Gene Wilder was the “father figure” of the Willy Wonka family, according to the actress who played spoiled child Veruca Salt in the hit film.

Julie Dawn Cole, who is originally from Guildford but now lives in Hampshire, played the young girl everyone loves to hate in the movie that the actor may be most remembered for.

The 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, which brings Roald Dahl’s novel to life, follows lovable Charlie who clinches a golden ticket to gain access to the enchanting factory – and is joined by other lucky children including the pampered Veruca Salt.

Actress Julie said she and the other Willy Wonka “kids” – the actors who played the children in the film – had received a message from the star around a year or so ago in which he sent “lots of love”.

She told the Press Association: “We knew that Gene wasn’t in great health but he’s a very private man, very dignified, so it’s not entirely a surprise, but it’s still a very, very sad day.”

Julie, who was 12 when the movie was filmed, said she and her Wonka co-stars keep in touch and see each other at least once a year.

“We’re all very, very sad. He was very much the father figure of our family,” she said.

Remembering Gene from his Wonka days, she said: “I think people think that he’d be kind of crazy and leaping around, but no, he was just quiet, but gently funny and patient.

“I think that’s the thing that I admire him for, because when you’ve got five kids on a movie set it can’t be easy, all bouncing around, especially with all that sugar.

“And he was very patient. We were never ever told ‘Please leave Mr Wilder alone’ or ‘Mr Wilder is off to his trailer’.”

Gene Wilder (AP/PA)

She said the star, with “those wonderful blue eyes” was “great to be around” and “very generous”, adding: “He was always keen for other people to have their moment, and really for somebody so… such a mega star, no ego, there was no ego there.”

Reflecting on the success of the actor’s portrayal of the famous candy man, Julia said: “The genius of it. You never quite know whether Mr Wonka is crazy, good, bad, evil. You never quite know what he is.”