Look out, Dos Equis guy, because the Most Interesting Man in the World might actually be one who’s been to 61 countries, had lunch with acclaimed British author Roald Dahl and has a Funko Pop! vinyl figure made in his likeness.
I’m talking about Paris Themmen, the man who played rambunctious rascal Mike TeeVee in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Along with actress Julie Dawn Cole, who played the demanding and temperamental Veruca Salt, Themmen will be in El Paso for “The Ultimate Willy Wonka Party” at the Alamo Drafthouse this coming Wednesday, Sept. 14.
Tickets are going fast, but you can purchase them here. The night of pure imagination will consist of a quote-along screening of the classic film, prop bags that will include – you guessed it – candy, a special edition movie poster signed by Themmen and Cole and a Q&A session with the actors.
It’s an odd (and sad) coincidence that Gene Wilder’s death came just weeks before Drafthouse’s screening of the beloved movie, which was planned well in advance. I talked to Themmen over the phone several days before Wilder died, and as many can imagine, he only had nice things to say about the comedic icon.
“Gene Wilder was a lovely man – very talented,” Themmen said. “He was nice to us. I was 11, so I didn’t have a mature relationship with him, but he always seemed very sweet.”
There’s no business like show business
When talking about Gene Wilder, I often think of a relatable remark he once made in an interview conducted by Alec Baldwin for Turner Classic Movies: “I don’t like show business, I realized. I like show, but I don’t like the business.” I asked Themmen what he thought of that sentiment.
“I think that’s true of a lot of actors and artists in general,” Themmen said. “I think that people become artists, whether they’re ballet dancers or classical composers, or whatever they become, because they don’t necessarily want to be involved in the world of business. They want to create.”
Themmen also got to meet Roald Dahl, the mastermind behind “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Matilda,” “The Witches” and “The BFG.” Along with the macabre humor in his stories, the acclaimed writer was known by many for his stoic disposition.
“I don’t remember that much about him, to tell you the truth, so I don’t want to fall into the trap of filling in colors that weren’t necessarily there,” Themmen said.
Less foggy is Themmen’s memory of auditioning for “Willy Wonka” and finding out he got the part. Marion Dougherty, the subject of the documentary “Casting By,” was the casting director for the film and is known for having a pivotal role in Hollywood’s talent.
“I was part of a relatively small group of child actors in New York City at that time, and she knew me,” Themmen said. “Her thing was to go small and just do it right, and so I went in and I read and they brought me in for one call back.
“The main thing I remember is when I booked it, I never had done a feature film before. So my mother and I were in a phone booth back when they used to have phone booths. I remember it was raining and that we were both really excited that I booked the film and that we were all going to go to Europe together.”
I couldn’t help but ask Themmen a question he’s probably been asked countless times:
What did you think of the movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
You’ve never heard of the Tim Burton adaptation?
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to open your mouth a little wider when you speak; I’m a trifle deaf in this ear.”
(Laughs at “Willy Wonka” reference.)
“It was not as good as the original, in my opinion. Although there were aspects of it that were more true to the book as they said that they intended, I thought that – in tone – it turned out to be less like the book. It focused more on Wonka than Charlie and it absolutely robbed the relationship between Charlie and Wonka, which I think was essential for the ultimately heart-warming nature of the first one.”
‘Now why don't they show stuff like that on TV?’
While many actors shy away from being affiliated with their childhood movie roles, Themmen has embraced it, most recently with his Alamo Drafthouse tour. After all, it’s not every day that there’s a Funko Pop! of a character you portrayed. And to this day, Themmen can find similarities he has with Mike TeeVee.
“I do watch a lot of TV. I watch some shows that I think Mike TeeVee would be fans of as well – things like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Wire,’” Themmen said. “I’ve watched my fair share of reality TV, mostly ‘Survivor,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Chopped,’ a couple of things like that.”
Themmen and a few “Willy Wonka” co-stars got to be on reality TV when they were invited as guests for the competitive Bravo show “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” The contestants had to build a Wonka land for the film’s 40th anniversary. Most recently, one of the show’s producers invited Themmen to be a guest judge on Food Network’s “Willy Wonka” themed episode of “Cake Wars.”
“That was fun,” Themmen said. “I got to act like I knew what I was talking about in terms of food, although of course, being on reality TV, I was encouraged at every turn to relate my comments back to 'Willy Wonka.' So I sort of prepared a couple in advance. I knew before I went there that I was going to say, ‘Yes this is good, but it could use just a soupçon of snozzberry.’”
‘We have so much time and so little to see – wait a minute – strike that, reverse it’
Outside of “Willy Wonka,” Themmen has lived an extraordinary life. His diverse resume includes spending years in film production, real estate and a stint at Walt Disney Imagineering, the company behind Disney theme parks.
“I was a show systems manager, and so I was one of these people whose job it was to make sure that the rides and attractions got built on time and under budget,” Themmen said. “So I was therefore marshaling the efforts of a whole slew of creative types, like writers and artists, landscape architects, architects, sound effects people, musicians, you know – depends on the ride and what it’s going to be.”
But what stood out the most to me in his career was his traveling experience.
“I was getting out of college and my acting teachers were telling me that I’ve been an actor for so long that I needed to go out and experience life more so that I could understand what it’s like to be just a person than an actor,” Theman said.
“So when I got out of college, I was in a phone booth again – apparently a lot of the major events in my life happened in phone booths – and I saw a thing on the wall, which was an advertisement for a company called Air Hitch. It was run by a guy named Robert Segelbaum. He would send backpackers to Europe for 150 bucks, standby, on charter flights at the last minute.”
Themmen then got a job with the company, intensifying his itch to travel. Later, he and a friend decided to start a similar business of their own: Access International.
“I was the guy who would go out to the airport and provide them with warm bodies to fill their empty seats at the last minute,” Themmen said. “I could get on the airport and go on a charter flight that was going anywhere because I had relationships with all the charter operators.
“By the time I was 30, I had been to 30 countries, and now I’ve been to 61 counties around the world. I’ve been to six continents. Amazing adventures all over the world.”
‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men’
He and his business partner eventually sold Access International, but I asked him what he’s learned from traveling so much.
“What it teaches you is that you really don’t need very much,” he said. “You basically just need your brain and a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush and a towel. And the rest of it is all in your head.”
I expressed that I’ve always wanted to travel the world, but haven’t quite figured out how to go about it, to which he responded with:
“I do have another piece of advice for you: GO. You think that you won’t be able to and you think that it’s not the right time. You think that you can’t afford it and you think that you’ve got too much going on right now, but all of that is wrong. You have to just go and then figure out later if you need to eat ramen for a couple of weeks or whatever it is to make it so that it was okay that you went. You should go first and ask questions later, because the experiences are invaluable.”