The child star of the original 1971 film turned his back on Hollywood to pursue another dream entirely.
The child star of the original 1971 film turned his back on Hollywood to pursue another dream entirely.
If you’ve ever watched family movies, there’s a good chance you recognize the young man pictured above. If not, this is Charlie Bucket, the central character in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Now, it’s a fantastical tale that follows the young boy on a journey to a remarkable location. But despite the film’s success, child-actor Peter Ostrum never worked in Hollywood again. And the reason he gave up stardom might surprise you.
Now, the movie itself is based on the Roald Dahl children’s book with a similar name. And starring Ostrum as Charlie, it also featured other child actors in roles including Augustus Gloop, Mike Teevee and Veruca Salt. What’s more, that group of kids comprised the lucky few invited to explore the weird and wonderful world of Willy Wonka.
Indeed, the movie’s most interesting character, Wonka, was played by comedy legend, the late Gene Wilder. In fact, Wilder’s portrayal of the factory owner earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globes. Amazingly, the actor was able to depict Wonka as someone to be liked, and feared, in equal measure. For instance, his pleasure at the dispatching of several of his young visitors isn’t easily forgotten.
Yes, Wilder’s Wonka definitely stole the movie. But the story is really about Charlie Bucket and his family who have fallen on hard times. As generations of Buckets live crammed together in one house, his grandparents are bedridden and Charlie himself works as a paperboy. So no wonder Wonka’s offer of a lifetime supply of chocolate appeals to the young man.
And after the candy-maker announces that five lucky winners will have a tour of his factory, chaos ensues. With just a handful of winning, golden tickets up for grabs, randomly hidden in Wonka bars, the candy becomes ridiculously popular. As you might guess, Charlie is, of course, determined to find a winning bar. But his family have little money to spare.
Despite this, the Buckets club together, and buy Charlie two Wonka bars. Sadly, neither contains a winning ticket. But in the meantime, four of the five golden tickets are found elsewhere by lucky children. They are German Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt from the U.K., Arizona’s Mike Teevee and Montana’s Violet Beauregarde. However, that doesn’t mean Charlie’s all out of luck.
Yes, because having found some money on the street not long after the four tickets were discovered, Charlie buys another bar. And inside he finds the fifth and final golden ticket. After this, he asks his grandpa Joe to accompany him as chaperone to the Wonka factory for the tour. Unexpectedly, the disabled veteran rises from his bed for the first time in 20 years, overjoyed at the prospect. But as humble as Charlie is on their visit to the factory, it appears not many are like him.
That’s right, for during the Buckets’ day out it becomes clear that their fellow winners are less than ideal guests. And one by one, the young candy fans are picked off as they fearlessly ignore health and safety warnings. In fact, it’s down to their own greed that they end up in such unfortunate scenarios inside the factory. And you have to agree that the ways in which they’re dispatched are pretty funny.
For instance, television obsessive Mike Teevee finds himself shrunk down and sent inside a TV screen; Augustus Gloop falls into a river of chocolate while trying to drink from it and is pulled into a pipeline; and Violet becomes a giant blueberry. Alarmingly, having sampled some forbidden chewing gum, she has to be squeezed or she’ll explode.
But even Charlie and Grandpa Joe have their own near-death experience at the factory. Yes, while helping themselves to some fizzy lifting drink, the pair find themselves literally floating upwards. And discovering that they can’t stop their ascent, the pair almost hit the giant ceiling fan before working out the cure. You’ve guessed it – some loud burping returns them to solid ground. Having survived this incident, the Buckets are the only guests to make it to the end of the tour.
Now during the film’s closing scenes, we discover that Wonka actually had ulterior motives for inviting those children to his factory. Indeed, it turns out that he was looking for an heir, someone to whom he could leave his beloved factory. Each of the children had been tested, and Charlie was the only one to pass. As a result, the Buckets could now call the place home.
So the movie, as you might assume, made something of a star of the young actor playing Charlie. But Peter Ostrum, the 12-year-old lucky enough to win the role, didn’t become the movie staple Hollywood thought he might. In fact, his career took a completely different path, one that would lead him in the opposite direction to showbusiness. On that note, let’s find out more about the then youngster.
Well, born in Texas in 1957, Ostrum was the youngest of his parents Dean and Sarepta’s four children. And he showed an interest in acting from a young age. In fact, when the family moved to Cleveland, he joined a performance company there. Furthermore, it was at the town’s Cleveland Play House children’s theater where he got his big break.
As Ostrum told the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association [AVMA] in 2000, “It was in the pre-video era, so they took a few Polaroid pictures and tape-recorded me reading from the [Roald Dahl] book.” As the audition ended, he recalls the agents saying, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you if we’re interested.” And, for about two months, it seemed that they very much weren’t.
That all changed, though, with a phone call. That’s correct, Ostrum was summoned to New York to undergo an audition. After which, the 12-year-old waited another four weeks to find out if he’d got the part. Eventually, a second call came. You’ve guessed it, he got the part, and just ten days later he was on set as Charlie Bucket. But surprisingly, the film wasn’t shot in America, or even the U.K.
Indeed, filming for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory took place in the German town of Munich, starting in August 1970. Interestingly, the city itself was already preparing for the upcoming 1972 Olympics, and Ostrum very much enjoyed his time there. “They were building the Olympic city at the time, and that was exciting,” he told the Journal of the AVMA.
As you can imagine, the shoot took place over several weeks , with Ostrum essentially living in Germany at the time. “It was sort of like being an exchange student for five months,” he revealed to the veterinary journal. Which surely is a 12-year-old’s dream come true. Getting to live abroad, work on a magical set and get paid isn’t bad for a kid’s first movie job.
Furthermore, making the movie was clearly a bonding moment for Ostrum and his co stars. For you see, he fondly recalls the whole experience, and has even described the cast as a family. But, he holds a special place in his heart for Gene Wilder, who portrayed the colorful candy man, Willy Wonka.
Yes, the star of comedy classics including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Wilder was already an established actor at the time. But Ostrum, though, was making his movie debut and, as such, looked up to the comedy legend. In fact, he later told Variety magazine that his co-star was “a gentle man but he was also a gentleman.”
As Ostrum continued to explain, “[Wilder] was so quirky. You never knew what to expect from him.”But despite the actor’s unpredictable nature on-set, off-set, they pair shared a candy-themed bond. “[The crew] would break for lunch,” Ostrum told Variety magazine, “and Gene and I would always buy a chocolate bar and share it on the way back to set.”
So, when Wilder passed away in 2016, Ostrum was understandably upset. “It’s kind of like losing a parent,” he revealed to Variety following news of his co star’s death. “You know it’s going to happen, but it’s still a shock… It hits you like, ‘Gene is gone and there will never be anyone like him again’.”
Once filming on Willy Wonka had wrapped up, Ostrum went back to his everyday life. Despite being offered a three-picture deal, he chose to return to school. And it seems that, while he mostly enjoyed making the movie, he found that the business simply didn’t suit him. As he told the Journal of the AVMA, “Everybody thinks that acting is such a glamorous profession, but it is a difficult profession.”
Notably, not long after his return, Ostrum’s family bought a horse, and he personally took a job at its stable. And it was there that he met the man that would eventually change the course of his life. “I can remember the vet coming out and taking care of the horses,” he told the veterinary journal.
As Ostrum continued to explain, “[The vet] made a huge impression on me. This person really enjoyed what he did for a living… Someone making a living from something he enjoyed so much really sparked my interest.” So his love of horses remained strong. In fact, the teen then spent a year between high school and college working at various stables. But interestingly, Hollywood hadn’t forgotten him.
That’s right, and Ostrum hadn’t forgotten Hollywood, either. For during that year off, it seems that the teen actually considered a return to the movies. “I spoke to some of the people involved with Willy Wonka. I thought maybe I should pursue acting and went to discuss it with them,” he revealed to the Journal of the AVMA. It turns out, though, that acting was something of a back-up plan.
For you see, Ostrum’s encounter with that vet, it seems, left a lasting impression on the teen. In fact, there was a very good reason why he had contacted those movie types. As he revealed to the journal, “At that point, it appeared difficult for me to get into veterinary school.” Yes, the former child star wanted to become a vet.
Nonetheless, the youngster spent a week in California testing the movie waters, but ultimately, Ostrum knew that he’d found his calling. As far as he was concerned, if he went back to Hollywood,“[I] would always have in the back of my mind, ‘You should have tried to get into veterinary school’,” he told the Journal of the AVMA. He added, “If I didn’t pursue that, I’d always kick myself.”
So Ostrum persevered, and eventually got into the prestigious Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Subsequently, he graduated in 1984, and never looked back. Despite his previous success, the former actor never again appeared in a movie. In fact, he shied away from publicity, even telling people that his brother had played Charlie Bucket in 1971.
Touchingly, the qualified vet then married his current wife, Lorretta, in 1987, and together the couple have two kids. These days, the former actor mainly works with dairy herds, rather than dairy milk chocolate. And, as he told the Journal of the AVMA, “Acting was fine, but I wanted something more steady. The key is to find something that you love, and that’s what my profession has given me.” As time passed, though, Ostrum became a little more press-friendly about his Willy Wonka experience.
Yes, he finally broke his silence in 2000, and spoke to the Journal of the AVMA. Furthermore, he even appeared on the Today show in 2005 alongside the other, now-grown, Wonka kids. And the former child-star revealed he had no regrets about the path he had since chosen outside of Hollywood.
For Ostrum told the show, “[If only] everybody could be so lucky to have an experience like this [the Wonka film], and then [be able to] go in a different direction.” And alongside the friendships he made, the vet has just one other memento from his time on the Willy Wonka set.
But it’s not one of the crazy creations that appeared on-screen, like an Everlasting Gobstopper or a golden ticket. No, it’s a movie clapperboard, used by the director, Mel Stuart, to officially start takes. As Ostrum went on to explain to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), “Mel would say ‘Action!’ And then he would usually say ‘Cut! Ostrum do it again!’”
However, Ostrum’s involvement with the film didn’t end there. That’s right, in 2000, he and the other Wonka kids got together for the film’s 30th anniversary. And they marked the occasion by recording their own commentary for a special DVD release. But it wasn’t just the anniversary that was special.
In fact, recording the audio commentary would prove a momentous moment for the cast. “We never really sat down [all of us] kids and watched the film together,” Ostrum told the Journal of the AVMA. “When you watch the DVD you’ll be able to hear our reactions and commentary throughout.” Furthermore, as the years have passed, the movie has gained new fans following subsequent re-releases.
Yes, for example in 2005 there was a remake by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp as Wonka. But for Ostrum, the original movie took on an even more special significance once he became a father. As he told the OWN network in 2014, “I really didn’t appreciate the significance of the film until I had children of my own. They saw the film… And I realized that my story is a little bit unique.”
And it’s not just Ostrum’s children’s generation that have subsequently fallen in love with the movie. For Entertainment Weekly magazine added Willy Wonka to its Top 50 Cult Movies list in 2003. Then, in 2014, American Congress recognized its importance when the film was chosen for inclusion on the National Film Registry.
For Ostrum, playing Charlie has become a memory that the former actor cherishes. “We captured lightning in a bottle. For whatever reason, the film worked,” he told the OWN network in 2014. But even now, he still can’t quite believe how popular he still is. “Am I famous? In my eyes, absolutely not. And I’m amused that [anybody’s] here to talk to me!”
So, despite Ostrum having turned his back on Hollywood all those years ago, movie fans never forgot him. From conventions to reunions, lovers of the film have had plenty of recent opportunities to meet the real-life Charlie Bucket. But you’ve just as much chance coming across him on your farm. Interestingly, though, Ostrum’s on-screen career hasn’t completely ended.
You’ve heard right, because he actually took part in a YouTube series all about his profession. Entitled Veterinarians on Call, the show follows the animal carer as he goes about his business working with cows and horses. And if the series is to be believed, he couldn’t be happier.
You see, Ostrum’s unlikely journey from Hollywood to veterinary practitioner might seem like a bit of a downer. But for the former child-actor it was clearly the right move, and he still loves the job today. What’s more, he managed to avoid that often destructive transition into adulthood as a child star. But, if you’re only going to make one movie in your lifetime, you could do worse than Willy Wonka. Particularly when that movie means you still get royalty checks every few weeks, even 40 years on.