Some of the most memorable work from Gene Wilder, who died this week from complications of Alzheimer’s, came from his comedic pairing with Richard Pryor.
Wilder and Pryor made for some on-screen magic, and they were among Hollywood’s most successful interracial comedy duos.
In all, Wilder and Pryor co-starred in four movies together. “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Stir Crazy” (1980), were big commercial successes, together grossing more than $150 million at the box office. Their later movies, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991), didn’t do as well commercially or critically.
Here’s a look back at their partnership:
How they met
Wilder starred in “Blazing Saddles,” the 1974 classic written by Pryor and Mel Brooks, among others. Pryor was supposed to be cast in the movie, but his reputation with drugs and alcohol apparently made studios balk. The part went to Cleavon Little.
Later, the head of Twentieth Century Fox reached out to Wilder for a part in “Silver Streak.” Wilder wanted to play the part, but he told the studio that for the role opposite his, “you’re going to be in a lot of trouble if you don’t get the right person to play the part. … The only one I can think of is Richard Pryor,” Wilder recalled in a 2005 NPR Fresh Air interview. Studio executives agreed.
“I met him for the first time in Calgary in Canada, a very quiet, modest meeting,” Wilder said of Pryor in 2005. “We gave each other a hug. He said how much he admired me and I said how much I admired him, and we started working the next morning.”
How they worked together
Pryor “taught me how to improvise on camera,” Wilder said in 2005, a lesson that began on the first day of filming for “Silver Streak.”
“He said his first line, I say my first line, then this other line comes out of him,” Wilder recalled in a 2007 interview. “I had no idea where it came from. But I didn’t question it, I just responded naturally. I didn’t try to think of a clever line. … A great death trap for actors if you’re improvising is you say, ‘I’ll think of one that’s even funnier than that, or more clever than that.’ ”
Pryor would return to the script, and so would Wilder, and then Pryor would go off-script again and Wilder reacted with what made sense. “Everything we did together was like that,” Wilder said.
By their third film, Wilder said in a 1989 interview, “we just get comfortable in the situation, or uncomfortable as it may be, and react to each other.” It just so happened people laughed at the result, Wilder added.
About that shoe polish scene in “Silver Streak”
In one iconic scene, Wilder’s face is covered in shoe polish in an attempt to disguise himself as black. He’s listening to music, trying to jive-talk and, as it was initially written, a white man enters and thinks Wilder is black.
“It was the one scene that I was the most worried about, and I thought, well, if Richard doesn’t mind my putting on the shoe polish in order to pass as black, then it must be okay because he’s the teacher here,” Wilder recalled in 2005.
During the read-through, Pryor became “more and more morose,” Wilder recalled, and Pryor told him, “I’m going to hurt a lot of black people doing this scene.”
Pryor later explained the problem to Wilder: “You’re in there in the bathroom, in the men’s room, and you’re putting shoe polish on your face, and a white man comes in and he doesn’t think that it’s anything unusual because that’s how n–––––– behave, right?'”
Wilder asked Pryor to explain how the scene should go: “It should be a black man who comes in, who sees what you’re doing, knows right away that you’re white and doing this because you must be in some kind of trouble.’ And he says, ‘I don’t what your trouble is mister, but you got to keep with the music.’ “
The pair called the director and the scene was changed.
The off-screen relationship
Numerous accounts portray a cold or uneasy off-screen relationship between the two men, in part because of Pryor’s substance abuse.
Wilder reportedly has said they weren’t good friends, and that Pryor wasn’t pleasant to be around when he had drug problems.
The Sidney Poitier-directed “Stir Crazy” came out the same year Pryor infamously set himself on fire while freebasing. In an interview on the set of the movie, during which Pryor was allegedly high on cocaine, he referred to Wilder using a slur for gay people.
During that movie, “Richard was a bad boy,” Wilder said in 2013. “He would come to the set 15 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half late and it would bug all of us. I didn’t want to say anything because I wanted it to go on.”
“Trading Places” was originally written with Wilder and Pryor in mind, but after the freebasing incident, the parts went to Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, director John Landis said in 2013.
Following Wilder’s death, Pryor’s daughter said her father respected Wilder.
“[Wilder] was a very caring human being, but I know that he didn’t hang out with Dad a lot because they just didn’t — my dad was different,” Rain Pryor told the Hollywood Reporter. “They were different in natures. Mr. Wilder was the older ‘I’m here. I’m doing my work and we have a great chemistry. And then I’m going to go have my sober life.’ He was a normal dude compared to my dad in that sense. But in terms of his kindness and generosity and to watch the two of them together, there’s not a magic that’s been like that in a long time.”
Pryor said her father would remark of Wilder, “That man’s a genius, and he’s a good man, that’s for sure.”