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How Gene Wilder made 'Willy Wonka' so memorable

Gene Wilder starred in the popular 1971 movie musical as a mysterious candy maker. The role became one of his most famous. What's behind the lasting appeal of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'?

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Gene Wilder listens as he is introduced to receive the Governor's Awards for Excellence in Culture and Tourism at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., on April 9, 2008. Wilder, who starred in such film classics as 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' and 'Young Frankenstein' has died.

Jessica Hill/AP/File

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Actor Gene Wilder, who died Aug. 28, starred in various comedy movies that have become famous over the decades, including "Young Frankenstein," "The Producers," and "Blazing Saddles." But it was a movie based on a children's book that became one of the late actor's most memorable roles. 

Wilder starred as the title role in the 1971 musical fantasy "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," which tells the story of a young boy, Charlie (Peter Ostrum), who goes on a tour of a mysterious candy factory which is led by an unusual entrepreneur (Wilder). The film also stars Jack Albertson.

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What has kept the "Wonka" movie so present in the public’s imagination over the decades? 

In addition to Wilder's charismatic depiction of Willy Wonka, a large part of the film's lasting success can be attributed to the imaginative genius of Roald Dahl, whose novel, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," inspired the 1971 film. Children throughout the generations who have connected with Dahl's book have likely seen the movie, too, Lucy Mangan of The Independent wrote on the novel's 50th anniversary in 2014.

"The language and the tropes of Roald Dahl's 50-year-old book are now firmly embedded in our culture," Ms. Mangan writes. "Some of this can be attributed to the unusual and privileged position children's books hold in our lives. The experiences we share in childhood – the books we read, the TV programmes we watch and, indeed, the sweets we eat – later become rare moments of connection between strangers, and within and among generations." 

The story's longevity found new life on screen in 2005 under the direction of Tim Burton. The 2005 remake used Dahl's title for "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and starred Johnny Depp as a darkly eccentric Willy Wonka. 

But in anticipation of the star-studded 2005 remake, Los Angeles Times writer John Horn credited Wilder himself for making the film popular, describing Wilder as "a mercurial Wonka." Even Mr. Depp acknowledged that Wilder's lasting stamp on Dahl's character presented a challenge in finding a fresh perspective on Willy Wonka.

"Regardless of what one thinks of that film, Gene Wilder's persona, his character, stands out," Johnny Depp said to the Los Angeles Times in an interview with Horn on the set of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "It was brilliant but subtle.... Those are big shoes."

While Depp's portrayal did succeed in finding new dimensions for Willy Wonka, it is Wilder's character that created "a cult film whose audiences continue to grow with the passing years," writes Jeff Stafford of Turner Classic Movies.

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"Probably the single most compelling aspect of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' is Gene Wilder's enigmatic performance," Mr. Stafford writes.


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