Peter Ostrum isn’t a name many people know, but it’s one that Gene Wilder certainly did. Ostrum played Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Following Wilder’s death at 83 from complications relating to Alzheimer’s, Ostrum spoke with Variety about his relationship with the actor, whom he met more than forty years ago while working on the only film he was ever in.
“He was the pro and I was the rookie,” said Ostrum, who now works as a veterinarian. Ostrum hadn’t seen Wilder since the film ended production, but he was still devastated. “It’s kind of like losing a parent,” he said. “You know it’s going to happen, but it’s still a shock. He was not in good health at the end and it was not unexpected by any means, but when it happens it hits you like, ‘Gene is gone and there will never be anyone like him again.’”
Released in 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has aged into one of Wilder’s most iconic films. Ostrum notes the irony here, pointing out that the film wasn’t a hit upon its release. Now, though, it’s considered a classic. “My gut feeling is that Willy Wonka wasn’t his favorite role,” Ostrum said. “But that’s the role now that people across the generations remember him for.”
Wilder was a reserved figure on the Wonka set, but he was always accessible as well. Wilder impressed the other actors with his ability to improvise. His first chronological scene in the film sees the character hobble out the door before performing a somersault. Turns out, that scene was as surprising for the actors as it was for audiences.
“He was so quirky,” said Ostrum. “You never knew what to expect from Gene. He never let on how he was going to read a line or convey an expression. That’s why the film works, because he made Wonka so unpredictable.” Once filming began, the two instantly bonded. When lunch was called, the pair would often go out, eating chocolate together on the way back to set.
Although Ostrum never acted again, he credits Wilder and Jack Albertson, who played Charlie’s grandfather, with making him comfortable on set. As Ostrum put it, “To have made one film and to be associated with Jack and Gene, I feel like I really found the golden ticket.”