Monday 26 August 2019

Obituary: Denise Nickerson

Child actor who played Violet Beauregarde in 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory'

VIOLET: With the Oompa Loompas. Photo: Getty
VIOLET: With the Oompa Loompas. Photo: Getty

Denise Nickerson, who has died aged 62, was a child actress who was picked, aged 13, to play the part of Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewing know-it-all who blows up into a blueberry in the quirky 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, directed by Mel Stuart and based on Roald Dahl's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.

Already a veteran of television and stage by the time she landed the role, Denise Nickerson was chosen partly for her round, baby cheeks - perfect for someone destined for life as a blueberry.

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The film tells the story of five children who win golden tickets for a tour of a chocolate factory, a garden of edible delights tended by Oompa Loompas, little knowing that their characters are being put to the test by the factory's owner (Gene Wilder).

"It was my first opportunity to work with kids my age - a true delight," Denise Nickerson recalled. "The set, our hotel - I was living in a real fairy tale!"

But Wilder's turn as Willy Wonka was undoubtedly sinister, and the filming was not without moments of spine-chilling terror for the child actors. Asked whether there were any scenes that were particularly scary to film, Denise Nickerson recalled the sequence in which Wonka takes the children and their families on a madcap boat ride in the SS Wonkatania through a tunnel where they encounter holographic images of crabs, leeches and other nasties.

Wilder's acting was so convincing that some of the children thought that the actor really was going mad. "No acting involved. I just was terrified," she recalled.

And she was embarrassed to be told to enact Violet's habit of picking her nose, because she had a crush on the young actor playing the hero, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum).

After her last scene, in which, unable to resist Wonka's magic gum-cum-blueberry pie, her skin starts turning blue and her body swells into a giant blueberry, Denise Nickerson returned to her school but could not get rid of the blue tinge: "They had used food dye in the make-up, so for 72 hours my neck, my ears, my face and my hands were blue."

The daughter of a postal worker father and a clerical worker mother, Denise Nickerson was born on April 1, 1957 in New York City. The family moved to Florida, where Denise won her first acting role aged two on a television commercial, later returning to New York.

She went on to appear on stage in a touring production of Peter Pan, and from the late 1960s started appearing in television shows. In 1968 she joined the cast of the cult series Dark Shadows and in 1971 starred in the television film The Neon Ceiling.

Before landing the part of Violet Beauregarde, she was cast as the nymphette Lolita in a musical based on Nabokov's story. She continued to appear on TV , creating the role of Liza Walton on the CBS soap Search for Tomorrow, and starring in The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (1973). She lost out for the role of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist to Linda Blair.

In 1978 she went into semi-retirement, making sporadic TV appearances and working as a doctor's receptionist.

Denise Nickerson's first husband, Rick Keller, died in 1983. Her second marriage to Mark Willard was dissolved.

She is survived by a son from her second marriage.

Denise Nickerson died on July 10.

Sunday Independent

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