The Search for Willy Wonka: Surprising stars who almost played Gene Wilder's iconic character

6 December 2023, 14:49

Gene Wilder became the iconic Willy Wonka
Gene Wilder became the iconic Willy Wonka. Picture: Getty

By Tom Eames

In the whimsical world of cinema, the casting of iconic characters is often a tale as fascinating as the stories they inhabit.

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Such was the case for the beloved character Willy Wonka, immortalized by Gene Wilder in the 1971 classic, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

However, before Wilder’s enchanting portrayal came to be, a carousel of stars circled the role, each bringing their own flavour to the potential part.

The Early Contenders

Fred Astaire, the silver screen’s dancing legend, was among the first considered. With his top hat and tails, Astaire could have brought an elegant charm to Wonka’s eccentricity.

Fred Astaire in 1970
Fred Astaire in 1970. Picture: Getty
Joel Grey
Joel Grey. Picture: Getty

Joel Grey, fresh from his Cabaret success, was another strong contender, yet his stature was deemed less than the towering presence the producers sought.

Ron Moody, known for his role as Fagin in Oliver!, and Jon Pertwee, the then-current Doctor Who, were also in the running, offering their unique dramatic flairs.

Ron Moody
Ron Moody. Picture: Getty
Jon Pertwee
Jon Pertwee. Picture: Getty

The Writer’s Muse

Spike Milligan, the irreverent comedian and writer, was Roald Dahl’s original choice for Wonka. Dahl envisioned Wonka with a dash of Milligan’s anarchic humour.

Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan. Picture: Getty
Peter Sellers
Peter Sellers. Picture: Getty

Meanwhile, Peter Sellers, the chameleon-like actor, was so enamoured with the role that he reportedly begged Dahl for the opportunity to don the top hat and tails.

The Python Possibility

All six members of Monty Python—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin—also expressed a collective interest in playing the candy connoisseur.

Monty Python Team
Monty Python Team. Picture: Getty

Their brand of British humour could have added a zany twist to the character, but their fame had yet to reach the international stardom the producers desired.

Astaire’s Aspirations and the Final Audition

As the search continued, word reached the producers that Fred Astaire himself was keen on the role. At 72, Astaire’s age may have been a concern, but his star power was undeniable.

The auditions for Willy Wonka were held in the grandeur of the Plaza Hotel in New York, where many hopefuls tried to capture the magic.

Gene Wilder: The Perfect Fit

By the end of the week, Gene Wilder walked into the suite, and the search was over. Producer David L Wolper and director Mel Stuart were spellbound.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Picture: Getty

Wilder’s performance was tight, akin to “one of Jacques Cousteau’s wetsuits,” remarked Wolper. Stuart was captivated by the humour in Wilder’s eyes and his sardonic, demonic edge. Despite Wolper’s attempts to negotiate salary, Stuart couldn’t contain his excitement and offered Wilder the role on the spot.

The rest, as they say, is history. Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka became a character etched in the hearts of audiences worldwide, a testament to the magic of perfect casting.

The journey to find Willy Wonka is a reminder of the serendipity and wonder that Hollywood can conjure, where sometimes, just sometimes, the stars align to create something truly unforgettable.