“The real love story was always between Richard and Me.” – Gene Wilder
CNN’s Larry King once asked Gene Wilder what was it that worked so well between him and Richard Pryor. “This is going to sound weird, but it’s a bit like sex,” replied Wilder. “You know when you meet somebody and your chemistry is just there, but you don’t know why, you know how, but it’s there?” That’s how it was between Wilder and Pryor who made four films together starting with Arthur Hiller’s Silver Streak in 1976 and culminating with Hiller’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989. The other two collaborations were Sidney Poitier‘s Stir Crazy (1980) and Maurice Phillips‘ Another You (1991).
As Wilder recounted, he and Richard Pryor met the night before they filmed their first-ever scene together for Silver Streak and the improvisations began immediately. Pryor said something off-script and Wilder replied in kind. It worked. That was the first time Gene had ever improvised in a movie, something he felt he had to do while working with Pryor or as he said, he’d be left behind. Proving he was more than a mere comedic genius by that point both on- and off-screen as an actor and writer, Gene Wilder felt at home and the two would forge one of the greatest screen comedy teams in film history, by my estimation. While not all four of their movies are great they each have greatness in them, powerhouses of comedy they were and all of them resulted in hits. Arthur Hiller ascribed what was special between Wilder and Pryor to the fact that both were comedians and approached their movies together that way rather than being a comedian and a straight man, which is what you traditionally get in these types of pairings.
After learning of Gene Wilder’s passing earlier this week, which left millions of people who grew up watching his movies with an empty feeling inside, it wasn’t the movies Wilder made with Mel Brooks that I was itching to re-watch although I love them all. Instead I began my personal Gene Wilder tribute with the second – and my favorite – of his pairings with Richard Pryor, Stir Crazy (1980).
The NY Times reviewer in 1980 wrote that Stir Crazy is a “prison comedy of quite stunning humorlessness” and that “it is an energetic but spiritless shambles.” Given that I already said it was my favorite of the pairings between Pryor and Wilder I obviously disagree with those remarks. But so did audiences who made the movie a hit. Stir Crazy, which grossed $101,300,000 in the U.S. was the third highest earner of 1980, behind only #2, Nine to Five and #1, The Empire Strikes Back. (Box Office Mojo) The most financially successful of the four Pryor-Wilder movies, Stir Crazy also became the first movie directed by an African-American to gross over $100 million dollars in North America.
While numbers mean little as to whether a movie is actually good or not, it says a lot in this case about audiences going to the movies in large numbers because they like to laugh. And that’s what you do when you’re watching Stir Crazy as my mother – who does not speak English – can attest to. That’s my proven litmus test. If comedy transcends language then it’s honest and true. The scene that really gets us both going in this is the popular jail scene when Pryor and Wilder are first arrested. Now, I’ll admit (maybe) that the movie loses a bit of steam in the laughs department after a certain point, but that’s by design when the movie shift in the direction of what I call an escape procedural that’s still head and shoulders above most of what’s served today. The pacing is terrific throughout the movie too so kudos to Mr. Poitier for his direction. I don’t want to spoil anything in case you haven’t seen this so that’s all I’ll say about that.
Stir Crazy kicks off when best friends Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are fired from their jobs in New York on the same day. Skip convinces Harry that they should go to Hollywood where plenty of jobs and lots of women await them. Harry agrees and the two set off on a road trip toward a promising future. Along the way, however, they stop in Arizona to make some money and end up working in a bank dressed up as birds who do a song and dance number as a promotional bit.
As Skip and Harry are on a break one day these two other guys take their bird costumes and stick up the bank. Moments later it’s Skip and Harry who are arrested for bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in prison, which means – as Harry says – they’ll be 161 years old when they get out.
The duo have a court-appointed lawyer, Len Garber (Joel Brooks) who tries to appeal their case and the lawyer has an attractive cousin, Meredith (JoBeth Williams) who assists in trying to prove Skip and Harry’s innocence. But all of that takes time, which means that these two somewhat innocent, always funny guys have to try to survive in a maximum security prison. Without getting into every detail suffice it to say that they each have breakdowns, they are hit on, they are abused by the guards and even discover talents they didn’t know they had. In the end they get a bit of their own back in what is to me a very satisfying ending.
The supporting cast in Stir Crazy is terrific, by the way, made up of many familiar faces if not names. These include George Stanford Brown, Miguel Ángel Suárez, Craig T. Nelson, Barry Corbin and Erland Van Lidth who I’ll give a special nod to. You cannot miss Erland Van Lidth because of his bulk, but he made an impression on me when I first saw him in Philip Kaufman‘s The Wanderers (1979) and later because of his beautiful singing voice, which you get to hear in Stir Crazy. You can take a look at the rest of the cast list here.
Although it had been some time since I watched it, I must have seen Stir Crazy a couple of dozen times now. It just never gets old for me.
I love the work that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor did together because I think that not only were their comedy styles complimentary, but these men were also extremely sensitive. It comes across in their performance and in the way they play against each other. I think the love affair Gene mentioned is palpable, the mutual admiration real and it makes a difference on screen. I’m sorry for us now that we’ve lost them both, but I imagine their reunion was touching and a hell of a lot of fun.
From NBC News – How Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor Changed Hollywood.