Sitting in math class at age 13, Denise Nickerson suddenly noticed the stares and suppressed giggles of her classmates. Clueless, she turned to a pal. "My friend looks at me and her eyes get real big," recalls Nickerson, now 43, "and she says, 'You're turning blue!' "
Purple was more like it, as the embarrassed red of her cheeks mixed with blue makeup that had begun to resurface through her pores. The makeup, which had been applied two days earlier for a key scene in the 1971 children's classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, took another 36 hours to completely disappear. "Needless to say, I didn't get asked out for a date in that school," says Nickerson with a chuckle. "They thought, 'If I take her out, she could turn polka dots!' "
No chance of that, of course. Still, Nickerson has certainly changed her stripes since appearing in Willy Wonka as brassy, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, who gets her comeuppance when she is transformed into a giant human blueberry (hence the makeup). Having quit acting in 1978, Nickerson is now the single mother of Josh, 11, and a full-time accountant for the Cordova, Ill., office of Stone & Webster, an engineering and construction firm. Showbiz "is not my life now," says Nickerson, who lives in Davenport, Iowa. "When I quit, I made a conscious decision to be me."
The younger daughter of Flo, a clerical worker, and Fred, a postal carrier (both are deceased), Nickerson and her sister Carol, who died of a heart attack in 1999 at age 54, grew up in Coconut Grove, Fla. In 1966 the family moved to New York City so that Denise—who, guided by her mom, landed her first job at age 2 in a Florida Home Heating commercial—could pursue acting.
The move accelerated Nickerson's career, and while attending a series of private schools she won roles on network soaps The Doctors and Dark Shadows and in the Broadway musical Sherry! Then, at age 13, Nickerson got the part in Willy Wonka, which was filmed near Munich. "She had just the right attitude for being Violet," recalls director Mel Stuart. "There was a little bit of that spirit and spunk." Furthermore, shooting Wonka "was one of the only times I was able to work with children," says Nickerson, "and it was in a foreign country. I was beyond thrilled."
While filming the famous blueberry scene, however, the young actress—immobilized in a giant Styrofoam suit for eight hours—was beyond miserable. Even today she suffers from chronic neck and back pain that she traces to that shoot. "She was a good sport," says Julie Dawn Cole, 43, who played greedy Veruca Salt in the film and continues to act in her native England. "There was no prima donna." The pair became friends—and rivals for the affections of Peter Ostrum, who played selfless Charlie Bucket and is now a veterinarian. "Peter was a hot patootie," says Nickerson with a laugh.
Following Willy Wonka, Nickerson won roles on the PBS kids' show The Electric Company and in various TV movies. Then at age 21, seeking a life outside of show business—"I had always been told what to wear, who to be with, where to go"—Nickerson took a job as a hospital clerk. That's when she met Rick Keller, an ex-Marine whom she wed in 1981. The union was short-lived, however; in 1983, Keller, then 25, died of an aneurysm. "We were very happy," says Nickerson, "and
then one day somebody pulls the rug out from under you."
Nickerson married a second time in 1995, to Mark Willard, 45, an ironworker who is Josh's father. That marriage, too, lasted just three years, ending in divorce in 1998.
Ensconced in her current accounting job since July ("I like numbers," she says), Nickerson "didn't run around telling everybody" about her former fame, says coworker Amy Dragoo, 27. When she does tell people, their reaction is often " 'No way!' " says Nickerson. Her reply? "If I was going to make up a lie, I'd be Demi Moore
in Striptease—not a fruit in a kids' movie."
Trine Tsouderos in Davenport