The late great screen comedian Gene Wilder, who passed away this Monday at the age of 83, crafted an impressive number of iconic roles over the course of his storied career. There's panicky accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers, boozy gunslinger The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, and the eccentric Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. But the character he'll always be best known for is undoubtedly the enigmatic chocolatier Willy Wonka. From the factory owner's unforgettable entrance to his ditty about the wonders of imagination, Wilder's performance in 1971's Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is the stuff of cinema legend. And a letter Gene Wilder wrote to Willy Wonka director Mel Stuart reveals just how involved the actor was in the crafting of the character — not just in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well.
Wilder penned the note on July 23, 1970, as production was about to commence on the soon-to-be-classic children's movie. In it, the actor critiques the costume designer's sketch of Willy Wonka, offering his own opinion on what the designer should change and how the character should ultimately look:
I've just received the costume sketches. I'll tell you everything I think, without censoring, and you take from my opinion what you like.
I assume that the designer took his impressions from the book and didn't know, naturally, who would be playing Willy. And I think, for a character in general, they're lovely sketches.
I love the main thing — the velvet jacket — and I mean to show by my sketch the exact same color. But I've added two large pockets to take away from the svelt, feminine line. (Also in case of a few props.)
I also think the vest is both appropriate and lovely.
And I love the same white, flowing shirt and the white gloves. Also the lighter colored inner silk lining of the jacket.
What I don't like is the precise pin pointing in place and time as this costume does.
I don't think of Willy as an eccentric who holds on to his 1912 Dandy's Sunday suit and wears it in 1970, but rather as just an eccentric — where there's no telling what he'll do or where he ever found his get-up — except that it strangely fits him: Part of this world, part of another. A vain man who knows colors that suit him, yet, with all the oddity, has strangely good taste. Something mysterious, yet undefined.
I'm not a ballet master who skips along with little mincy steps. So, as you see, I've suggested ditching the Robert Helpmann trousers. Jodhpurs to me belong more to the dancing master. But once elegant now almost baggy trousers — baggy through preoccupation with more important things — is character.
Slime green trousers are icky. But sand colored trousers are just as unobtrusive for your camera, but tasteful.
The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special.
Also a light blue felt hat-band to match with the same light blue fluffy bow tie shows a man who knows how to compliment his blue eyes.
To match the shoes with the jacket is fey. To match the shoes with the hat is taste.
Hope all is well. Talk to you soon.
All my best,
As you can see, Wilder got many of his requests fulfilled, including the sand-colored trousers and the tasteful matching of the hat and shoes. Coming from someone else, such a long list of criticisms might have come across as harsh or — at the very least — presumptuous. (Remember, Willy Wonka was only Wilder's fifth feature film following a bit part in Bonnie And Clyde, his star-making turn in The Producers, and two now-obscure comedies.) But Wilder's passion for the film comes across in every word of his letter. It's clear he understood the character and wanted to create the best possible version of Willy Wonka in order to withstand the test of time. Mission accomplished, I'd say.
The specificity of Wilder's vision is exactly what made him such an iconic actor. He didn't just memorize his lines and come up with a few quirky ideas for his performance; he knew the character inside-out. They say that comedy is all about timing. But Wilder this letter makes it clear that Wilder brought that sense of masterful precision to every aspect of his work — not just for landing punchlines, but for creating a memorable character from the ground up… including his clothes.
That's precisely why, according to The Hollywood Reporter critic Daniel Fienberg, "Most comic actors can go a career searching for a single iconic role. Gene Wilder had somewhere in the neighborhood of 10."
Images: Paramount Pictures (2)
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson