Pop Culture

Original Charlie Bucket keeps low profile

Peter Ostrum takes off his hay-scratched cap and gloves, then walks into a classroom at Lowville Academy.

“This is the boy,” a teacher says, introducing a smiling, 47-year-old mustachioed man.

And 120 small fans start cheering.

Ostrum is the original Charlie Bucket, the boy star of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Now he’s a veterinarian specializing in cattle and horses in New York’s dairy country. He’s also a husband and a father.

Just as Charlie Bucket was special by staying a normal boy, Ostrum very much just wants to be a regular guy. “No interviews,” he politely tells reporters as he drives from farm to farm. But a remake titled “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” comes out Friday, and everyone wants to know how Ostrum feels.

He doesn’t feel like talking — except to one young, rural audience one day a year.

The second-graders crowd around him on the classroom rug. They don’t ask the reporters’ boring questions like “What do you think of the remake, Mr. Ostrum?” or “Do you think it should have been made?”

They know what’s important.

“The chocolate river, was it really chocolate?”

“Did the wallpaper you licked taste good?”

His visit is so special that they save him for the last day of school.

“Sometimes the moms say, ‘Can I come in?”’ says teacher Carol Reed, who first invited Ostrum 15 years ago.

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Ostrum isn’t someone who’s going to boast about himself, she says. But ask around, and it’s clear Ostrum — a Cleveland native who moved here after college — is the most famous man in Lowville, a 3,400-person village known for its cream-cheese plant and snow.

There’s the new attention from the Tim Burton-directed remake starring Johnny Depp — and the invitation from National Public Radio to see a screening in New York City. Ostrum even showed up this month on VH1, 78th in its countdown of “100 Greatest Kid Stars,” between Diane Lane and Menudo — all from appearing in just one Hollywood film.

That and his rejection of a three-film deal after “Willy Wonka” in 1971 bring an awe here that lasts long after second grade.

“We were just talking about it,” says Clancey Watkins, 17. “We were talking about our future plans. Because our goal is to get away.”

She and classmate Meagan Muncy sit in what might be the coolest place in town, a new coffee bar with a “Friends”-like decor. They sum up Lowville pretty quickly.

“Your typical small farming hick town.”

“Cows.”

“Lots of them.”

“More cows than people.” (True, agricultural officials say.)

Ask the girls about more recent school speakers, and they roll their eyes.

“Don’t do drugs, don’t do alcohol, don’t do sex. We had, like, five of those assemblies this year,” Watkins says. “But his was the best. I remember his.”

That’s why Ostrum, who used to lie about “Willy Wonka” and say his brother did it, now agrees to talk, but just for kids.

At the end of a long day’s rounds, he pauses behind his vet clinic counter and explains: “It’s nice in a rural town like this — not that they’re stuck here — but, to tell them there’s a bigger world out there. You know, some of these kids will never leave the county.”

So they look for other ways to escape. At the local video store, a quiet town’s curiosity about its equally quiet star has worn out the “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” cassette. Twice.

And that, says manager Sharon Momeo, like many things in Lowville, doesn’t happen very often.

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