SALEM, N.Y. (NEWS10) – On Friday, a veterinarian specializing in cows answered student questions about the world of acting, with topics like child stardom and working with Gene Wilder. And yes, he knew what he was talking about.
That veterinarian’s name is Dr. Peter Ostrum, and if you’ve ever seen “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” you’ll know him as none other than Charlie Bucket himself. And, as one Salem Washington Academy elementary school student asked on Friday, how many movies was he in before turning his attention to the world of animal care?
“Uno,” the former actor replied, with a single raised finger and a wry smile.
Ostrum visited Salem’s central school on Friday while in town on business – of the vet kind, not the chocolate kind. Ostrum and his wife live further north in the Adirondacks, and he practices on animals across a wide swath of New York. When word came that he was coming to check on a local farmer’s animals, a friend connected him with Salem CSD.
That’s how the lead child actor of 1970’s most iconic film ended up speaking to two groups of students – first the elementary and middle schoolers, then the high school drama club – in a rural Washington County town. He’s accustomed to the attention – in his own words, he likes to talk.
“I like listening to their questions,” said Ostrum. “Each different age, different grades, different interests in the film. Younger kids are more interested in the particular scenes, the special effects, and the older kids are more interested in how it affected me as an individual – how did it change my life.”
Ostrum knows how to lead the conversation. Hands shot up across the auditorium when it came time for questions, and he picked one elementary student after another. One asked for his thoughts about the more recent Johnny Depp-led “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” – he’s grateful it led more kids to see the original. Another asked how much chocolate he had to eat – some days, a few bars a day. But yes, he still likes chocolate.
He also talked about more than just the film itself. Ostrum finds lessons in the story of his time as a 12-year-old boy on set – including how he would get to and from it. He tells the story of his parents getting him to set, and to his other activities around school, and why kids should be grateful for all their parents do for them.
Leading the conversation meant asking the kids questions, too. Has anyone read the original “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” book? Does anyone know how old the movie is? Do you think they let him skip doing schoolwork for the 5 months he spent shooting the film in Germany? (They didn’t.)
There’s also no avoiding the career change. Kids from both groups asked Ostrum whether he ever wishes he had acted more. His answer is that while sure, there are days where he wonders “what if,” he’s ultimately grateful for a life where he’s been able to do both. He became a veterinarian because his family encouraged him to follow his passions, whether or not those ever brought him back to acting. If someone asked him to be part of a movie again today, he would do it in a heartbeat – because why ignore an open door?
“What I really hope is that kids look at me and see someone who enjoys doing what they do now, but also that there are lots of opportunities. You should pursue your interests – your opportunities – every step of the way.”
He was also asked if he got to keep the iconic Wonka-branded golden ticket that wins Charlie the chance to take the tour of a lifetime. He doesn’t – but he did bring with him a professionally-made replica, which he keeps framed in glass, and likes to show off whenever he gives a talk.
Sharing the screen
After playing Charlie Bucket, Ostrum became quiet about that part of his life for some time. When “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was released, its reception was fairly positive, but in no way indicative of what the movie would become in American pop culture. When Ostrum had kids, even they didn’t hear about it at first.
That all changed when the film turned 25 years old. An author reached out to Ostrum, hoping to include his voice in a book on the making of the film. That ended up reconnecting Ostrum with Denise Nickerson (who played Violet Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruka Salt), and Michael Bollner (Agustus Gloop).
“Now we meet up every two or three years,” Ostrum said to a student who asked on the topic. “Even now, after all this time, we have a lot to talk about.”
During much of Ostrum’s visit on Friday, a laptop stood on a wheeled trolley by his side. It was running a Zoom call with Rob Skelly, a 2015 Salem graduate who played Charlie Bucket himself when Salem CSD’s drama club held a production of “Willy Wonka” in 2009. That student is now in veterinarian school, too, following in Ostrum’s footsteps.
At the end of the day, between starring in “Willy Wonka” and taking care of animals, it isn’t hard to figure out which topic Ostrum is more often asked about. But what he wishes people would ask him more doesn’t specifically focus on either. Just like the way he talked to the Salem students on Friday, it has to do with life as a whole.
“It’s probably ‘How do you make those life decisions,’ or ‘How do you handle disappointment?’ Being an actor, being an author, many times you don’t get chosen – your book doesn’t get published. In your professional career, things won’t always go according to plan. It’s about how you get knocked down and get back up again.”