Tragic Details About The Cast Of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is a pop culture icon. People of all ages are familiar with the film, especially Gene Wilder's incredible performance as Willy Wonka, the half-genius, half-crazy candy tycoon who offers a rare tour of his mysterious factory to five children who find randomly placed golden tickets in his candy bars. Wilder brought an aggressive energy to his performance that gives this children's musical a dark edge.

That dark edge not only gave the film a lasting impact, but it carried over to the real-life fates of many of the cast members, which fits, because a movie that features lickable wallpaper and a candy called the Everlasting Gobstopper that never loses its flavor also features some pretty grisly fates for the ill-behaved children who find those tickets. Sucked into the plumbing, turned into a blueberry, shrunk to microscopic size — the kids don't turn out so well in this story.

And neither did many of the actors who played them, and same for the adult characters. The tragic details about the cast of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory cover the gamut from a lack of credit for their work to early deaths.

Denise Nickerson died too soon

In Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Violet Beauregarde is a smart, willful young girl, but her obsession with chewing gum is her undoing. After boasting that she's been chewing the same piece of gum for three months (which is gross), she ignores Wonka's warnings and chews his experimental "three-course dinner" gum. When she gets to the dessert portion, she tastes the blueberry pie all right — but then begins to swell as she fills with blueberry juice, turning into a blueberry. The only solution, Wonka dryly notes, is to send her for "squeezing."

The actress who played Violet, Denise Nickerson, avoided turning into a piece of fruit but had a very tragic end. Just 13 when she was cast in the film, she continued to work as an actress for a few years afterward but retired at age 21 to become a nurse. As Variety reports, in 2018, she suffered a debilitating stroke, and she was placed into a rehabilitation facility for a time. Fox News notes that while being cared for by family at home, she made a suicide attempt in 2019 that put her back in the hospital. A short while later, she was taken off of life support and passed away at the age of 62.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Gene Wilder's lost love

Fifty years after the release of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka remains one of Gene Wilder's most recognized roles. The legendary performer appeared in some of the biggest and most successful comedies of the 20th century, including Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Silver Streak as well.

For a long time, Wilder seemed unlucky in love. According to Entertainment Tonight, he was first married in 1960 to actress and playwright Mary Mercier, but they divorced in 1965. In 1967, Wilder married a friend of his sister's, Mary Joan Schultz, and adopted her daughter Katherine. Sadly, this marriage also ended in divorce in 1974, and Katherine cut off all communication with the man who'd adopted her as his own daughter.

Wilder's luck seemed to change in 1982, when he met Gilda Radner (pictured above with Wilder). As Entertainment Weekly reports, the couple met on the set of the film Hanky Panky and were married two years later. Tragically, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer — and just when she seemed to be in remission, the disease returned and she passed away just five years after they'd married, leaving Wilder once again alone. He married for a fourth and final time in 1991, to Karen Webb, who was at his side when the iconic comedian passed away.

Peter Ostrum hid his past

Snagging the role of Charlie Bucket in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory should have been just the beginning for actor Peter Ostrum. The role opened doors for Ostrum, just 13 years old at the time, that other actors would kill for — namely, as Entertainment Weekly reports, a three-picture deal that could have made him a rising star in 1970s Hollywood.

But Ostrum turned down the deal and walked away to become a veterinarian. As the American Veterinary Medical Association writes, Ostrum (pictured above holding a golden ticket) enjoyed working on the film and had great relationships with the other actors — especially Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka. But he discovered a love for horses and decided to put acting on hold while he pursued a veterinary degree — and he never looked back. Sadly, for some time, Ostrum tried to hide his moment of fame, not telling anyone in his hometown who he was for a number of years. As NPR reports, he didn't even tell his wife Loretta about his brush with stardom until she was about to meet his parents, at which point the secret would have been impossible to keep.

Happily, Ostrum has come to terms with the enduring nature of his fame and has participated in some Wonka-themed reunions in recent years.

Roy Kinnear died young

If you've seen the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, you probably recognize actor Roy Kinnear, who played Henry Salt (Veruca's father). Or you've seen him in something else and recognized him in Wonka – he was a prolific and successful character actor with more than 150 credits to his name. Kinnear appeared in several projects a year in both film and television, and in 1988, there was no reason to think his career would slow down any time soon.

Sadly, as The New York Times reports, Kinnear died after falling from a horse while filming The Return of the Three Musketeers in Madrid. The actor suffered a crushed pelvis and internal bleeding and was rushed to the hospital. The next day, he suffered a massive heart attack as a result of these injuries and passed away. His family sued the production company, accusing producers of being negligent and rushing the film production to reduce costs, leading directly to the accident.

As The Telegraph reports, the incident so upset the film's director, Kinnear's longtime friend and frequent collaborator Richard Lester (director of the famous Beatles films A Hard Days Night and Help!, in which Kinnear appeared), that he retired and never made another feature film.

Jack Albertson died tragically

Jack Albertson, who played Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, appeared in nearly 200 TV and film roles. He remains one of the most recognizable actors in history, and his performance in Wonka remains one of his most famous roles. A few years later, his role as Ed Brown in the top-rated Chico and the Man made him a household name.

Sadly, as The New York Times reports, Albertson suffered from colorectal cancer in his last years, and died from the disease in 1981 at the age of 74. As The Daily Mail notes, Albertson had been diagnosed in 1978 but decided to keep his struggle private. He kept working right up until the end — his final project, the TV Movie Terror at Alcatraz, was released after his death.

This was compounded by the fact that his older sister Mabel (famous in her own right, most notably for her role on the iconic TV series Bewitched) suffered from Alzheimer's disease in her last years. Mabel died just ten months after her brother. In a heartbreaking tribute to their relationship, the siblings were both cremated, and their ashes were scattered together into the Pacific Ocean.

Angelo Muscat died penniless and alone

Angelo Muscat had a fascinating career that included not one but two iconic roles. First, he was the silent, enigmatic butler on the trippy, classic British TV series The Prisoner. As author Rupert Booth writes, Muscat — who was just over four feet in height — was a depressed and lonely man even while enjoying professional success most actors would be delighted about. Booth quotes Muscat as saying, "I always feel lonely. I feel that people don't want to know me. Girls don't fancy me. I'm tiny and I'm nearly bald, but I'm only in my 30s."

Sadly, as journalist Howard Foy notes, Muscat's career did not go well after his run on The Prisoner and his stint as an Oompah Loompah in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Foy writes that despite these high-profile roles, Muscat failed to find acting work after the film and even let his membership in the actors' union lapse. He was apparently dispirited by the fact that he found himself competing against children for roles. Despite his experience and success, it was his size that seemed to define him.

Muscat died at the age of 47, apparently of natural causes. At the time of his death, he was broke and living alone in a basement apartment in London, almost completely forgotten.

Gene Wilder suffered from Alzheimer's

Gene Wilder was one of the funniest people to ever grace movie and television screens. Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder began his life as a funnyman by trying to cheer up his gravely ill mother. He went on to live a life filled with laughter, love, and some of the most iconic roles in comedy history — including his iconic turn as the titular candymaker in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Sadly, as Entertainment Weekly reports, when Wilder passed away in 2016, his family revealed that he had been battling Alzheimer's disease for several years. This explained Wilder's retreat from public life. As his nephew told NPR at the time, the secrecy wasn't due to vanity or a worry about Wilder's image but rather because the actor was concerned that children who still recognized him as Willy Wonka would be forced to hear about a terrifying disease if the news was public, because "he simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

Luckily, Wilder used his semi-retirement from acting in his later years to write, producing a memoir, three novels, and a collection of short stories before he died — as if he knew he would be robbed of his memories as he grew older.

Günter Meisner died unexpectedly

The name Günter Meisner might not be immediately recognizable to American audiences. But the name Slugworth — the role that Meisner made famous in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – probably is. Meisner's performance as the sneaky rival to Wonka who bribes the children to steal candy-making secrets for him, only to be revealed as one of Wonka's employees at the end, is a big reason for the film's success.

Meisner had a long and successful career as an actor in both English and German films and television – Variety reports that he appeared in more than 100 productions, not counting his theater work. He also dedicated much of his energy toward making the world a better place. He participated in relief efforts during the Biafran Airlift during the Nigerian Civil War, and as Variety reports, he took on racial problems in his film Don't Look for Me at Places Where I Can't Be Found in 1970 and even produced a film in Swahili, Bega Dwa Bega.

Meisner was just 66 years old when he died suddenly of heart failure in 1994 while filming an episode of a German TV series. After a lifetime of artistic achievement and trying to make the world a better place, it was a tragic and unexpected end.

Tim Brooke-Taylor was a victim of the pandemic

Tim Brooke-Taylor was a big name in England, starring in the legendary comedy series The Goodies in the 1970s. He got his start on the radio, and by 1971, he was already a recognizable star when he appeared briefly in an uncredited role in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a computer scientist who promises his massive computer can locate the remaining golden tickets everyone is searching for. (This doesn't go as planned.) Brooke-Taylor went on to huge success and enjoyed a great career, but his life ended in an all too familiar tragedy in 2020, when he fell victim to the global coronavirus pandemic.

As the BBC reports, Brooke-Taylor was 79 when he died of the disease. He was still working, appearing on the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Other legendary comedians like John Cleese and Stephen Fry were quick to praise him. Fry called him a "hero," and Cleese said he "used to love performing with" Brooke-Taylor, which is high praise indeed.

Pat Coombs never married -- and shrank

Pat Coombs had a long and varied career. One highlight of that career was undoubtedly her role as Henrietta Salt, Veruca's mother in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Her uncredited performance in the film was very small, but Coombs' unparalleled physical comedy skills elevated it.

As The Guardian reports, Coombs first chose to be a kindergarten teacher instead of a performer for fear of being made fun of. When a she learned a friend also harbored dreams of performing, she took the plunge and began a decades-long career.

Sadly, Coombs never married, despite stating that she'd "come close" twice in her life. She said she was never certain enough of the match and worried that marriage would adversely affect her career. In her later years, she suffered from osteoporosis, which shrank her by six inches over the course of the final years of her life. Coombs was eventually forced to move into a nursing home due to her deteriorating condition. She was moved to a London nursing home in order to be near her close friend and fellow actress Peggy Mount. Sadly, Mount predeceased Coombs by several months, leaving Coombs alone.

Pepe Poupee got no credit

The saddest part of Pepe Poupee's connection to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is that most people don't even know that there was a female Oompah Loompah. But there was, although the role went uncredited, as did several others in the film.

As actor Rusty Goffe explained on the television program After They Were Famous, back in the early 1970s, there simply weren't many dwarf actors available, so the filmmakers had to scrounge the globe for potential Oompah Loompahs. None of the Oompah Loompahs had speaking roles, although several were spotlighted lip-syncing to the famously dark songs describing the fates of the children as they vanish one by one. Most of the Oompahs just danced stiffly and filled in the background to give the impression that there were dozens and dozens of them.

Pepe Poupee didn't act much and faded from memory despite being in one of the most popular films of all time. The Richmond and Twickenham Times reports that she lived her final years in Brinsworth House, a charity nursing home for retired entertainers in England. According to some fan pages, she went blind late in her life. Sadly, there is very little information on Pepe's life.

Ernst Ziegler got a late start

Everyone remembers Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. He was one of the two pairs of grandparents who were apparently bedridden with old age — although Joe suddenly became very spry when the opportunity to visit Wonka's candy factory presented itself.

But there was another grandpa in the film: Grandpa George, played by German actor Ernst Ziegler. Ziegler was already 76 years old when he appeared in the film — just his sixth acting role (not all of which were credited) and his last appearance before his death. Remarkably, most of his acting gigs came in the last few years of his life.

In the film, Grandpa George wears incredibly thick glasses and appears slightly confused at all times, but there's a tragic reason for that. As notes, Ziegler had been exposed to poison gas while fighting during World War I and was almost totally blind as a result. According to The Breeze, the filmmakers had to get creative with Ernst as a result and used a red light off-camera to let him know where he was supposed to be looking at any given moment in a scene.