Gene Wilder turns 80: Remembering his comedy partnership with Richard Pryor

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Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 'Stir Crazy' (1980)

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 'Stir Crazy' (1980)

Gene Wilder, the wild-haired, off-the-wall comedy star of the 1970s turns 80 today.

And while most audiences may best remember him for his titular role in Willy Wonka and the Chocalate Factory, black audiences most fondly remember him as Richard Pryor‘s comedy partner.

The unlikely pair co-starred in four films together, and the first two, Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980), were enormous successes. They made See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989 and the forgettable Another You (1991) around the time Pryor’s debilitating MS began to take hold.

Their comedic history together actually began back in 1974 when Wilder was cast in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy Blazing Saddles. Pryor, who had a writing credit on the film, was supposed to be cast opposite of Wilder in the lead role of the sheriff, but when studios balked at casting the foul-mouthed stand-up the part went to the late Cleavon Little.

Still, Pryor’s star continued to rise and eventually Hollywood came calling on him.

He played a supporting role opposite Wilder in the Hitchcockian adventure comedy Silver Streak. While their screen time together was relatively limited, Wilder and Pryor had an undeniable comic chemistry that had audiences howling.

The film’s most famous scene was politically incorrect then and now, but still holds up as hilarious.

Pryor must get Wilder past security at an airport so he puts shoe polish on his face and gives him an impromptu lesson on how to act and talk ‘black.’ It was in many ways a subversive parody of the blackface white performers of the past who didn’t come close to having any kind of racial authenticity.

“Instead of a white dude being fooled by the disguise,” Pryor said about the scene at the time, “a black dude comes in and isn’t fooled. Here’s Gene snapping his fingers and holding his portable radio to his ear, and the black dude takes one look and says, ‘I don’t know what you think you’re doing, man, but you got to get the beat.’”

Pryor’s embarrassed reaction to Wilder’s jive-talking antics cast him as the reasonable straight man, a role rarely held by black actors at the time.

By the time of 1980′s Stir Crazy, Pryor was arguably the hottest comic star in the country and now he and Wilder had equal billing and screen time. The film was directed by Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier and became one of the biggest box office hits of the year (grossing over $100 million). Pryor and Wilder’s routine on “getting bad” to avoid overtures from men in prison remains a comedy highlight.

Still, despite their on-screen bromance, Pryor and Wilder were anything but friends off-screen.

Wilder has lamented Pryor’s diva-like antics on film sets and has written about their distant relationship.

“We were never good friends, contrary to popular belief. We turned it on for the camera, then turned it off. He was a pretty unpleasant person to be around during the time we worked together. He was going through his drug problems then and didn’t want a friendship outside of what we did on the screen,” Wilder once said.

And many close to Pryor, like his writing partner Paul Mooney, have suggested the late comedian never cared for his co-star. Pryor occasionally mocked Wilder in his stand-up and in an infamous (and some have suggested drug-fueled) on-set 1980 interview, which has become a viral video sensation, he implied Wilder was gay.

Yet on-screen, Wilder had some truly magic moments with Pryor, which thankfully will be preserved for all time.

In fact, their first pairing, Silver Streak, will debut on blu ray on August 6th.