How do you remember Gene Wilder? Generations have grown up with him as Willy Wonka, mad genius and difficult giant. They remember his fierce outbursts, sly songs, hidden sense of menace, and, ultimately, his heart, in helping a poor child who just wanted to believe. Is that how you remember him? Or is it for his great comedies, those collaborations with Mel Brooks: the shaky sheriff in Blazing Saddles, the scheming schmuck in The Producers, or the not-mad-but-yes-very-mad-scientist in Young Frankenstein? Or, his older movies, like the buddy ones with Richard Pryor where he had the gentleness of a child?
Or do you remember little moments, like the way he moved effortlessly from perfect stillness to highly-calibrated insanity, seemingly in a heartbeat? Do you remember the stillness with which he turned around once his monster started moving, or him screaming how he had created life? How he could be both the arch-eyed straight man and the vortex around which the madness swirled? Is that how you remember him?
Fond memories, now tear-diffused, are what we now have of Gene Wilder. That smile that understood exactly what it was like to be a child, back when the world was filled with awe and magic. That smile that told you he knew where the magic came from. He made memories for us all. And it was memory that was at the forefront of his final years, as he braved Alzheimer’s, in private, so that he could keep the faith and the enchantment—but even more so that we could, so that the children could. He showed us how to keep a hold on who you are, no matter the circumstance, and gave us not only a lesson in how Alzheimer’s can devastate, but, just as importantly, in what it can never take from us.