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When it comes to great comedy duos, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are among the best.
The pair first shared the screen in 1976’s Silver Streak, though they actually almost worked together a few years earlier in Blazing Saddles. Richard Pryor had helped Mel Brooks with the script and was considered for the lead before Cleavon Little was cast.
The chemistry between Wilder and Pryor was evident the first time they acted together.
Gene said, “He said something, and I said my line, and then he said something that was not in the script at all, and I answered it with something not in the script, in a natural way.”
After the scene, they both asked each other if the other had planned to go off script since their riffs worked so well. Neither had. And thus began their “improvisational relationship,” as Wilder put it.
Perhaps their ability to so aptly build off of each other’s energy was rooted in their love of another legendary comic pair.
“We’ve always had that thing in common about a love of Laurel and Hardy… about some silliness of their work… We don’t do what they do, but there’s a spirit of what they do that’s the same,” Gene said.
In fact, after their first take, they both began to hum the theme song to Laurel and Hardy spontaneously before even knowing the other was a fan.
The professional admiration was mutual. After making See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Richard Pryor said, “I’m very proud when I work with Gene on something like we just finished because I know I belong in this business.”
They appeared in four films together, each showcasing their on-screen comic chemistry.
Interestingly, while they got along so well in front of the camera, their relationship remained professional – partially because both actors were shy.
Wilder said, “It’s so special what we do when we’re together. It’s so intimate that I sometimes feel that I don’t want to take a chance of having anything damaged in private life. I want it to stay the way it is so that when we work that magic will continue.”