Interview with Denise Nickerson

Denise Nickerson is know most for her role as Violet Beauregarde in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. With the 40 anniversary of the film approaching, Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with Denise and travel back in time to visit the set of “Willy Wonka” and talk about her experience on the film.

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Mike Gencarelli: Tell us about your experience working on “Willy Wonka”? Was it a positive experience?
Denise Nickerson: I was one of the few kids that had actually worked as an actor before “Wonka.” I had already been doing “Dark Shadows.” I used to get mobbed every day coming out of the studio. And I was also doing a Broadway show at night so I was getting up at five in the morning, going to the studio and doing “Dark Shadows.” I’d get off at four, go home and eat dinner, then go to the theater. I was getting home every night around eleven. And my schooling was all through correspondence. This was the late sixties so of course there was no FedEx. I would get a week’s worth of school assignments in the mail. And I had no tutor because a tutor wasn’t required in the state of New York. I would have to complete every single assignment and mail it back to the school. And I got straight A’s. I would usually do my work while doing the Broadway show. The more important role you had in a show decided what floor you were on. The stars were always on the first floor. I was on the fifth floor. And the performance is piped into the dressing room. So I’d do my homework while listening to the show and sometimes in the middle of a problem I would stop, run down five flights of stairs and do my three minutes. Then I’d run back upstairs, do some more math problems, listen and when it was my time again, out I’d go. It was an unusual childhood. When it came time for “Wonka,” I was so tickled pink when I went on the first interview because I was going to be able to work with kids. I started in the business when I was 2 ½ and I very rarely got to work with other kids. I worked with Henry Fonda. I worked with Margaret Hamilton. I worked with Lee Grant…Gig Young (note, with the exception of Ms. Hamilton all of these actors won Oscars). These were all adult actors. Very famous actors but still, they were adults. So when I got the script I was like, “Oh my God, there’s going to be kids and chocolate. How cool can that be?”

Then when I heard they were filming in Germany I thought, “Oh my God, a foreign country. I’ve got to get this role.” And when I got it I was over the moon. I went over and met the other kids and it was great. There was never the internal strife that you sometimes see with kid actors…or any actor for that matter. We became good friends and had a wonderful time. It was a great memory for all of us. They flew us back in 2003 for a documentary and we all stayed in the same hotel. You know how they say you can’t go back in time? I kid you not I was 13 again. We all picked up like we had just seen each other yesterday. Even though we were older and having different discussions, we were interacting the same way we did thirty some years earlier….what a legacy. I am so fortunate. What you see on screen does not mirror what I saw in reality. As beautiful as it looks on screen…the chocolate room was one entire building. It was a fantastic experience doing it and, almost forty years later….well I never get tired of it. How lucky was I? And how lucky AM I, to be a part of this legacy.

Mike Gencarelli: Were you familiar with the book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” before working on the movie?
Denise Nickerson: I actually read it on the plane over to Germany. I had just finished eight weeks in California doing one of the very first television movies of the week (“The Neon Ceiling”). I flew back to New York. I was there for 36 hours, just enough time for my mother to unpack my summer clothes, pack my winter clothes, and get on a plane to Germany. I arrived the day they were shooting the “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” scene. I arrived on the soundstage and, on a break, Mel Stuart (the director) came over to me and asked what shoes I had brought with me. For whatever reason we had to bring out own shoes. I only had one pair of winter shoes and he went off on my sister, who was my chaperone. “How could you only bring one pair of winter shoes!” But those were the shoes I wore. And during filming one of the shoes broke and new ones had to be ordered from New York. It’s funny how one pair of shoes can stick in your mind for so long. And they were ugly shoes. They looked like something the Pilgrims wore. And I wore them for eight weeks. And when the one broke I remember thinking “you can create a chocolate river but you can’t create a damn shoe?”

Mike Gencarelli: What was it like filming in Germany? Did you get to tour the country at all before/after filming?
Denise Nickerson: On the weekends my sister and I would go to Austria, which wasn’t too far of a drive. We saw some magnificent castles. I wanted to stop in London on the way back but I had another engagement book so there wasn’t enough time between when I left Germany and when I had to start my next arrangement. And I’ve always regretted that…I still want to go to London.

MG: Why did you chose to leave acting shortly after Willy Wonka?
DN: True story…I moved out to California when I was sixteen, which was probably the worse career move I could have made because I was close enough in age to 18 year olds, so they would hire 18 year olds instead of me. In New York there weren’t any of the Jackie Coogan/Child Labor laws at the time, so I was able to do soaps during the day, Broadway at night and I was able to work 18 hours a day. But when I moved to California the law there said I had to do four hours of school work, then four hours of work. So at 16 they were hiring the 18 year olds. It was really a bad career move. So I kind of limped along. I did a movie with Melanie Griffith and Bruce Dern (“Smile”)…I did “The Brady Bunch.” I did a few things but it was real sporadic. Which was fine because all I really wanted to do at this stage of the game was be a normal kid. I had been working, usually two jobs at a time, since I was 2 ½, plus going to school. So I hung in there for a few more years. I did my last film (“Zero to Sixty,” which starred Darren McGavin and Lorraine Gary) right before I turned 21. I had the lead role…I repossessed cars. The people at First Artists (the studio that produced it) decided to tinker with it and it was never released. So if you see it on DVD give it a look. It was 1978 and I knew that the average “life” of a television actress was about 10 years, which would have taken me to age 31. I had always wanted to be an attorney. However, because there were no Jackie Coogan laws in New York my parents had spent all of my money. And it was a lot. In a slow year like 1966 I made $46,000. But all of my money was gone and my hopes of being an attorney were dashed. So I’m 21 with no money to go to college. I know I need to get a job. Back then you didn’t need a college degree to get a position. It’s much harder today. But I realized that if I started at the bottom and learned through “on-the-job” training, I might be able to make it. I had decided I didn’t want to act anymore. So the first thing I did was go cut my hair. And my agent just lost his mind…as did my mother. But I went ahead and got a job. I’ve really had two very different lives. I had that life. And now I have this life. And I’m very blessed. I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’m a very rich person. You know what’s really interesting about us “Wonka” kids? We still get along and we’ve all ended up pretty normal people. And we had a great experience. I mean, nobody got to see what we saw. Even if you see it on the big screen you will never be able to recreate what I saw. And I had the weirdest experience after I was done shooting. I’m back at school in New York and we’re at the Museum of Modern Art. All of a sudden some kids start pointing at me and I turn to my best friend and she says, “Oh my God, you’re turning blue!” I go into the ladies room and look in the mirror and everything…my face, my hands, my neck…is blue. So I was it off and go back out. A few minutes later I’m blue again! This went on for 48 hours. Finally I learned that the “blueberry” make up they had used in Germany had blue food dye in it and it was coming out through my pores!

I remember when I was in the blueberry costume, rather than have me get out and back into the costume Mel Stuart left me in the suit hanging from the rafters while we broke for lunch. He gave a crew member instructions to turn me 180 degrees every five minutes. So for five minutes I’m looking up at the ceiling, the next five minutes I’m looking at the floor.

MG: How long did it take to film that scene?
DN: A whole day of filming. Eight hours. The day before they had me lay down on a piece of paper and they did a tracing of my body. The next day I come in and there is a giant Styrofoam ball with a place for my body in the middle. It was like an Oreo. So they put me inside the ball. And after five hours of flapping my arms, I was pissed off! If you look at my face in the film, I am not acting…I’m pissed. And those damn Oompa Loompas did not have their blueberry drivers license so every time they’d try to push me out the door they’d lose control and I’d slam into the door frame. Every time it would happen I’d hear Mel yell, “Cut! Do it again.” And I’d think to myself, “you sons of bitches!” Watch the film…by the 32nd take I’m looking at these little guys and thinking “look here, ass holes, if we don’t clear that door frame I’m making you shorter then you already are!”

MG: What do you think about the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remakes for Willy Wonka and now the confirmed “Dark Shadows” remake?
DN: That Johnny Depp is always on my tail. He’s trying to follow my life. He must ask himself what else can I do that Denise Nickerson did? It’s obvious that he’s trying to mirror my career! (laughs) The local television station filmed me going to the theatre to see it and talked to me afterwards. The Denver Post found out that the girl who plays Violet in the remake was also from Denver so they ran a story stating that Denver has cornered the market on blueberries.

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One Reply to “Interview with Denise Nickerson”

  1. At least there’s no Amy Jennings in the 2012 re-imagining of Dark Shadows! For Nickerson, that would have made the situation even worse! (Jennings was her character. What if Jennings was in the new Dark Shadows and completely out of character?)

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