28 Things You Probably Never Knew About Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory
If there’s one thing that you always knew for certain, it was that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would be on TV at least twice during the summer holidays when we were growing up. No matter how many times we saw this timeless and classic film, we still couldn’t afford to miss seeing it again when it was on. Whenever this is on TV, it still immediately brings back childhood memories, so let’s take a look back at this great film with some facts about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory you may not have known.
28. Gene Wilder took the part on one condition
Arguably, Gene Wilder’s take on the iconic character of Willy Wonka has become more famous over time than the character or the book itself.
This is despite the fact that many were initially doubtful about Wilder’s ability to play the part, among them the author of the book Roald Dahl himself.
Wilder was also sceptical, believing that he couldn’t play a straightforwardly happy-go-lucky character.
As a compromise, since Wilder loved some aspects of the part and the casting directors loved him, he agreed to play Wonka if and only if he was allowed to make some changes.
Chief amongst those changes was that he wanted the ability to decide his own entrance into the movie, which he kept secret from the cast and only spilled to the director.
More specifically, it was Wilder’s idea to limp towards the camera as if he was a frail old man, before slowly leaving his cane behind and toppling into a spectacular somersault.
27. There was a reason for this
This might seem like a truly random idea for a scene in the first place, let alone one important enough to demand it will be in the movie or won’t be.
The truth is though, the scene communicated something super important about Wilder’s version of the character.
To put it simply, Wilder had read the script and noticed there were several points where it wasn’t immediately obvious whether Wonka was just going with the flow of a situation, or truly in control the whole time.
He really liked that ambiguity, but wanted to make it obvious to the audience that Wonka was the kind of character who could be kind, but who also could lie to the children without a second thought.
Basically, appearing to limp when in fact he was capable of doing flips and landing the right way up was supposed to signal that he could be lying at any moment – and it definitely worked.
26. The other actors thought Wilder had genuinely hurt himself
Another condition of Wilder’s iconic opening scene was that it had to be kept completely secret from the cast, and was only known about by a select few people on set.
It also helped that Wilder was already such an iconic and revered actor, so seeing him walk out of the chocolate factory was just as mysterious as seeing Wonka himself.
That meant that the anticipation was just as high, and seeing him slowly limp was just as confusing and disappointing as the characters think Wonka is being.
Several in the cast thought he was just making a weird acting choice, while others thought he genuinely might just be limping.
In fact, one child actor was so convinced that he was injured that she was waiting for the director to call cut, in order to tell them all that filming was delayed until Wilder had recovered.
25. The kids’ reactions upon seeing the candy gardens are real
Any kid who has read the book will say that one scene in particular made them wish the chocolate factory was real, and that’s the scene where the children first enter the sweet room.
The sweet room is a room where literally everything is edible, from the trees and the grass to the tree bark, plates and cups.
While not everything in the movie’s version of the sweet room could actually be eaten in real-life, it was still the most anticipated scene to film from the perspective of the kids.
The set-dressing was elaborate and included many genuinely edible items, and was kept totally secret from the kids in order to increase their excitement about seeing it.
All of this was to ensure that their reactions were real when they finally saw the room, in order for it to seem totally overwhelming and authentic, just as it was in the book.
24. Grandpa George actor Ernst Ziegler really was near-blind for a tragic reason
Ernst Ziegler doesn’t have a super extensive film career, having only appeared in less than five projects in his entire life.
Four of those projects were in 1970 and 1971, when the actor was already in his mid-seventies.
Though he didn’t have a super long entertainment life, he did have a very interesting real life, which included living in West Berlin when the two were still divided, and fighting for the Germans in World War One.
It was this fighting that ruined his eyesight for life, as poison gas on the front lines caused him to become within an inch of legally blind.
In order to get around this problem, the director would shine a red light in the direction he should be looking, and kept his on-screen dialogue to a minimum.
23. Only one of the songs was written by Roald Dahl himself
One aspect that people tend to forget about the Wilder adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that Roald Dahl was very much alive at the time it was being made, and was even involved with production.
He actually wrote the first draft of the screenplay, although several alterations were made by the other directors and higher-ups.
Part of the story that Dahl emphasised was the songs, which appeared in both the script for the movie and the original book.
The songs were based on each of the child’s vices, as well as foreshadowing the personality flaws and problems that caused them to be kicked out of the factory.
However, despite this extensive song list appearing in Dahl’s writing, the only lyrics taken directly from Dahl to appear in the movie are the ones sung in the terrifying boat tunnel scene.
22. The cast thought Wilder was going mad for real in the tunnel scene
The tunnel scene does appear in the book, as well as being present in both adaptations of the movie, but the most infamous one of all is in Wilder’s version of the film.
The scene where the actors go through a hellish tunnel in a candy boat, and are treated to nonsense songs and gross horror-movie imagery being projected on the walls, is one of the all-time scariest scenes to appear in a kid’s movie.
Most of what makes it so scary is Gene Wilder’s own acting, where he seems to be completely in his own little world, and even kind of unaware of the chaos going on around him.
He slowly ramps up the terror, going from quietly singing to yelling in a maddening voice, seeming to enjoy how freaked out everybody else is getting.
His acting was so convincing that one actress, the girl playing Veruca Salt, was convinced that she was watching Wilder become unhinged in real-time.
21. The Chocolate River was real
We’ve already discussed that the sweet room is the most iconic part of both the book and the movie, and there’s no argument about what the most exciting part of the sweet room is.
More than the ever-lasting gobstopper, the fizzy lifting drinks or even the great glass elevator, the chocolate river is the most memorable and delightful image from the whole of the movie.
Obviously, with it being such an important image, it was important to get it right, and that meant making it as close to totally real as possible.
The river wasn’t pure melted chocolate, like it was in the book, but was instead largely water (150,000 gallons), but also did contain chocolate and cream to give it the right colour and consistency needed for the film.
It was this mixture that the actor playing Augustus Gloop genuinely had to drink from, and then later swim through.
20. The river made the set smell terrible
Filming around a giant river made of chocolate may sound like a dream come true, but by the end of shooting it was actually way closer to a nightmare.
The mixture was made of perishable ingredients like milk and cream after all, and while more ingredients were added over the shooting schedule, it was impossible to separate out the older ones.
That meant that over the long amount of time, the standing mixture started to spoil, to the point where the cast was given strict instructions not to consume any of it.
Not only that, but it actually spoiled and curdled way quicker than it should have, thanks to the hot lights and many windows of the studio.
By the end of shooting, the room smelled so bad that absolutely no-one wanted to go in it or near it.
19. Wilder was not allowed to forewarn Peter Ostrum that the character would get angry at him
One of the most memorable scenes in the Wilder adaptation comes towards the end, when Willy Wonka yells at Charlie and his grandpa from stealing fizzy lifting drinks.
It’s a tragic scene, because you know that Charlie is a genuinely good kid, but you still have to watch his happy ending be (temporarily) taken away.
What makes this even worse is that Gene Wilder knew what this scene would contain, and knew he would have to yell at Charlie in order for it to have any emotional weight.
However, he was forbidden from telling Peter Ostrum (the actor playing Charlie) what was about to happen, as the director wanted his shocked reaction to be authentic.
The result is an awesome and deeply powerful scene, but harder to watch when you realise Ostrum’s heart-broken face is real.
18. Wilder and Ostrum became friends on-set
Wilder surprising Ostrum by yelling at him would be pretty sad and awkward no matter the situation, but it’s even worse when you realise they were genuine friends.
Wilder didn’t become super close with all the child actors on set, but him and Ostrum were in a lot of scenes with just the two of them, and they became friends as a result.
Part of it was that Ostrum was quite a shy kid, and needed to learn how to be more warm and open as a character.
Wilder helped him to do that by constantly having conversations with him on set, and even eating lunch with him away from the rest of the group.
Appropriately, the two of them usually finished their shared meals by eating chocolate together.
17. Ostrum declined a movie contract after the film and instead became a veterinarian
Ostrum’s performance became almost as iconic as Gene Wilder’s himself, even though he was an unknown actor with literal decades’ less experience.
His warmth, kindness and just downright adorableness made him super popular, and had others clamouring to see him in other films.
As well as audiences, critics, agents and other higher-ups in the industry were eager to get him to act in more movies, and some studios even offered him a five-movie contract.
That would have been a super sweet deal and might have led to even more success, but Ostrum was super clear about turning it down from the beginning.
The reason for this is that Ostrum knew he wanted a career as a vet, a career that he eventually got and was happy with.
16. The chocolate spies in the movie are based on real-life
There are a lot of things in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that are unbelievable, from the drinks that literally make you fly to the glass elevator that explodes through the ceiling.
With that said, there’s a more plausible element of the story that everybody just assumed was fantasy, and that was the rival chocolate companies sending spies.
The funny thing is, as unlikely as it sounds, chocolate spies from rival companies were a real thing in the 1920s.
They were even a real thing that Roald Dahl experienced, since he used to taste and test new flavours of chocolate while he was away at boarding school.
He remembered the warnings he had gotten not to share the recipes he was given, and they inspired Slugworth and the other chocolatiers.
15. The Oompa Loompa actors were lied to
In the second adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory directed by Tim Burton, all the Oompa Loompas were played by one actor.
That one actor was just digitally duplicated over and over, in different outfits and with slightly differently pitched voices.
By contrast, in the original movie the Oompa Loompas were all practical and played by a bunch of different actors.
One of the actors had the job of driving the candy boat through the chocolate tunnel, even though the boat was actually on tracks and couldn’t be steered or controlled.
In a hilarious twist, the director decided not to tell the actor that he had no control over the boat, because he seemed to be excited to actually be driving.
14. Sammy Davis Jr wanted to play the candyman
Wilder’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory definitely has its creepy or dark moments, but it also has scenes that are completely whimsical and delightful.
Maybe the most famous of these comes near the beginning of the movie, when the owner of the sweet shop sings the song about the Candyman.
The song was sung by a relatively unknown English actor and singer called Aubrey Woods, but he was not the only person interested in the part.
The famous jazz musician Sammy Davis Jr first heard the song and was obsessed with the idea of playing the part, but the director said he was too recognisable and would distract and confuse audiences.
Davis Jr did eventually agree, but made the song a feature of his live shows, and even charted with his released rendition of it.
13. Several actors including Peter Sellers tried to sweet talk Dahl for the part of Willy Wonka
Whenever an adaptation is made of a super famous book, audiences clamour to make their opinions known of who should play what character.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes agents and actors are all battling it out to be considered for those roles, in rounds of phone calls and auditions that can sometimes take months.
Willy Wonka is one of the most famous characters in all of children’s literature, so it’s not surprising that several actors were making phone calls to Roald Dahl and writing him letters.
It didn’t work, given that Wilder eventually got the part, but Dahl definitely had his own opinions about who should play the part, and they’re not who you might expect.
For a start, Dahl wanted any member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to play Willy Wonka, but especially Spike Milligan. He also was interested in Peter Sellers, who called him personally to discuss getting the part.
12. Joel Grey didn’t get the part because producers were afraid the child actors would outgrow him during the shoot
Another actor who nearly got the part was Joel Grey, a predominantly Broadway and theatre actor that got mainstream recognition after appearing in Cabaret.
In Cabaret, he played a cross-dressing and eccentric emcee of a secret German bar, where he veered between super likeable and incredibly creepy.
That mix of sinister and sweet gave him just the right blend of whimsy and mystery for the part of Willy Wonka, and he even made it into the final stages of being considered for the role.
However, Joel Grey was a famously short man, and casting directors were worried that the growing of the children across the shooting period would be super obvious next to him.
So essentially, the only reason why he did not get the part was because of his height. Ouch.
11. The actress who played Veruca Salt was seriously injured on set
Much like how the characters themselves slowly fell victim to the hazards of a crazy chocolate factory with no health codes, the actors themselves were constantly at risk.
Film sets are capable of being fairly dangerous places, and that’s even truer when the movie is being made with a cast of kid actors in the 70s.
Though the most dangerous scenes, like the actor playing Augustus Gloop having to swim next to the chocolate waterfall, were actually pulled off without a hitch – other less expected injuries happened.
In particular, the actress playing Veruca Salt mistook a real rock for a prop one while trying to smash a chocolate egg open on it, and stumbled and fell into its sharp edge.
That led to her cutting her knee and bleeding through her white stockings, which can be seen in the movie. She also has a permanent scar as a result, which she said was actually pretty painful.
10. Gene Wilder helped design Wonka’s costume
Each of the adaptations of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book has a unique aesthetic, and they’re both super memorable in their own right.
With that said, while the Tim Burton version is ultra-shiny and clinical feeling with an edge of the sinister, Wilder’s version has a much softer technicolor feel.
Though the two are very different, the most important element of each is Willy Wonka’s own costume, which sums up the character perfectly and also represents the tone of the movie.
Wilder himself took a very active interest in the costume, sending the wardrobe department pages and pages of detailed lists about what he thought the character would wear.
His most memorable was his request that the hat be shortened, and given a ribbon to match his huge bow tie. Why? Because “Willy Wonka was the kind of person who would know how to accessorise his piercing blue eyes”.
9. The director only made the movie because his daughter loved the book so much
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was directed by Mel Stuart, but he himself didn’t actually have any meaningful attachment to the story.
Instead, it was his daughter who did, coming home one day and begging him to make a movie of what was then her favourite book.
She explained that she had read it from cover to cover three times, and he was intrigued enough to look into the story further.
At the same time, Quaker Oats were looking to make a movie that they could tie into a release of their own chocolate bar, so it ended up being a perfect coincidence.
Still, if it wasn’t for his daughter’s persistent love of Charlie and Willy Wonka, it may have been a completely different movie that got made.
Not only that, but we might have gotten no promotional bars of Wonka chocolate, which we think everyone could agree would be a shame.
8. The children each represent one of the seven deadly sins
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory might be a kids’ movie, but that doesn’t mean the film is afraid of going deeper than that.
The film itself is actually something of a religious parable, with each of the five children in the film representing one of the seven deadly sins.
Augustus Gloop, who drinks from the river of chocolate, represents gluttony, while spoilt Veruca Salt is greed.
Meanwhile Violet Beauregarde, the arrogant world champion chewer, is pride, while Mike Teavee represents lust.
Even the relatively decent Charlie, the poor kid jealous of more fortunate children, symbolises envy.
The film is hardly David Fincher’s Seven, though by the end every child other than Charlie has been ‘punished’ for their sinful ways.
7. The Oompa-Loompas were more problematic in the book
In both Chocolate Factory film adaptations, the Oompa-Loompas are unusual humanoid creatures that seem like they’re from another planet.
In the 1971 movie, for example, Wonka’s helpers are little people with green hair, white eyebrows and bright orange skin. So far, so un-problematic.
However, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas are described a little differently.
Hailing from Loompaland, in original illustrations for the 1964 book the Oompa-Loompas are depicted as black pygmies in loincloths.
After an outcry in the 70s, later illustrations for the book changed the Oompa-Loompas from African stereotypes into white, golden-haired hippy types.
6. Roald Dahl disowned the film
Although he was paid handsomely to adapt his own book into a screenplay – $300,000, a princely sum for 1971 – Roald Dahl wasn’t happy with what Warner Bros did with Chocolate Factory.
The problems started after Dahl turned in his first draft of the script, and David Seltzer, who would go on to write the Omen films, was hired for a rewrite.
In Donald Sturrock’s biography Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, Dahl is quoted as calling the 1971 film “crummy”.
Dahl disliked “many of the small changes” made by Seltzer, while he wasn’t a fan of director Mel Stuart either.
Dahl so disliked Seltzer’s changes, especially his musical numbers, that he ultimately disowned the film.
5. Dahl hated Gene Wilder’s performance
Above all, there was one element of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that Roald Dahl apparently hated most: the leading man.
According to Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s friend and biographer, Dahl simply “felt the Gene Wilder casting was wrong”.
In 2016, Sturrock told Yahoo!: “His ideal casting was Spike Milligan and he said Milligan was really up for doing it. He even shaved his beard off to do a screen test.”
Dahl’s vision for Wonka was as a “very British eccentric”. Said Sturrock: “Gene Wilder was rather too soft and didn’t have a sufficient edge.
“His voice is very light and he’s got that rather cherubic, sweet face. I think [Roald] felt… there was something wrong with [Wonka’s] soul in the movie – it just wasn’t how he imagined the lines being spoken.”
4. Gene Wilder hated the Tim Burton remake
Roald Dahl may have hated Gene Wilder’s interpretation of his writing, but in 2013 it came Wilder’s turn to have a dig at a Chocolate Factory adaptation.
In 2005, Tim Burton released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an apparently more faithful version of the book starring Johnny Depp as a child-like Willy Wonka.
When asked in 2013 what he thought of the 2005 film, Wilder said: “I think it’s an insult – Warner Brothers’ insult… Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director.”
Wilder’s comments echoed those he’d previously made about the film – in a 2007 interview, Wilder said “when I saw little pieces in the promotion of what [Depp] was doing, I said I don’t want to see the film, because I don’t want to be disappointed in him”.
Even before the film was released, Wilder had dismissed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a Warner Bros cash-grab, saying “It’s just some people sitting around thinking, ‘How can we make some more money?’ Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?”
3. Marilyn Manson once covered the Wondrous Boat Ride song
Such is its broad appeal, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has fans of all ages and sorts.
However, one famous fan of the film might surprise you: shock-rocker Marilyn Manson.
In 1994, for the first song on his debut album, Manson covered Willy Wonka’s Wondrous Boat Ride aka ‘the tunnel song’ under the title Prelude (The Family Trip).
The same album also includes the song Dope Hat, the music video for which recreates the Willy Wonka tunnel ride.
in a 1996 interview with Circus magazine, Manson admitted he was a huge Dahl fan, while also admitting his love for Wonka: “I just relate to him in a lot of ways. I’ve always wanted to grow up and be like Wily Wonka.”
2. The film wasn’t popular on release
Today, it’s a movie classic and regular family favourite on television, but Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t always a success.
Back in 1971, when the film was released, it was a different story, with critics and audiences both giving a collective shrug over the film.
Made for $3 million, Willy Wonka made just $4 million at the box office on its original theatrical run, making it the 53rd most popular film of the year, a poor showing for a studio movie.
While some reviews were very positive – Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars – many others amounted to little more than a resounding ‘meh’.
While Variety called Willy Wonka “an okay family musical fantasy” without any memorable songs, the New York Times dismissed the film as “tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor”.
1. Quaker Oats financed the film to sell their candy
You’ve heard of product placement, but how often do you hear of corporations funding entire movies as giant ads for their stock?
That’s essentially what happened with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971, when The Quaker Oats Company stumped up the cash to adapt Roald Dahl’s book.
Looking for a way to promote their new line of Wonka-themed products, Quaker Oats execs agreed to partner up with distributor Paramount Pictures and make Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
After the film’s release, Quaker Oats made a killing on candy including Peanut Butter Oompas, Super Skrunch bars and Everlasting Gobstoppers.
Ironically, Quaker Oats wouldn’t get the Wonka bar on shelves until 1975, four years after the film’s release – the company didn’t perfect the recipe in time, and so botched the promotion of Wonka’s most famous product.