and he’s got his look (long purple coat, vest, ascot, rumpled top hat). But most of all he’s got his dream: to lift up the world by bringing the wonder of his candy to everyone in it… It’s a trick to play someone this keen and innocent and eager and make him magnetically delightful, and Chalamet has the star charisma to bring it off.”