Willy Wonka was at the deep end of the pool, and I didn’t know how to swim.
It was the early 1970’s, not long after ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ had come out. We were visiting my grandparents at a hotel in West Hampton. Amazingly, my family and I had caught glimpses of Willy Wonka walking around the hotel. I loved his movie, I was dying to meet Willy Wonka, but I was much, much too shy to approach him.
I knew he wasn’t really Willy Wonka. I was 9 years old, and I knew the difference between real life and movies. But at that age I didn’t know the name of any actors, so he was Willy Wonka to me.
In the afternoon I was playing in the pool, and there was Willy Wonka, near the diving board. I separated myself from my family, walked to the edge of the shallow end, and ducked under the rope-which I was not allowed to do. Terrified of the deep water, I gripped the edge of the pool and made my way-hand over hand-down the left hand side of the pool. At the corner of the deep end I looked around for Willy Wonka. He was still swimming near the diving board. I turned the corner and -hand over hand-I made my way toward him.
He was looking the other way when I got to him. I stopped, and said nothing. Eventually he turned around and noticed me.
“Are you Willy Wonka?” I said.
He tilted his head, then widened his big, blue eyes.
“Yes, I am,” he said in his gentle voice.
We looked at each other for a while, then I turned and made my way-hand over hand-back across the deep end of the pool and into the shallow water where I was safe.
I’ve met many actors since then, and I know that chance encounter with Gene Wilder could have gone any number of ways. He could have been polite, he could have been annoyed, he could have been a jerk. Instead, he looked at a small child, and he was Willy Wonka.
Thank you, Gene. I am still grateful.
With a Perspective, I am Evan Sagerman.
Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and author of children’s books.