A Bittersweet Career Journey: From Child Star to…Dairy Farms

When we think of a one-hit wonder, we think of songs and artists. “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners; Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.” We think of authors and books. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But what about child actor Peter Ostrum, who made his debut (and final) starring role as Charlie Bucket in the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?”

Given a real-life Golden Ticket, Ostrum lived the dream many could only imagine as they flipped through the pages of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and Chocolate Factory. But Ostrum, now a dairy farm veterinarian living and working in Upstate NY, took a taste of the sweet life for real – and then decided he’d had his fill.

Ostrum visited Seneca Falls, NY on Thursday April 21st, 2016, and made an appearance at The Gould Hotel as part of a publicity press release party hosted by the nonprofit theater group Seneca Community Players. The Players invited Ostrum to speak at their event in coordination with their upcoming musical production of Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonka” this summer, which will be performed July 15th – 17th.

Making an appearance out of the good of his heart, Ostrum didn’t charge for his appearance at the event.  All proceeds, such as those from autographs and photos, went to the Seneca Community Players. Attendees were able to get their own item which they’d brought with them autographed or have a picture taken with Ostrum for a suggested donation of $5, or could purchase a signed headshot for $10.

A decadent dessert buffet was donated by local businesses specially for the event. The sweet-tooth’s delicious dream spread included a chocolate fondue fountain with marshmallows, fruit and candy for dipping, hand-spun cotton candy in over 30 flavors (with out-of-the-box flavors such as Pina Colada and Chai Latte!), and tables chock-full of candies, cupcakes, cakes, and cheesecakes.

Giddy as kids in a candy shop, attendees filled their plates and took their seats, and Ostrum’s speech began.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Ostrum was 12 years old when he was selected by talent agents to be in the film. Though he says he enjoyed the experience, he ultimately opted out of signing a three-film contract when it was over.

Ostrum said he got his start in acting by working with the Cleveland Playhouse, which is one of the oldest professional theatres in the United States. The Playhouse touts a role in kick-starting the careers of many famous actors and actresses: Broadway star Joel Grey got his start there, as did Margaret Hamilton, who played The Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”

The now-grown child star said that during casting of the film, the casting agency had called all over the country to check in with local community and children’s theatres. The Cleveland Playhouse was one of the theatres they contacted, and Ostrum’s name was given as a recommendation for a good fit for the role of Charlie.

At the time, Ostrum was a sixth grader, and had been working with the Playhouse for about two years. He did a production a year through the children’s theatre, and was even cast in some of the Playhouse’s adult productions as well.

2016-05-04-04-00-30Despite being such a local star, Ostrum was still a long-shot from the big lights of Hollywood or Broadway. “I had never been in a film before, so I was basically an unknown,” he said.

Ostrum said the film’s production team sent a representative from New York to guide him through the audition process. Of the experience auditioning, he said “We had no script at that point; they were still writing the script. And so I just read from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

After being tape-recorded reading some lines and having a few shots of him snapped with a Polaroid, the representative took everything back to New York to present to the film’s director, Mel Stuart. If they were interested, he was told he’d receive a phone call sometime over the summer.

Ostrum did receive the long anticipated call later that summer, and went to New York to do a screen test. Acting out a scene from the film with another actor, the production team and casting agents were able to see what he looked like on film, and they were impressed.

“So then they called in August and said, ‘Ok, you’re Charlie, and you’ve got to be in Munich, Germany in two weeks to get ready to film,’” Ostrum said, remembering the awe and shock of the moment.

“They wanted me to lose weight for the next month. I was at summer camp as I recall, doing all these activities, and I’m trying to lose weight because Charlie was from a poor family and didn’t eat very well,” Ostrum said about the process of (literally) shaping up for his upcoming role.

Filming took place in Bavaria, and Ostrum spent about 5 months on set there. Getting to travel and live in Germany was a major highlight of his experience, he says.

“This was 1970, and Munich was a pretty exciting place to be at that point. We were two years away from the Munich Olympics, so there was lots of filming,” he said. “It was a kind of coming out for Germany after World War II, in many ways. Twenty-five years after, they were getting ready to put Germany on the world stage again.”

Ostrum’s father travelled over with him to get his son settled, but it wasn’t his first time there. “He had been a “guest” of the Germans… he was captured during World War II during the Battle of the Bulge,” Ostrum joked. “But he was very excited to be back.”

Ostrum said one of the greatest challenges was having to go to school while on the job. He spent three hours a day with a tutor, and had his school assignments sent to him, which he would complete and send back periodically.

“That was often a challenge,” he said. “Being on the set, and if I wasn’t on the set then I had to be in school working on my assignments. But we got it done, and when I came back I was pretty much in line with where all the other kids were.”

Soon, filming was complete. In March, he went back to California to redo some of the sound work, and the film was then released a few months later on July 4th, 1971.

Despite its now-acclaimed success, Ostrum says the film opened to “lukewarm reviews.” Gene Wilder, who played the eccentric factory owner Willy Wonka himself, was just beginning to make a name for himself. Jack Albertson, who played Grandpa Bucket, was already very well known, but Ostrum said the movie didn’t really get popular until about 10 or 12 years later when it came out on video, and people were able to bring it home and introduce it to their children.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the beloved classic film.

Ostrum says the success of the film goes back to universally adored book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. “I don’t think there’s a third or a fourth grade class that hasn’t been read the story by their teacher. It’s one story that everybody’s heard,” he said.

“Why I think it’s been so exciting, why there’s kids that are five years old and people that are 70, 80 years old here tonight, is that you can watch this film with your family. And everybody gets something out of it a little bit different,” Ostrum said.

As for himself, Ostrum said he was reluctant to talk about his starring debut role for years.

“I pretty much denied that I was in the film, or I would say, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong person, or you must mean my brother; he was in it,’” he said.

It wasn’t until he had children of his own that he said his thoughts changed. “I saw that they were kind of interested…now they’re not interested at all; they’re not impressed that their dad was Charlie,” Ostrum said, chuckling. “Someone asked me, ‘your wife is coming down [with you to your speech today], I’m sure?’, and I said, ‘She’s not impressed either.’” Hearty laughs from the audience arose.

All jokes aside, Ostrum says he owes his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to his family. “If it hadn’t been for my parents, I never would have been able to take classes at the Cleveland Playhouse,” he said. Ostrum noted how his parents were supportive from the very beginning and throughout the entire process, but also when he didn’t want to continue anymore, and stated his intentions to stay in school and later, attend veterinary school.

“I look back at that…and that was probably hard for my father, because he did want to be an actor. When he retired, that’s what he did. So it was probably hard for him to support me 100%, but he did,” Ostrum said.

“In the end people go, ‘well why didn’t you continue?’. And that’s a good question. I just didn’t feel that theatre and acting was really my calling,” he said. “I enjoyed theatre, I support theatre, I loved movies, but – it’s a hard way to make a living. Especially as a child actor.”