Willy Wonka
Several years after the 34 year-old Gene Wilder had played the retiring factory owner Willy Wonka with such stylish charm and eccentricity, a touch of madness almost, in the film musical Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Fred Astaire was at our house in Beverly Hills for dinner. Late that evening, between games of pool, he suddenly turned to me and said in that famous shy, modest voice of his, Leslie, I’ve been wanting to ask you this for years, but I didn’t like to mention it! Why do you suppose it was they didn’t want me to play Willy Wonka? I did not believe what I had just heard. Here was the greatest song and dance man in the history of the world telling me that he had actually asked to play the role of Willy Wonka, and they had turned him down! Ho Hum! Let’s not discuss it! Willy Wonka was kind to us all (Newley and I were nominated for a Best Song Score Oscar and “The Candy Man” was a humongous, multi-million-selling Number One hit single for Sammy Davis, Jr.) and I’ll always love and be grateful for it, but I’ll also remain forever slightly testy at the mere thought of that miraculous might-have-been that was there for the taking - the never-to-be-repeated golden opportunity to work with my magical genius neighbour up the street in Beverly Hills - the one and only, incomparable Fred Astaire! - who then, now, and forever will remain the supremely elegant god of the film musical.