From the mid-1970s through the 1980s Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor teamed up four times (Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991)) on the big screen. Their on-screen chemistry would put them in the same category as comedy duos such as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. However, their onscreen friendship never translated into an actual relationship offscreen. Cinema Scholars takes a look at their relationship over the years.
Blazing Saddles and Silver Streak
Although Wilder and Pryor first appeared together in the 1976 comedy Silver Streak they were actually slated to be in a movie released two years earlier – the Mel Brooks comedy classic Blazing Saddles (1974). Pryor had written the screenplay for the Western spoof with Brooks and was intending to play Sherriff Bart. However, Warner Brothers refused to allow Pryor to be cast due to his drug abuse and off-screen behavior. Their claim was that he was uninsurable. The role of Bart would go to Cleavon Little, who would star opposite Wilder in the box office smash.
During the casting of Silver Streak, both Wilder and Pryor were very close to not appearing as the comedic leads. The role of George Caldwell was written for George Segal specifically. However, 20th Century Fox didn’t think he was bankable enough at the box office. Subsequently, they offered the role to Wilder.
Meanwhile, Pryor, who was cast, was almost dropped from the movie before cameras even started rolling. This was because he walked off the set of the sports comedy film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) and the producers didn’t want the trouble. However, they eventually reconsidered and Pryor kept the part.
The night before filming their scenes together Wilder and Pryor met for the first time. According to accounts, the meeting was fairly uneventful. The comedians exchanged pleasantries including respect and admiration for the other’s work and that was the extent of the interaction. The next day they met on the set and began filming.
“He said his first line, I said my first line and then this other line comes out of him… 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… I said what came naturally in the situation… then he went back to the script, then he came away, and everything we did together was like that.”
– Gene Wilder
Stir Crazy and Trading Places
A few years later the duo was tapped to co-star in Stir Crazy (1980) directed by Sidney Poitier. Pryor’s behavior during the making of this movie was not great. He showed up late to the set constantly, which annoyed the cast and crew, including Wilder, and was often high on cocaine on set. He would also fly into random tirades insulting members of the cast and crew.
“When he was good he was wonderful, when he was bad, he was awful… in his throwing things away, throwing the time away, the hours away.”
– Gene Wilder
After Stir Crazy grossed over $100 million at the box office, the pair was slated to star in the comedy Trading Places. However, that didn’t come to pass because Pryor set himself on fire by dousing himself in rum after binging on cocaine on June 9, 1980, an event that took him considerable time to recover from.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You
Nine years after their last pairing Wilder and Pryor teamed up for the third time in the 1989 comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Wilder was not the original choice for the role of David Lyons, as the part was intended for Jim Belushi. Since their last pairing, Pryor had changed. He’d given up drugs and by all accounts was pleasant to the cast and crew during the production. The film was a hit earning $47 million on an $18 million budget.
The final movie in which Wilder and Pryor appeared together was a disaster. Another You (1991) had a very problematic production. The original director, Peter Bogdanovich, was fired five weeks after principal photography began and none of the footage he shot was used.
Originally conceived as a standalone vehicle for Wilder, Bogdanovich had Pryor brought in order to ensure the film was a hit. However, by the time cameras began to roll Pryor was noticeably suffering from the effects of multiple sclerosis. The actor was simply not fully able, or capable, of performing at the expected level.
As a result, Bogdanovich was forced to spend considerable amounts of time trying to coax a usable performance out of the actor. Subsequently, Wilder successfully campaigned to have Bogdanovich fired. The legendary director was blamed for not being able to get a serviceable performance from Pryor, as well as for hiring him in the first place.
“(I) got personally and professionally fucked on that film. They fired the director and hired another ego. I was told I wasn’t going to have to reshoot scenes but the new ego had me do it anyway. That’s when I discovered things weren’t going well for me professionally.”
– Richard Pryor
With a new director (Maurice Phillips) brought in, a new script was created and the production, which was to be filmed entirely in New York, was moved to Hollywood. When the film was released in the summer of 1991, it was a critical and financial disaster. With a budget of $17 million, Another You grossed only $2.9 million. It also had the biggest second-week box office drop of all time. The film’s numbers went from $1,537,965 to $334,836. With it being such a financial disaster Another You effectively ended the careers of both Pryor and Wilder.
Over a decade later Wilder would write of Pryor in his memoir Kiss Me Like A Stranger. Published in 2005, the same year as Pryor’s death, Wilder wrote:
“…as close as we were on film, it just didn’t carry over to our private lives. Richard traveled in his own circle. You could count on one hand the times that we saw each other when we weren’t working, and even then there was always a work-related reason why we met.”
In 2016 when Wilder passed away from Alzheimer’s, Pryor’s daughter Rain said this of her father and Wilder’s relationship to The Hollywood Reporter:
“I know that (Wilder) didn’t hang out with Dad a lot because they just didn’t — my dad was different. 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.”