Today in Shattered Dreams: Gene Wilder Hated Being Willy Wonka

Wilder actually feared the role would stifle his legacy.

by Raz Robinson
Originally Published: 

The author of Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, a biography about the legendary comedic actor and director probably just broke hearts all over America when he revealed in a recent interview that Wilder actually hated playing Willy Wonka in the beloved film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. It was easily a far cry from the more brazen comedic stylings of Wilder’s muse, director Mel Brooks, and Brian Scott Mednick, the author, noted that Wilder would often butt heads with the film’s director Mel Stuart. Wilder would have actually rather have been remembered for his role as the grandson of Victor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, tells the story of an impoverished boy named Charlie who wins a golden ticket that allows him to take a trip to Willy Wonka’s candy factory. Though the movie was far from a huge success when it came out in 1971, the film became exceedingly popular in the years after its release, largely thanks to home video sales and television views. As of right now, the film still has a 91 percent of Rotten Tomatoes. Despite the status of the film, Wilder feared it would overshadow his other work.

“He gave an interview once where he said he did not want his gravestone to say, ‘Here lies Willy Wonka,’ yet ironically he did not have much choice about his legacy,” said Mednick. “When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else. Gene wanted to be most remembered for [1974’s] ‘Young Frankenstein.’”

According to Mednick, Wilder actually didn’t object to playing the titular role, and he didn’t object to how Stuart treated him personally either. Most of Wilder’s gripes were related to Stuart’s mistreatment of everyone else on set. According to Mednick, Wilder called Stuart “a maniac who yelled at everyone,” and created an awful work environment. It was far from his favorite film in general as well. According to Mednick, Wilder would have actually rather have been remembered for his role as the grandson of Victor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein.

Despite this, Wilder was pleased with a lot of his work moving forward, especially when it came to working with director Mel Brooks. The two worked together on Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers. Even though they didn’t see each other nearly as often by the time both of their careers were in full bloom, Brooks still has nothing but good things to say about the late Wilder, and it seems like just about everyone else does as well.

“There was the constant theme among everyone I interviewed,” said Mednick in an interview with Woman’s World. “It got to the point that I was wishing for one person to call him a jerk and say that he poisoned pigeons in the park or something. I mean, I wanted to sell some books here! But his colleagues found working with him to be among the highlights of their career.”

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