Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor: A Dynamic Duo

 

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder were a great example of a successful working relationship.  They may not have been especially close off-camera but the duo respected one another as being amongst the top comics of their generation.  That respect led to four key collaborations that stretched from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s.

 

“Silver Streak” (1976)

The duo almost got off to a fast start with Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” in 1974 but Pryor ended up not being selected to star in that film.  Instead, he served as a writer while Wilder ended up delivering one of the film’s most memorable performances in the role of the Waco Kid.  Thus, audiences ended up waiting a couple of years before they had a chance to see Pryor team on screen with Wilder.

That moment ended up taking place in 1976’s “Silver Streak.”  Consider it a murder mystery that Wilder inadvertently got sucked into after having a one-night stand while aboard the Silver Streak, a passenger train that was transporting him from Los Angles to Chicago.  The film was made at a time when passenger travel by train had long since waned but the film made good use of using the train ride as a sort of ‘road movie.’  Settings varied since the train kept moving eastward, following a route that would remind train buffs of the route followed by the Santa Fe Super Chief.

Curiosities in casting included Richard Kiel, who essentially played a close variation of the “Jaws” uber-henchman character that he defined a year later in the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.”  Patrick McGoohan, from the famous “The Prisoner” series did a good job as the main villain.

McGoohan’s motive revolved around not having his fake high-end art deal become exposed as frauds.  Wilder had inadvertently stumbled into the middle of a resulting murder plot while chasing romance on the train.

A number of hallmarks of the Wilder-Pryor partnership were established in this film.  There were usually elements of mistaken identification and some sort of a con involved, with Wilder and Pryor being in on some of the con but oblivious to a larger scheme.  Fans of Wilder who only knew him as Willy Wonka might be surprised to see him playing a romance-motivated character, a trend that would continue in the other collaborations with Pryor.

For much of the first third of “Silver Streak,” it felt very much like a Gene Wilder solo movie.  Pryor did not actually show up until the plot – and the film’s titular train – was well underway.  His character was a small town thief and, as was par for the course, he was sucked into the larger events at work.

One of the stranger not-politically-correct scenes in the film involved Pryor’s character encouraging Wilder’s character to put on ‘black face’ as a way to sneak back aboard the Silver Streak.  This need arose in the aftermath of one of several instances where Wilder had ended up being tossed from the train.  I would not claim to be overly conscious of political correctness but the situation was not very funny.  Wilder further belabored an already uncomfortable moment by stretching the scene needlessly as he prepared for his black face routine by ‘getting into character’ in a bathroom.

Complaints aside, the film’s central mystery and ultimate resolution were well handled.  The practical effects at the very end must have blown half of the film’s budget.  Pryor was only in the last hour of the film but pretty much stole every scene that he was in and had good chemistry with Wilder.  It was easy to see why the pair would work together again.

 

“Stir Crazy” (1980)

Back in 1980 the highest grossing films were “Empire Strikes Back,” Dolly Parton’s “Nine to Five” and “Stir Crazy.”  “Stir Crazy was directed by Sidney Poitier (yes, that Sidney Poitier) and it starred Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, the second of the four films that the duo made together.  As was the case with all of those films, it was not a sequel or in any way related to the other films.

Unlike with “Silver Streak,” Pryor was in the entire film, a trend that would also continue in the later team-up films.

In this case, Wilder and Pryor played recently unemployed friends who leave New York City with plans to head for Hollywood.  They picked up an odd job along the way as mascots for a bank in Arizona and events lead to them being framed for a robbery at the bank.  After being sent to prison, they worked on escaping with several other inmates. Their planned means of that escape was tied to Wilder’s unexpected talent for being a rodeo cowboy and the prison happening to be involved in a hotly contested annual rodeo competition with a rival prison.

“Stir Crazy” contained some interesting material and a number of funny scenes.  That said, the storyline was often very convenient for the protagonists.  In addition, these Wilder-Pryor films were odd ducks in that they were not straight slapstick-style farces but some scenes seemed to exist in a surreal reality.  Above all, the on-screen charisma of both Wilder and Pryor elevated what might otherwise have been a bland project.

Familiar faces showed up in supporting roles.  Craig T. Nelson played a prison deputy warden, while Barry Corbin played the prison warden proper.  Corbin was a person who people would surely recognize as playing a typical ‘old boy’ type.  JoBeth Williams, who would later star as the mother in the “Poltergeist” films with Craig T. Nelson played Wilder’s wacky lawyer love interest.

One other casting note involved Erland Van Lidth De Jeude, who played the memorably intimidating prisoner Grossberger.  Grossberger ended up being the classic misdirection antagonist who eventually helped Wilder and Pryor in their escape.  Van Lidth De Jeude later appeared as the character Dynamo in “The Running Man” (1987) but died of heart failure at the young age of 34 in 1987.

“Stir Crazy” was made during the height of Pryor’s drug abuse problems and Wilder later recounted how it was obvious in hindsight that drugs had made Pryor behave in erratic ways off-camera.  Famously, Pryor shut down production for a day after walking off the set due to petty complaints.

One surprise was the fact that “Stir Crazy” could have easily been produced as strictly family-friend fare but the filmmakers opted to include inconsequential gratuitous material that bumped it up to an R-rating.  Such material included a rather-explicit strip club scene and some forgettable swearing.  In today’s market environment “Stir Crazy” would have been cut down to a PG or PG-13, so it was remarkable that the film still scored so well at the box office given that it was a dressed-up middle-of-the-road comedy.

 

“See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989)

Eight years after “Stir Crazy,” Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder reunited again for “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”  While this film was not as big of a box office hit as “Stir Crazy,” it still earned above the norm for both actors at this point in their fading careers.  Given the success of “Stir Crazy,” it was not a surprise that there were plans to re-team Pryor and Wilder in 1982’s “Hanky Panky,” but Pryor ended up not taking part in that project.

Pryor and Wilder’s characters were introduced in an opening scene on the streets of New York City where they had a chance run-in that turned hostile.  Oddly, that interaction was seemingly forgotten as Pryor later landed a job at Wilder’s newsstand.  Not long thereafter, a bookie came looking for the in-debt Pryor and the bookie ended up being killed by a mystery woman in front of Wilder’s newsstand.  In a case of bad luck, Pryor and Wilder were both charged with murdering the bookie.  Again, this mistaken-criminals plot was the same basic hook as had been present in Pryor and Wilder’s previous team-ups.

Over time, Pryor and Wilder learn that the woman killed the bookie for possession of a room-temperature superconductor in the form of a coin.  The bookie had given the coin to the duo just prior to being killed.  Much of the movie centered on Pryor and Wilder evading both law enforcement and those who were trying to gain possession of the coin.

The most noticeable difference in comparison to both “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy” was how heavily “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” had been stuffed with gags and slapstick sequences.  One could argue that much of humor was low-hanging fruit or aimed at the lowest common denominator, but it the constant attempts at humor meant that jokes would at least periodically connect.

Pryor had the more challenging role in the film, since he needed to appear blind.  Part of Wilder’s appeal was the fact that one would often forget that his character was deaf (since he could see and reply to people whose lips he could read), only to be reminded of this fact in key moments that delivered a punch line.  In both cases, the characters did not dwell on their disabilities but did acknowledge frustration over conditions that had apparently come upon them later in life.

Joan Severance played the very attractive mystery woman who was one of the film’s primary antagonists.  Kevin Spacey played her partner in crime.  Apparently, the pair’s characters were callbacks to characters that they had both played on the 1980s television series “Wise Guy.”  As crazy as it might sound, this was Spacey’s first major theatrical role and he played it with an English accent.

It was probably never a great sign when a film had six credited writers.  Director Arthur Hiller, best known for 1970’s “Love Story” was nearing the end of what had been a long workman-like career by 1989.  He had previously directed Pryor and Wilder in “Silver Streak.”  Hiller did have a colorful 1990s though, doing “Taking Care of Business” with James Belushi and “The Babe” with John Goodman.  His career more or less ended with “An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn” – a film that ended writer Joe Eszterhas’s Hollywood career as well.

Like “Stir Crazy,” “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” was also rated R for a full spectrum of language.  On the gratuitous end of things, there was no strip club sequence this time but Severance did have a shower scene and a resulting awkward confrontation with Gene Wilder.

 

“Another You” (1991)

The final collaboration between Pryor and Wilder had initially tapped Peter Bogdanovich as the original director, but he was replaced after five weeks of shooting.

There were rumors that Bogdanovich was a victim of concerns over early budget overruns or ended up at odds with the Pryor-Wilder team but he later claimed that the slip happened due to his vision for the film simply differing from that of TriStar executives.

The plot of “Another You” was convoluted but revolved around a premise that might remind some of aspects of “Trading Places.”  Wilder’s character played a down-on-his-luck pathological liar who was recently released from treatment.  Pryor played a con man that happened to cross Wilder’s path and he encouraged Wilder to embrace a mix-up that came their way.  Wilder’s character was mistaken for a prominent businessman who had seemingly been killed by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.  Odd as it might sound, both the man’s wife and business manager seemed to recognize Wilder as the wealthy businessman.  Viewers eventually learned that that wife and manager were running their own con and Pryor was pulled into that larger con, thus leaving Wilder as the odd man out.

If this plot seemed hard to followed, that was indeed the case and a number of plot holes came to mind.  During the course of events, Wilder’s character ended up getting involved in a romance with the actress who was portraying the businessman’s wife as part of the con.  The trio of that woman, Wilder, and Pryor all ended up finally coming together to foil the plans of the corrupt business manager.

There was the nugget of a good idea here, since Wilder’s character had to struggle to avoid lying lest he regress in his rehabilitation but that comedy thread ended up being quickly forgotten.  The supporting cast was adequate with Mercedes Ruehl playing the role of Wilder’s love interest with more range than one might expect.  The biggest surprise for modern audiences would have been Stephen Lang’s role as the adequate but ultimately too-zany villain, two decades before he would star as the main bad guy in James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

Both critics and audiences at the time remarked that Pryor looked visibly ailing on screen and it was easy to see why.  Also unfortunate was a music number with Wilder yodeling near the end of the film.  The scene was so obviously dubbed that it was painful to watch given Wilder’s success in the musical interludes of past films.  Frustratingly, the yodel bit was later reprised in a key scene.

The film’s last scene, with Pryor and Wilder standing together on a beach while holding a sign saying ‘Partners Forever’ was touching if only because hindsight would inform modern viewers that this was the last film that the duo created together.

 

Conclusions

Wilder never made another theatrical film after “Another You” and instead entered a semi-retirement for the next twenty-five years until his death in 2016.  Pryor continued to have small roles in films, despite his illness, until David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” in 1997.  He died in 2005.

Despite the flaws in the films of the Pryor-Wilder collaborations, all four films were worth viewing if only as an exercise in understanding the popular comedies of their times.  The first three were genuinely entertaining throughout and the final film at least had a few echoes of what made the duo compelling on screen.

 

 

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