Paris Themmen had the opportunity to live in a world of pure imagination when he played Mike Teevee in the cult classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He’s grown up a lot since the 1970s, but he’s still known as the kid who watched too much TV and shrunk himself down via Wonka Vision. Paris loves talking about his time working on the film and Whitney Grace spent some time with him to answer some of her own burning questions.
Whitney Grace (WG): I have the lovely opportunity to speak with a guy who won a golden ticket and still has it today. It’s great to meet Mr. Paris Themmen who played the television obsessed Mike Teevee in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Paris Themmen (PT): It’s great to be speaking with your as well, but allow me to clarify that I don’t have my screen used golden ticket. We’re talking on a convention floor, so I have golden ticket replicas I sell and sign.
WG: I also meant it figuratively as well.
PT: You’re right. Once a golden ticket winner, always a golden ticket winner.
WG: How did you get the part as Mike Teevee?
PT: When I was six years old in New York City, there weren’t a lot of child actors in the city. My mother took my sister to an agent’s office and I tagged along for the ride. My parents were both classically trained musicians, so they were on the peripherals of popular entertainment. They had the idea to put my sister in commercials, but the agent asked, “Why not him?” I ended up booking my first commercial for JIF Peanut Butter. I was on top of a mountain of peanuts eating peanut butter. My second one was for Crazy Bubbles. I was the only six year old who could say Crazy Bubbles Bubble Blown Bubble Bath three times fast.
It kept rolling from there. By the time I auditioned for Willy Wonka, I was eleven years old and a five-year acting veteran.
WG: Mike Teevee for lack of a better words is a brat.
WG: Are there any similarities between you and the character?
PT: Now or then?
PT: Now, I’m fairly well behaved. Then, absolutely. Among the kids, other than Peter Ostrum who was very much like Charlie, I was probably the most like my character.
WG: Did you spend an endless amount of hours watching TV?
PT: No, I probably watch more hours of TV now than I did then. We’re all fairly sucked into the reality TV world and that kind of stuff these days. No, I meant that I tended to be very obnoxious, unlike Julie Dawn Cole who played an awesome, brat but was very sweet off screen.
WG: When you were on the set you had to wear a cowboy costume. Were you a cowboy fan or did you hate wearing it?
PT: I do remember thinking it was fun to walk around with guns and the outfit.
WG: Your on-screen mother Dodo Denney was a very obnoxious character. Was she like that off camera?
PT: No, she was awesome. We filmed the movie in Munich, Germany in 1970 and she called me: “meine kleine maus.” Although my mother and two sisters were with me there, each of the Willy Wonka kids, in particular Julie who played Veruca, formed a special attachment with their movie parent. Julie especially, because her parents weren’t there. She had a chaperone, but she and Roy Kinnear definitely bonded. No, I liked Dodo very much. I don’t think she was very obnoxious on screen, but we both were trying to get one over on Wonka. I thought she was more humorous and obnoxious was more my domain.
WG: What did you like about working with Gene Wilder?
PT: He was great and a very nice guy. He still is when I occasionally see him. He’s a good actor, smart, and a comedic genius.
WG: When you were filming one of the last scenes with all the bubbles spouting out at you…
PT: Oh yeah, the Wonka Wash.
WG: What were the bubbles made from?
PT: It’s the foam they lay out on airport tarmacs to make sure the plane doesn’t explode when friction is created between the fuselage and the runway. It’s a variant on what you would find if you pushed the ignition on your fire extinguisher.
WG: What did you do afterwards? Were you laughing the whole time or did you have to take a shower afterwards?
PT: I liked it. They had to wash us obviously between takes. Some of the adults developed rashes, but I didn’t. It was cold and it was fun. I liked almost everything they did to me: the exploding gum. The only thing that was uncomfortable was when they put me in a harness for that scene when I was picked up after being shrunk.
WG: Speaking of that one scene, when Mike Teevee wanted to be part of Wonka Vision, how did they film it? For those of you unfamiliar with that part of the movie, Mike Teevee decides he wants to actually be on television and thanks to a new invention by Willy Wonka, he gets sent into television. Nowadays they would film that on a green screen. How did they do it in 1970?
PT: They did a few things. One was cell animation, so they painted the dots for the millions of tiny pieces (which was me being transferred along TV waves in the air) on cells. They did a “land of the giants effect”, where they built a giant TV set for me to walk around in and they actually did some green screen as well.
WG: What was you favorite part about filming that scene?
PT: Probably the close up. It’s always fun to be getting your close up and I had two in the movie. The first was when they interviewed me for winning the ticket and the second was this scene. It was fun, except Mel Stuart, the director, kept getting my goat trying to make me meaner and more obnoxious. He tried to wind me up.
WG: It has been quite some time since Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was filmed and no one can ever predict how popular a movie will be. What has impressed you the most about this movie’s longevity?
PT: I agree with you that none of us certainly knew how popular the movie would be. I’m happy that it has done so well, because forty-three years later I’m standing at a convention and selling autographs. It’s a good thing. As for as why it has longevity, it’s because of the script. Mel Stuart the director, as well as Roald Dahl, both had intentions to not talk down to kids and make it as much for the adults as the kids. Just yesterday somebody came up to my table and said thank goodness my kids like this movie, because I like it too. We both can watch this movie, rather than something insipid.
WG: The boat ride is very notorious. Is it true that it was meant to mimic a drug episode?
PT: No, I think a lot of things in the film, not just the boat ride, reflect the seventies psychedelic culture. None of the creative team were into drugs. Roald Dahl, no. The director, no. None of these guys, I don’t know about Rusty Goff the production designer, but he came from Disney and they’re pretty square over there. I think it’s just something we bring our view of it.
WG: After this movie was filmed what have you done with your life?
PT: I’ve done many things, but I’ll try to be brief. I traveled to sixty-one countries with a backpack on my back. I worked briefly at Walt Disney Imagineering when they were building Euro Disney in Paris. I was a show systems manager with them for a couple years. I spent six years as a financial advisor at Smith-Barney. I’ve worked in casting, behind the scenes. Many places.
WG: One final question I ask every single one of my interviewees, do you have anything to declare?
PT: I feel like I’m going through customs.
WG: Everyone says that.
PT: It’s what they ask when you’re in the airport. I do, however, declare it’s been very nice to speak with you and hello to everyone out there.