Gene Wilder has 37 acting credits to his name, ranging all the way from the 1961 TV series Play of the Week through a guest spot on Will & Grace in 2003. He had lead roles in Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, arguably the three greatest Mel Brooks movies. He formed a hilarious comic duo with Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Silver Streak. But when the stunning news of his death hit yesterday, most outlets paired their obituaries with an image from a single movie: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The 1971 adaption of the Roald Dahl classic was initially a box office disappointment, but it got a ton of TV airplay in the 1980s and sold in huge numbers once it was released on VHS. Few movies aimed at children are more cherished today. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka may be the title character, but he doesn’t actually appear until halfway through the film. The second he arrives, however, he steals every scene. Nearly every line he says is quoted today and has been the subject of an Internet meme.
Gene Wilder wasn’t known for his singing voice but Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a musical, and he pulled off his songs with great ease. The most enduring tune is “Pure Imagination,” which Wonka delivers after introducing the children to the enormous Chocolate Room. The five young actors hadn’t seen the that particular set until that moment of filming, so the looks of wonders on their faces is genuine.
In 2005, Tim Burton made the unfortunate decision to remake the movie with Johnny Depp in the lead role. It was ill-fated from the start. Nobody could play that role after Gene Wilder, not even Depp. A theatrical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been playing in London since 2013, and the musical adaptation is slated to hit Broadway next year and it will include more songs from the original film, including “Pure Imagination.” Audiences simply wouldn’t accept a Wonka musical without it.