Wilder had not starred in a movie in decades and yet, he remained unforgettable. He is known for his brilliant comic collaborations with Mel Brooks in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Young Frankenstein.” But perhaps his most iconic role is as chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
In the movie, he sings, dances, and enjoys watching bratty children be turned into blueberries and tumble down garbage chutes.
When Willy Wonka first greets the chocolate factory tour group, he stumbles out with a limp. Nobody has seen him in years and nobody can tell if it is real or not. Just as it looks like he is about to collapse, he suddenly does a somersault:
This memorable moment, which says so much about the character, was put in at Wilder’s insistence. In a 2013 interview at 92nd Street Y, Wilder said that Mel Stuart asked him what he thought of the script.
“I said, ‘It’s very good but there’s something missing,'” Wilder recounted. “If I play that part, I want to come out with a cane and there’s something wrong with my leg and come down the stairs slowly and then have the cane stick into one of the bricks that are down there and then get up, start to fall over, then roll around and then they all laugh and applaud.”
Wilder had a perfectly good explanation for this one condition of taking the role: it would throw off both the audience, and the characters.
“I knew that from that time on no one would know if I was lying or telling the truth,” Wilder explained.
It’s almost always impossible to tell what Wonka’s true motivations are throughout the film. The added bit helped make the character darker and more mysterious.
This worked perfectly, and makes it impossible to know throughout the whole film whether or not we should trust Mr. Wonka, who sometimes seems like a sociopath, and sometimes seems like a man with a real heart. It’s one of the underappreciated pieces of genius of this great performance.
It was Wilder’s unpredictability that made him a comedic force of nature throughout his career.
Watch the full clip below:
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