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.

Yes, I am Willy Wonka 1 September,2016Amanda Font

  • Amy

    Evan,

    I wanted to personally thank you for sharing your childhood memory about meeting Gene Wilder. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is my husband’s all time favorite movie and hearing of Wilder’s passing really touched us. But I have a huge smile on my face right now knowing that Wilder was so kind to the little boy who swam up to him. I can’t wait to share your perspective with the rest of my family.

    Amy

    P.S. My husband is also an architect and we named our son Evan. Don’t know why I’m telling you this other than it also made me smile to see your profile.

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