There was something so kind and gentle about him, something sweet and loving in that sunlit cloud of hair and those soft eyes that looked always close to tears, even when they were dancing and mocking and daring you to guess what lay behind them.
As Wonka he transformed a cynically silly kids’ movie into something uproarious and unexpected and slightly disturbing, the eminently Dahlian mischief flickering across his face and singing in his voice leaving something indelible for generations to remember.
His condition for taking the part was that on Wonka’s first entrance, he would walk out crippled and decrepit, before going into a roll and bouncing to his feet sprightly and bursting with energy. This was so, as he said, “from then on the audience would have no idea whether I’m telling the truth or not”. And such was the irresistible duplicity he brought to the role. That unforgettable expression of quiet glee that he wore, the imbuing of every line with amusement and mockery and irony and the faintest hint of menace. Travelling down a chocolate river he flicked the switch to psychotic mania — the utter genius of the portrayal slamming home like a cotton-wool sledgehammer.
That genius was deployed in a wide range of roles, however. As Leo Bloom he was mild-mannered and innocent and panicky: a role that fit that gentle face and shy manner like a glove. So how was it the same face, the same manner, could also glide into the effortless cool of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, a sidekick that never sought to steal a scene but made every one he was in immeasurably better? How was it he could also be the manic Dr Frederick Frankenstein (FrankenSTEEN), proceeding from restrained dignity to irritable frustration to full-blown scenery-guzzling psychosis in one of history’s greatest parodies?
It was always him, charming and polite and softly-spoken even while teetering on the edge of passionate explosions of anger and bafflement that were all the more hysterical for the contrast with the sweetness of the man. Paired with Richard Pryor, an unlikely coupling of wildly divergent comic styles that produced the sweetest of music. He outlived Pryor, as he outlived Gilda Radner, that other comedic genius who shared screen and life with him for not long enough.
As everyone eventually he must, he has left. As very few manage, he left behind an imprint on the world that has made millions of lives a little more joyful and a little easier to bear. How wonderful a way to live a life, devoted heart and soul to laughter. How lucky we are, that we will always have his voice, and his words, and those wide, liquid eyes, smiling at us and assuring us that beauty is still to be found.