November 01, 2000

 

 Dr. Ostrum and the chocolate factory


Peter Ostrum (right) as Charlie Bucket, with co-star Jack Albertson, in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

Below: "Charlie" today: Dr. Peter Ostrum tends to the needs of cows and cats, among other animals.

Once upon a time there was a boy named Peter Ostrum, who was having an ordinary childhood until, one day, he was cast as Charlie Bucket in the film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," based on Roald Dahl's popular children's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Those familiar with the film may recall it was everybody's non-pollutionary, anti-institutionary, pro-confectionery factory of fun.

That boy grew up to be Dr. Peter Ostrum, a practitioner who does mostly dairy work and is now more concerned with milk production than milk chocolate. He'd done no other films prior to his experience with "Willy Wonka," and, even though the film might have launched a movie career, it was his first and only big screen appearance.

The opportunity came when Dr. Ostrum was in sixth grade and performing at the Cleveland Playhouse children's theater. His performance was noticed by casting agents who were searching nationwide for the right boy to play Charlie Bucket, the lead boy in the film.

Dr. Peter Ostrum"It was the prevideo era, so they took a few Polaroid pictures and tape-recorded me reading from the book," Dr. Ostrum recalled. The casting agents returned to New York, offering nothing more than "Don't call us; we'll call you if we're interested." Approximately two months later, however, they did call, and he went to New York for a screen test. Another month passed before he got the word: pack your bags and be ready to fly to Munich, Germany in 10 days to begin filming.

One of the things Dr. Ostrum treasures from his German odyssey was being 12 and living abroad. "It was sort of like being an exchange student for five months," he said. The film was shot prior to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. "They were building the Olympic city at that time, and that was exciting."

He also has fond memories of working on the film with his fellow actors, including Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka, and the late Jack Albertson, who played Charlie's Grandpa Joe. Moviemaking, however, didn't particularly capture his fancy.

"Everybody thinks that acting is such a glamorous profession, but it's a difficult profession." After the picture wrapped, the studio heads were prepared to offer him a three-picture deal if he signed on the dotted line.

But Dr. Ostrum, who turned 13 during the filming of "Willy Wonka," was drawn to another calling. Not long after he returned from Germany, his family acquired a horse, and he started working at the stable where the horse was kept. His interest in horses was notable, but Dr. Ostrum recalled something else that made a strong imprint on him — the horse's veterinarian.

"I can remember the veterinarian coming out and taking care of the horses, and it made a huge impression on me," Dr. Ostrum said. "This person really enjoyed what he did for a living. My father was a lawyer, and I really didn't have a clue what he did all day. But I knew exactly what the veterinarian did. Someone making a living from something he enjoyed so much really sparked my interest."

Dr. Ostrum took a year off between high school and college to groom at a few stables, then worked at the Delaware Equine Center in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Hollywood still beckoned.

"I spoke to some of the people who had been involved with making "Willy Wonka." At that point it appeared difficult for me to get into veterinary school. I thought maybe I should pursue acting, and went to discuss it with them."

He traveled to California for a week to test the waters, he said, but came back even more determined to get into veterinary school.

"I thought, if that doesn't work, then maybe I could do something else. But I would always have in the back of my mind, 'you should've tried to get into veterinary school.' If I didn't pursue that, I'd always kick myself." His determination paid off: he received his DVM degree in 1984 from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Today, a practitioner in Glenfield, NY, Dr. Ostrum visits public schools in his community to talk about his experiences, what it's like to be a veterinarian, and how one's life changes with the decisions one makes.

"Acting was fine, but I wanted something more steady, and the key is to find something that you love doing, and that's what my profession has given to me."

For many years, he put his brief film career behind him, preferring not to discuss it. In recent years, however, the film has experienced a revival with new and nostalgic audiences. There are Web sites dedicated to the film and its cast. There have been two Wonka reunions of the cast in the past two years, with several more planned. In October, Dr. Ostrum was scheduled to rejoin some of his former co-stars to record an audio track for a special-edition DVD release of the film.

"We've never really sat down, all the [Wonka] 'kids,' and watched the film together. When you watch the DVD you'll be able to hear our reactions and commentary throughout the film. That will be unique."

These days, instead of being in front of the camera, Dr. Ostrum is more likely found behind it, chronicling the growth of his own two children. As they grow old enough to appreciate the film, he's gaining a new perspective on the work he did when he was young. "My daughter Helenka is eight, and she's very interested in the movie. She asks good questions about it and thinks it's pretty neat."

As new generations of fans come along, it's possible Dr. Ostrum will continue to enjoy some celebrity for the single film credit he acquired almost 30 years ago. Although he chose to become a veterinarian rather than a veteran actor, Dr. Peter Ostrum may never be completely out of the spotlight.