Remembering Denise Nickerson, Willy Wonka Star and Secret Denver Celeb

Denise Nickerson in a recent photo and in her most famous role, as Violet Beauregard in 1971's Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Denise Nickerson in a recent photo and in her most famous role, as Violet Beauregard in 1971's Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. GoFundMe/YouTube
During her youth, Denise Nickerson, who died yesterday, July 10, at the age of 62, was an actress best known for playing Violet Beauregard in the 1971 film classic Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

But for the better part of two decades, she's been a Denver-area resident, and she passed away at a hospital near her Aurora home.

Nickerson didn't flaunt her renown in Colorado, as we noted in our 2002 Best of Denver issue, in which she was named "Best Secret Celebrity." The item reads:
As a youngster, Denise Nickerson participated in projects that have garnered her eternal fame among members of two separate cults: She was in the cast of the 1960s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, and she co-starred as Violet Beauregarde, the obsessive gum-chewer who turned into a giant blueberry, in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Nickerson subsequently left show business, and in April 2001, she and her son moved to Denver, where she works for an accounting firm. For the most part, she leads a low-key life, but she happily participated in promoting the thirtieth-anniversary DVD of Wonka. Given how star-starved Denver is (why did Gary Coleman ever move away?), it's nice to have her here.
More recently, Nickerson's son, Joshua Nickerson, and his wife, Jasmine, launched a GoFundMe page in which they share details of her recent health struggles.

"Last year, you may have heard that Denise suffered a severe stroke that caused extreme damage," reveal Joshua and Jasmine, who point out that they were both her caretakers and only immediate family. "It's been a long, hard year, and we have been with her and caring for her everyday since then. Jasmine quit her job to stay at home with her full-time so she didn't have to live in a nursing home. We gave up over half of our income at that time and have done everything we can to survive. Joshua works a second job to float us for groceries and necessities. We found out in January we are pregnant with out first child, due August 26th."

On Monday, July 8, the account continues, "Jasmine had an appointment to see her doctor for the baby. Josh drove up there and then went back home to Denise. In the seven minutes we were gone, Denise got into her medicines and took as much as she could. Josh stopped her and rushed her to the ER. At some point during this event, she aspirated, and caught pneumonia. She was stabilized and kept for observation." Then, on Tuesday, July 9, "Denise suffered a massive seizure. This event, paired with the weakness from the stroke and issues she had from that and the pneumonia, caused her to stop exhaling carbon dioxide from her body. She began to experience blood poisoning and her body shut down." Early the next morning, after she fell into a "coma-like state" interrupted by "multiple additional seizures," the decision was made to end life-prolonging measures. She died by day's end.

A subsequent passage on the GoFundMe site explodes the myth that actors who appear in a famous film are financially secure from that point forward. According to Joshua and Jasmine, "We cannot afford to pay for death expenses. Although she had the fame and notoriety, there is no inheritance. No life insurance. No end-of-life nest egg. Just our income, which isn't even enough. And Denise's wish is to be cremated and her ashes made into a piece of glass art. We will need to urgently pay for these things as well as need help with our home expenses. Rent, bills, groceries. Jasmine is not working due to her caring for Denise and trying to apply for jobs while home sick and pregnant, and Josh is missing work from both jobs."

At this writing, the campaign has raised more than $13,000. Click for more details.

"We will miss our Mom/Neecers," the introduction concludes. "We're sorry you couldn't meet your granddaughter. We love you."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts