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50 Years Ago, A Group Of Child Actors Helped To Make Movie History

Using giant lollipops as paddles, Denise Nickerson, Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole and Paris Themmen sail down the chocolate river.
Arthur Sidey/Mirrorpix
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Using giant lollipops as paddles, Denise Nickerson, Peter Ostrum, Julie Dawn Cole and Paris Themmen sail down the chocolate river.

When you starred in one of the most popular family films of all time, 50 years ago, you've had a long time to reminisce — so much so that you can follow through and finish each other's stories.

For the 50th anniversary of NPR, we're remembering the films, albums and events of 1971. On Morning Edition, Rachel Martin talks to the cast of "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory," based on the novel by Roald Dahl. We spoke with Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket, Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, and Paris Themmen, who played Mike Teevee.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: Today, Paris Themmen runs a movie memorabilia website from Los Angeles. Peter Ostrum is now a veterinarian in Lowville, N.Y. Julie Dawn Cole is a psychotherapist in London. I asked Julie if, when they were kids, they felt the magic that came across on the screen.

Julie Dawn Cole: The sets were so wonderful and it wasn't computer generated, as it would be now. No CGI. And, you know, the chocolate room and the river and the inventing room — I really liked the inventing room. There was so much going on there. It was such fun - the goose room, you know, stuff all over the place. So, yeah, it did have a magic. It's hard for us to say because, you know, we grew up with it. So, we don't know the difference. But yeah, it does — it's not lost on us. And of course, we get it vicariously when we meet people.

Yeah. I do have to play a clip for you, Julie, because your character — I mean, we just have to say it. She's a brat. I think they actually say that word in the film. So, this is Veruca berating her father for not working hard enough to find a golden ticket.

Cole: And the next line — you promised, Daddy. You promised I'd have it the very first day [laughs].

You still got it, lady. You still got it.

Peter Ostrum: Yeah, she does [laughs].

Was it an artistic stretch to be able to work through those temper tantrums, or did they come quite naturally to you as a child?

Cole: Well, I think we've all got inner demons, haven't we? So, yeah, I was channeling my darker side that isn't allowed out very often.

Paris Themmen: The impression one had of Julie...

Paris, please.

Themmen: ... When she was not stamping her feet and screaming as a child on film, was that she was lovely. She was very nice. She was quiet. She was well-behaved. I would almost say demure, actually. So she was not, you know, the sort of wise mouthing child actor. I held that distinction myself.

Cole: Thank you. The check is in the post.

Themmen: Lovely.

You know, people want to know, was it real candy on the set? Was it good?

Ostrum: For the most part, everything that we ate was real.

I love that you're like, "It was real."

Ostrum: It was real. Yeah.

Was it good? That's a different question.

Ostrum: Yeah. But ... here we are in Germany, wonderful chocolate. And because it was an American film company, they had flown Peter Paul Mounds bars and Almond Joy over for us to eat [laughs]. So, there was a little bit of a disconnect. So, everything was real except the wallpaper tasted like wallpaper.

When you're licking the wallpaper, it wasn't flavored?

Ostrum: No, no, no [laughs].

Oh, that's unfortunate. That's a tough scene to watch, frankly, as an adult. What was Gene Wilder like?

Ostrum: Gene was wonderful, very patient, polite and just ... and very professional. You know, Gene's career just skyrocketed after "Willy Wonka." So, it was fun to be with Gene, to work with Gene prior to his most famous roles. Although looking back, that's what people remember. If you say Gene Wilder, they say "Willy Wonka." So, it was wonderful working with him. I know Julie and Paris — I think we all have that same conclusion.

Cole: Totally agree.

Themmen: Yes.

Cole: And how lovely and kind he was and patient. I mean, for goodness sake, this man has got, you know, five kids bouncing around being noisy and obnoxious all over the place. And, yeah, he was very patient. He never — there was never any, you know, kind of, "Leave Mr. Wilder alone," or "Be quiet."

Ostrum: None of that, no.

Cole: Never, never, never.

This is a clip of the scene on the boat. Willy Wonka, played by Gene Wilder, is singing. It's so creepy.

Ostrum: The thing that made it exciting to work with Gene, you didn't know exactly what he was going to do, you know? And he wasn't going to tell you what he was going to do before he did it. That's part of the genius of Gene Wilder.

Themmen: And mind you, that clip happens after they've already rocked us around, shown us flashing lights, put images of things crawling and, you know, chickens' heads getting cut off and so forth. So, that's just sort of to warm us up and get us in the right mood for Gene, you know, and then they hit you with that.

So, I mean, you all went different ways after this film. And, Julie, you went on to have the longest acting career. Peter, I understand at one point you turned down a three-movie deal. Is that right?

Ostrum: Well, I guess I did have the option of a three-picture deal, but I had no idea. They had no idea of what those pictures were going to be. And I just didn't — maybe because I'm obsessive compulsive a little bit, I didn't like giving up that freedom of signing on the dotted line, not knowing what I was going to be asked to do. And I ... you know, I liked working on the film. But I wasn't completely sold that I was to be an actor the rest of my life. But this is — I mean, it's still fun to be contributing to a film that people, 50 years later, are watching. I mean, who would have known? Who would have thought that that would have taken place? So, my point is, if you can only make one film — this was the film to make.

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