Of the many memorable characters created by the late Gene Wilder, his titular role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory carries a specific magical weight – particularly for those who acted alongside him, like former child actress Denise Nickerson (aka Violet Beauregarde).
“He created an iconic character,” Nickerson tells PEOPLE of being in the film with Wilder, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s at the age of 83. “He did the majority of that himself, his little idiosyncrasies [in character], kicking the ball, whipping the cane, stuff like that, that was all him.”
The former child actress, who was 13 during filming, remembers Wilder’s “tender heart” as much as his creative genius.
“Gene was a very, very quiet, tender-hearted, calm reflective individual,” she says. “He was not out on the forefront introducing himself, telling jokes, he kind of stayed to himself.”
Wonka director Mel Stuart didn’t want the young actors to form a pre-existing relationship with Wilder, so they were basically introduced to him in character.
“We met him when we were first doing the factory scenes,” recalls Nickerson. “I remember sitting on the bleachers waiting for him to come out of the [chocolate] factory and rumor had gone around set that he was going to do the somersault – and he did and we all clapped. We got to know him a little more when we went in the room that got smaller and smaller [in the film], and when we sign the contract, but when we filmed in the chocolate room and he sang “Pure Imagination” that just, he stole my heart.”
The opposite occurred during the filming of the trippy, tonally-different “Wonkatania scene,” an eerie, psychedelic sequence set on a boat during which Wonka seems to sing another whimsical tune, but it quickly shifts into something much darker.
“I was quite surprised with that, there was no acting involved,” says Nickerson. “My chin dropped, hit the ground and never came back up. I had not anticipated that, it was not in the script that he was going to go off on that tangent. I was completely speechless. I thought, nobody is going to come and see this movie this [Wonka character] is a nutjob. But good thing I’m not a producer, right?”
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Nickerson says the entire filmmaking experience, including that surprising scene, was “wonderful.”
“I’m a very fortunate lady to have been chosen to be a part of something that brings smiles to so many faces,” she says. “And working with Gene, he talked in a very soft whisper, nothing much furled his feathers, you know? He was such a kind, tender-hearted man. And for him to put up with us, my God what patience he must’ve needed for five of us running around [on set].”
She added, “I don’t think there will ever be anyone who could step in and fill his shoes.”