Denise Nickerson Dies: ‘Willy Wonka’, ‘Dark Shadows’ Actress Was 62
Denise Nickerson, who played the bratty, bloated Violet Beauregarde in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and a sweet-natured orphan bedeviled by ghosts and werewolves on the classic ’60s supernatural soap Dark Shadows, died Wednesday night at a hospital near her home in Colorado. In declining health since suffering a stroke last year, Nickerson was removed from life support by her family earlier that day. She was 62.
Nickerson’s son Josh Nickerson posted news of his mother’s death on Facebook after keeping friends and fans apprised of her health issues. Denise Nickerson was a longtime attendee at fan conventions for both Wonka and Dark Shadows.
“She’s gone,” Nickerson’s family posted on Facebook.
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Born in New York City in 1957, Nickerson began acting on shows including The Doctors and Flipper before landing her breakthrough role in 1968 as little Amy Jennings on Dan Curtis’ gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. Teamed with young David Henesy, the two child actors were at the center of a wildly popular storyline inspired by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, in which the kids were haunted and eventually possessed by a ghost named Quentin Collins (David Selby, in his own breakthrough role).
Nickerson, along with the rest of the cast, was soon appearing on covers of teenybopper magazines, with fans waiting outside ABC’s Hells Kitchen studio each day for autographs.
But the soap’s outsize popularity vanished as quickly as it arrived, and upon its cancellation in 1971 Nickerson soon found herself one of the few cast members to land a role that would prove as durable in memory and pop culture as the Collins family curse.
But first there was a flop – and a big one: Nickerson played the title role in 1971’s Lolita, My Love, a notorious stage musical failure by John Barry and My Fair Lady’s Alan Jay Lerner, based on the Nabokov novel. Co-starring John Neville, Dorothy Loudon, and The Boys In The Band‘s Leonard Frey, Lolita, My Love played pre-Broadway engagements in Philadelphia and Boston, ravaged by critics and closing before hitting New York. With a reported loss of $900,000, Lolita, My Love would quickly enter the annals of infamous Broadway flops.
Fortunately for Nickerson, then 13, a better booking soon followed when she was cast as Violet Beauregarde, the gum-chewing mean girl of 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Giving star Gene Wilder’s exasperated Wonka plenty to play against, Nickerson stole some gum (and each of her scenes), paying a hefty price: As her skin turns purple, she swells to the size of a giant, round blueberry. As she’s rolled to the “juicing room” by the Oompa-Loompas, Nickerson’s ready-to-blow Violet has become the film’s most memorable villain and kids movie cautionary tale.
A few roles followed – Search For Tomorrow, The Brady Bunch, Allison in The Electric Company, in Michael Ritchie’s Smile. Nickerson would later say in interviews that she auditioned for the role of the possessed Regan in 1973’s The Exorcist but her parents thought the material too disturbing. After appearing in Don Weis’ 1978 film Zero To Sixty opposite Darren McGavin and Sylvia Miles (who died last month), Nickerson retired from acting to pursue a nursing career.
Nostalgia conventions and cast reunions kept her in touch with fans of both Willy Wonka and Dark Shadows, and last summer her son Josh shared news on social media that Nickerson had suffered a severe stroke. Her health deteriorated throughout the year, and, according to a Go Fund Me page set up by her son to pay death expenses, she had recently been in a “coma-like state” after suffering a seizure and pneumonia. She was removed from life-support Wednesday.
Nickerson is survived by her son Josh Nickerson and daughter-in-law Jasmine.
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