There was a time when being a black actor starring in a movie usually meant that you were in a low-budget film or you were a stereotype. What was even more taboo was being a black actor and having a white co-star who was your peer. What Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor did with Silver Streak in 1976 was very important not only for actors, but for race relations.
While Jim Crow laws were abolished in the mid 1960s, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done to try and calm racial tensions. Speeches and marches are well and good, but sometimes that isn't enough. A lot of the time we just need to sit down to laugh and smile together. That's what Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor did.
While movies during the civil rights movement like In The Heat of the Night did have a diverse cast that explored race relations, dramas don't have the same effect that comedies do. I Love Lucy, for example, is a show that portrayed two very different people from two very different lifestyles and upbringings loving each other despite their differences.
Because it was a comedy, it added a lightheartedness to the heavy topic of racism that made people more comfortable talking about it. The same thing could said for Wilder and Pryor. The prison scene in Stir Crazy when the two help each other while on their way to their cells is a perfect example of this:
They made a movie where not only were they working together as actors, but were also working together within the movie itself. Some people may look at this as "just a movie" but it's so much more than that. Gene Wilder took a chance working with Richard Pryor despite the latter's bad boy persona in the media at the time. In an interview in 2007, Wilder talked about the first scene they filmed:
"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, which is the great deathtrap for actors. If you’re improvising and you say, ‘I’ll think of one that’s even funnier than that, or more clever than that,’ no — I just said what came naturally in the situation because that’s what I was used to. Then he said a line, then I said a line, then he went back to the script and then he came away, and everything we did together was like that."
Remembering Gene Wilder:
I came across a 1976 Roger Ebert interview with Wilder and Pryor about one of the stunts they did. It was a moment that made me smile at the type of relationship they had early on during Silver Streak.
"We rehearsed it at 10 and shot it at 50," said Pryor. "I was in the doorway, hanging onto Gene's belt, while he's leaning out of the train trying to get the coupling unfastened, and I'm thinking, 'One slip of my foot and good-by, Gene.'"
"What gave me a lot of confidence," Wilder said, "was that Richie promised me that if I went, he went, too. If I fell off the train and was killed he would throw himself after me."
"Of course," said Pryor, "they had me wired to the train."
"Ha!" said Wilder. "Your foot slips and I fall to my death and your parting words are, 'Uh, sorry about the wires, man . . .'"
It could have been easy for Gene Wilder to request a co-star of a different race being an A-list actor at the time. But he didn't and went on to do three more movies with Pryor after Silver Streak — Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You — and the pair went on to become one of the greatest and most recognizable comedic movie duos of all time. So much so that New York Magazine listed Stir Crazy's Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) as number nine on their list of The Fifteen Most Dynamic Duos in Pop Culture History in 2007.
Gene Wilder's Waco Kid also co-starred alongside Cleavon Little's Bart in Blazing Saddles in 1974 —another movie that to this day remains one of the greatest comedies of all time — a role Richard Pryor co-wrote and was originally supposed to play. A movie that actually threw racism right in everyone's faces using jokes and levity to show everyone the harsh truth.
In 1991, Wilder and Pryor put out their last film Another You. Los Angeles Times writer Michael Wilmington wrote an article about the movie, but before he could watch it, he witnessed a tender moment from Wilder and Pryor.
"It's a plot full of double meanings, double appearances, lies upon lies and it climaxes with Wilder hugging his co-lead for a snapshot while holding up a sign that reads 'Partners Forever.' Obviously, this moment has little to do with the story. It's a kind of public statement of affection and allegiance from Wilder to Pryor and there's something almost touching about it."
Whether it was any of the four movies Gene Wilder did with Richard Pryor or Blazing Saddles with Cleavon Little, Wilder was one of the few white actors who stepped up and made it known that it didn't matter what the color of your skin was in a movie. All he cared about was the work itself. In a time where the media spends so much time pulling us apart, Gene Wilder can be remembered as a man who tried to bring us together.