I had a great time over the weekend talking with the wonderful Denise Nickerson, who as a young actress, played bratty, gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde in the 1971 original version of "Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory."
This is a lady whose career is even more expansive than her plum role in "Wonka" when her character turns into a giant blueberry after refusing to do as she's told.
In fact, her very first show biz moment was being on stage opposite our own great lady (with East Chicago roots) Betsy Palmer.
It was Denise's mom, Flo, who helped guide her into performing at an early age.
While growing up in Coconut Grove, Fla, a neighborhood playhouse producer spotted her in a fashion show when Denise was just 4-years-old. That led to her big break cast in the stage finale of "Peter Pan" playing the adult Wendy's daughter in a Coconut Grove Theatre production of "Peter Pan" starring Palmer. Palmer and the producer were so impressed with the youngster, she and her mom were asked to travel with the production when it moved to Washington, D.C.
She then began working in television roles, including the role of Amy Jennings/Nora Collins on the spooky soap opera "Dark Shadows." She even remembers sneaking into actress Joan Bennett's dressing room to try smoking a cigarette.
While chatting with Nickerson at the Chicago Hilton on Sunday, I asked her what she thought of the 2005 film remake of "Willy Wonka" starring Johnny Depp in the title role.
"For me, Gene Wilder was made for that role of Wonka," she said.
"Of course, I love our original version the most. And we didn't have any computer-generated special effects. That was really me with all that blue food coloring on my face and encased in the giant styrofoam globe that I get rolled around in."
If you recall from the film, after her character's father warns her not to chew Wonka's experimental multi-course meal-flavored gum and exclaims: "You're turning violet! Violet!," the tiny orange Wonka factory helpers called Oompa Loompas roll her to the "juicing room."
"We kept doing that film scene over and over, take after take, because the Oompa Loompas couldn't roll me straight to get me through that door frame," she said.
After "Wonka," she joined the cast of the PBS children's series "The Electric Company," and did guest roles on shows like "The Brady Bunch," in addition to made-for-TV films.
But it's "Willy Wonka" that has brought her the most fame and notoriety.
And next year, with the 40th anniversary of the film's release, she's been working with fellow actor Paris Themmen, who played bratty Mike Teevee in the first film, to get all of the children cast members together for a reunion.
Julie Dawn Cole, who played rich and spoiled Veruca Salt (and has always hated chocolate in real-life), continues to star in movies and television projects while living in London.
As for the others among the "five golden-ticket winning children who win the factory tour," it's Charlie Bucket, played by Peter Ostrum, who is the most sought-after for appearances.
"Peter has never really done interviews or had an interest in making appearances," Nickerson said.
"But for this special anniversary, he's agreed to join the rest of us. Plus, his own son is heading off to college and with college tuition prices, every bit helps."
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