On August 29, those of us who grew up in the 1970s lost our Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder.
As much as I love the work of Tim Burton, and felt Johnny Depp did an excellent job in 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I watched 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory likely seven or eight times, as it and MGM’s Wizard of Oz aired on television every Easter afternoon. In the days prior to the instant satisfaction of home video, feature films on television were a special occasion. The journeys of Charlie Bucket or Dorothy Gale were almost as much an Easter tradition at our home as church services and egg hunts.
Today, my own children remain familiar with the original classic, which, despite the current maelstrom of reboots and remakes of classic films, is still a favorite with viewers of all ages.
No one knows this better than the children of the original Willy Wonka. As the first to carry those iconic Golden Tickets into a world of Pure Imagination, they’ve been part of this movie legacy since its inception.
Paris Themmen, who portrayed Mike TeeVee (Teavee in the book and later adaptations), has been touring the country for the past four years with fellow Willy Wonka castmember Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt) talking about their experiences with the film.
Recently, Themmen and Cole have been taking on a pretty intense schedule, such as a 14-cities-in-14-days tour for Alamo Drafthouses nationwide. This “Ultimate Willy Wonka Party” hits my city, El Paso, Texas, on September 14, just one day after what would have been the 100th birthday of Roald Dahl, with a question and answer session, props, free bags of candy, and a “quote-along” screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Similar celebrations will be held at other Drafthouse locations.
This year is an especially significant time to be among the original five holders of the cinematic Golden Tickets, with milestone anniversaries for both the film, celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, and the author who inspired it, Roald Dahl. It is also receiving much attention due to the recent passing of its beloved star, Wilder.
I was able to talk the Themmen recently about being part of this original cast, including his memories of Wilder, whom he felt was a lovely man and extremely talented on many levels.
“He was intense, but not in an overt way,” Themmen said. “When you were talking to him, he let you know that you had his full attention.”
He said Wilder, who had been living with Alzheimer’s when he died at age 83, really will be dearly missed.
He acknowledged Wilder was a master of portraying both a quiet contemplative nature as well as that unhinged madness seen in many of his films.
“As an actor, he made good use of balancing these two sides,” he said. “Of course, I never knew the manic side (he often portrayed). He was a very gentle soul.”
Wilder’s crazier side did come through in his portrayal of Wonka, something that was the driving force behind why the movie is still a favorite 45 years after it’s release.
According to Themmen, the primary reason for the continued success of the movie is the work of what he joked as a sort of “trinity” of great minds, Wilder’s acting, Dahl’s writing, and the directing of Mel Stuart.
Stuart, who passed away in 2012, got the idea for the movie when his daughter suggested he make a movie from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both his daughter and son made cameo appearances in the film.
“He was trying to make certain this film was accessible to both kids and adults,” Themmen said of Stuart.
In addition, Themmen said the secondary performances by many of the adult and youth castmembers, the sets, and music all came together perfectly to create something beautiful.
“People often say ‘it takes a village,’ but that’s really true with well-done films,” Themmen said. “It’s a team sport.”
One is Themmen’s own favorite memories was getting to do the “exploding candy” scene. He remembers having a wire attached to the back of his pants and being hoisted up to the ceiling to crash into several pots and pans. For a kid, he said, this was really fun.
He said there is also something to be said about seeing true physical effects over CGI. It’s just so much more authentic.
“You don’t always need digital effects if you do it right,” he said.
He said when the original movie is viewed today, it is amazing to think how little the budget was. This precluded any overuse of special effects, with set and characterization being a driving factor in creating Dahl’s fantastic world.
“For the most part, they kept things relatively low-key,” he said. “The budget was $2.7 million for the film, and ten percent of it went in to creating the ‘Pure Imagination’ room when they first enter the factory.”
The attention to this one scene, however, paid off, as it rates with many viewers as one of those iconic movie moments. Like Dorothy coming from the black and white world of her Kansas shack into the Technicolor dream of Munchkinland, Charlie and his fellow ticketholders’ entering this amazing color-filled factory for the first time creates a very similar moment of allowing the audience to discover a new world along with the characters.
“It’s not a mistake these scenes are as similar as they are,” Themmen explained, as he talked about the concept of “The Hero’s Journey,” introduced by mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949.
This 12-step idea categorizes the stages of a journey shared by most great fictional heroes, be they Homer’s Odysseus, J.R.R. Tolkein’s Bilbo Baggins, Lewis Carroll’s Alice… or Dahl’s Charlie Bucket.
Since his portrayal of Mike TeeVee, for which he still attends conventions and screenings, Themmen’s own journey has included working a short stint with Walt Disney Imagineering, as well as in casting, financial consulting, and in many aspects of film production. He also founded a travel service called “Access International,” helping send backpackers on standby access on charter flights to Europe.
Themmen himself has backpacked to 60 countries on six continents. Quite a journey, indeed.
He said he grew up reading pretty much the same works by Dahl as most kids, like James and the Giant Peach and some short stories, but only met the author one time for a lunch meeting when he was a kid. He said he recalls him being very tall and daunting, but doesn’t remember much else about the encounter.
It’s his stories, however, that he and millions of other children will never forget.
“There was always a macabre take to his writing,” he said, “and often a twist to the ending.”
Themmen said Dahl’s original work also created a world that resonates though the generations. The portrayals of Mike TeeVee in 1971 being addicted to the shoot-em-ups of television, to the 2005 Mike Teavee (portrayed by Jordan Fry) who was hooked on violent video games, are still a very viable example of kids—and adults getting too absorbed in their virtual interactions and losing their actual connections to one another.
Even in one of the more recent Wonka interpretations, the 2013 London musical by Sam Mendes, Teavee’s family said the ill-fated youth might still have a future on “Mike.com.”
Be it television, video games, the internet, or even smartphones, Themmen said the essence of Teavee’s overly-wired existence remains constant. All three depictions, however, show TeeVee/Teavee with a tendency towards violent behavior and a “know-it-all” attitude.
“I think he’d really be an app fiend today,” Themmen said.
Even though Themmen leads far from a sedentary life, he admitted he does share TeeVee’s love for good television. He said he does have that in common with his Mike, although likely not to such an extreme level.
“I just finished watching the entire Breaking Bad series again,” he said. “I think that one might be right up Mike TeeVee’s alley today.”