Our thanks to George Eastman House member Richard C. Reid for sharing his memories from our magical evening with Peter Ostrum:
As part of its Visiting Artist series on Saturday, November 26, 2011, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film presented the enchanting 1971 fantasy film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A capacity crowd of appreciative adults and children crowded the Dryden Theatre for the showing that marked the 40th anniversary year of its release. As a special treat, even better than a Willy Wonka Candy Bar, they also got to meet and hear Peter Ostrum who played Charlie Bucket, one of the five children who had found the golden ticket inside a Wonka Bar that won them a tour of the magical candy factory by its mystical owner, Willy Wonka (so memorably portrayed by Gene Wilder).
At 7 p.m. Ms. Dresden Engle, Public Relations Manager for the Eastman House, introduced Peter— now Dr. Peter Ostrum, a large animal veterinarian practicing in upstate New York. The genial, thickly-mustached, unassuming 52-year old appeared greatly touched by the waves of loud applause and cheers that immediately filled the hall.
In his introductory remarks prefacing the film, Peter observed that on its initial release, the movie was not a hit at the box office and received lukewarm reviews from the critics. An adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book, the picture essentially existed, Ostrum stated, to sell candy for the Quaker Oats Company which was the primary backer of the production. Over time, however, audiences found the film through its video releases and took it to heart.
He then joined his wife and family in the audience for the viewing, his first one in many years, he noted. As the opening credits rolled and the words, “Introducing Peter Ostrum as Charlie,” flashed across the screen, the audience again broke into wild applause. It was thrilling to hear them as they joined the characters in song as the film progressed. Clearly, for many viewers present, this was a film for which they held not only high respect but much love.
In the hour-long Question and Answer session that followed as the guest of honor and Ms. Engle occupied chairs on the stage, a pole of candy bars between them, Dr. Ostrum shared his memories of the film’s production. It was largely a matter of being “at the right place at the right time,” he said of securing the leading child’s role. He was then a twelve-year old member of the Children’s Theater at the Cleveland Playhouse when his name was recommended to the film’s casting director. Since no script was available at that point, Peter read aloud from Dahl’s book as a few Polaroids were snapped. Weeks went by before he was one of a handful called in for a screen test. Despite never being told he had actually won the part, he shared, he was advised to have a passport and be ready in case he was called since he might have at best ten days’ notice (which was the case).
He flew to Munich in August 1970 where filming was done over the next five months. He was initially accompanied by his father whom, he noted, had been “a guest” of the Germans in the last war. His mother later replaced his father for the bulk of the time there. The first scenes he filmed were those seen in the beginning of the picture as he runs about town delivering newspapers, planned as a way to gently ease Peter into the whole process. Of Mel Stuart, the movie’s director, Peter said he was “not the easiest person to work with,” adding that Mel would be the first to acknowledge this. He remembers Stuart generally knew what he didn’t want in the movie but had trouble communicating what he did want. Roald Dahl, who had been contracted to do the screenplay, had sufficient difficulties with the director in translating from page to screen, to drop out of the project early, Ostrum added.
“Each day was a different surprise,” he said of the filming. His favorite scene? It was the dance sequence with Jack Albertson who played Grandfather Joe who accompanies Charlie to Wonka’s factory. The veteran actor of vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, television and films, proved to be “a mentor” to Peter and they kept up a friendly relationship in the years that followed until his passing at age 74 in 1981. Peter’s least favorite scene involved the Wonkamobile when it was sprayed with flame-retardant foam again and again in the usual multiple takes made of any scene.
He found it easy to work with Gene Wilder who, Peter observed, essentially had been given free rein by director Stuart to develop the Wonka character that we see in the film. Peter was especially grateful for the advance warning that Gene gave him prior to shooting the sequence towards the end of the film when Wonka screams at him at length for violating the terms of the contract he had signed. Yet even with that heads up, it was tough scene on both of them because Gene hated having to be so mean to him.
At the director’s insistence, Peter and the other children were kept away from the sets as much as possible so that when scenes were filmed, their reactions to the strange rooms in the Wonka factory would be more wondrously genuine. In his case, however, Peter admitted to some peeking on occasions since he was there much longer than the other children. What did take him and the other child actors by surprise was the sight of the Oompa Loopas, the factory’s workers, portrayed by a team of little people actors aged from their 20s to 60s.
As for the impact on his life that making this one movie has had, it seems to have been reasonably good. He related a charming anecdote about nervously first telling his future wife about it while they were rowing on a lake (and prior to her meeting his parents whom he thought might tell her about the film before he could). Concerned for her reaction, he instead was taken aback when she admitted she had never seen the movie. Once she had, she again surprised him by saying she never realized how big a part he actually had in the film.
Nowadays, Peter occasionally visits some schools doing live productions of the story to talk about the film and his role in it. He credits an Internet fan of the film as being most responsible for getting the surviving cast back together for a reunion in the 1990s, and they still keep in touch as a result. As for the Johnny Depp remake in 2005, Peter said he liked it, adding that he was particularly grateful that it reinvigorated interest in the original film. Interestingly, he admitted that, “I didn’t truly appreciate the film until I had children of my own.”
When filming was over, Ostrum stated he was offered a three-picture contract, but as no particular projects were discussed, and as he wanted to get back to “seventh grade and soccer”, he declined. Although a few years later he did take some tentative steps to get back into the business, ultimately, Wonka proved to be his only movie. But Peter was clear about it: he had no regrets. “If I could only make one film, then I made a good one,” he said proudly. By their quick and sustained applause, he knew the audience agreed that he had, too.
Roxana Aparicio Wolfe is the Curator of Education and Online Communities at George Eastman House.
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