Funnymen Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder first met on the eve of shooting the 1976 comedy Silver Streak in Canada. According to accounts, it was a modest encounter: The two exchanged friendly greetings and expressions of admiration for the other's work and went their separate ways. The next day, they got to work together on camera for the first time.
Recalled Wilder in a 2007 interview, "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."
This back and forth formed the basis of four feature films and spawned some of the most famous one-liners of the past 40-plus years, though their off-screen relationship lacked the same easy flow that made them such a pleasure to watch on screen.
Because of his substance abuse, Pryor was unpredictable to work with
Pryor and Wilder were supposed to have been paired together earlier, in Mel Brooks' satirical Western Blazing Saddles (1974). However, while Pryor earned a screenwriting credit, he also reportedly torpedoed his chance to star as Sheriff Bart, alongside Wilder's Waco Kid, by showing up high to script sessions, and Cleavon Little was offered the role instead.
This was an ominous foreshadowing of trouble to come, but things went well on the set of Silver Streak, a commercial and critical success, and the two were tapped for a follow-up feature directed by Sidney Poitier.
Stir Crazy (1980) marked the pinnacle of their professional collaborations, the two building on their limited joint screen time in Silver Streak to showcase their high-charged camaraderie as friends framed for a bank robbery and stuck in prison.
Yet a blurry video of an on-set interview gone awry encapsulates what it must have been like to work with the unpredictable Pryor at the time. Reportedly under the influence, Pryor went off on extended profane tangents, keeping everyone in stitches but rendering the interview unfit to air. He also had some interesting words about his costar, at one point saying, "Gene Wilder ain't s**t, he's a f****t."
It's unclear if Wilder ever saw this footage, but what he did see was Pryor showing up late to shooting day after day, forcing everyone to grit their teeth and swallow it just to keep production rolling.
Pryor and Wilder were originally the leads in 'Trading Places'
A few months before the film hit theaters, after an extended binge of freebasing cocaine, Pryor doused himself with 151-proof rum and set himself on fire. Along with threatening his life, his actions derailed his Hollywood career and impacted Wilder's as well: The lead parts in Trading Places, intended for Pryor and Wilder, instead went to Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, and the odd-couple comedy became one of the biggest hits of 1983.
At the end of the decade, Pryor and Wilder reunited for See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) as respective blind and deaf men who get embroiled in criminal activity. While not remembered as one of their finest joint efforts, Pryor made the experience a pleasant one by behaving on set and the film topped the box office for two weeks.
They came together one final time, for the forgettable Another You (1991), but by then Pryor was already exhibiting the effects of MS and the comedic crackle between the duo was down to a few flickers. It was the final major film role for both men.
Wilder compared their working relationship to 'sexual attraction'
In his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger, published the same year as Pryor's death (2005), Wilder recalled the magic of working with Pryor, likening it to "sexual attraction" because of their unexplainable chemistry.
But he also confirmed the reality of their muted personal relationship, noting, "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."
Still, it seems the whispers of the two actively disliking one another were overblown. In a 2013 interview at the 92nd Street Y, Wilder sounded like a man who wished he could have done more to help his talented and troubled costar. "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," he lamented. "What can you do? Give him a hit, and then give him a kiss."
Three years later, after Wilder passed from complications related to Alzheimer's, Pryor's daughter Rain offered perhaps the most accurate take of the complicated relationship between the two men:
"I know that [Wilder] didn’t hang out with Dad a lot because they just didn’t — my dad was different," she 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."
Despite their differences, she said, their professional admiration spilled over into genuine affection. "[Pryor] thought them together was amazing," she recalled. "He always said, 'That man's a genius, and he's a good man, that's for sure.' I always heard him say, 'He's a good man.'"