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GENE WILDER & RICHARD PRYOR BREAKOUT IN STIR CRAZY

Richard Pryor & Gene Wilder in STIR CRAZYear: 1980
The Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor collaboration was supposed to have begun a few years before the Alfred Hitchcock-style train adventure comedy SILVER STREAK, that really only featured Pryor, mostly during the second half. Pryor co-wrote and was a sort of "race relations" consultant for BLAZING SADDLES, but Cleavon Little was cast since studio heads balked at such a risque standup comedian in the lead. It all worked for the best since Little was more clean cut, using a token-black persona as a sublime fit for the parody of Wild West racism – had Pryor been the new Sheriff in Town, it'd seem odd he didn't fly off the handle after one single person throws the "N" word his way. And while his STREAK performance was good, it wasn't something he was "born to play," which would happen a few years later, the black and white duo being of equal importance, and really kickstarting as a team in STIR CRAZY, a prison flick that begins as a (like STREAK) road movie only in a dilapidated van – starting in New York where both affable losers are canned from their already nowhere jobs, headed to California and only able to reach the "Sun Belt" before the inevitable fate occurs...

Richard Pryor watching...
This first act is more than a setup: What could have been a rushed intro to get the boys to their plot-relevant locale is an amusing short story all it's own. Leading to the game-changing lockup in a maximum security prison for robbing a bank we know they didn't rob... Having done an act wearing chicken suits to amuse customers waiting in the bank line, which adorns every poster and VHS or DVD cover, two faceless crooks don the suits during a lunch break and, that's that, case closed...

Gene Wilder go STIR CRAZY
Yet the funniest sequence takes place at a jail before the prison – Pryor teaching Wilder how to "walk black" as the duo head into a cell/tank surrounded by twenty or so dregs, including the big Tony Burton and then a guy who makes him look like Pryor – who reacts to this giant's observation, "Short son of a bitch, aren't you?" by desperately pleading, "My father was a short son of a bitch... My mother was short, too, and my brother was so short we couldn't even see him." Pryor's given the smooth sidekick role making perfect use of his standup routine spontaneity and edgy acting abilities, reacting with neurotic fervor whenever there's something-else to stress about, leading to an Ax-Murdering Lifer the size of two Sherman Tanks, who Gene (with Richard) winds up, mysteriously and miraculously, bonding with...

Craig T. Nelson with Gene Wilder & Richard Pryor
Wilder, here, is made of cartoon teflon – resilient as Popeye sleepwalking along a construction site, each foot landing on every girder and always moving forward. In turn, Pryor's lucky enough to be glued within the protected aura of his buddy, and yet they're still in prison for something they didn't do, so the sporadic tantrums against Wilder's perpetual optimism make STIR CRAZY, directed by Sidney Poitier during his twenty year break from acting, a fantastic unity: And they're not alone, surrounded by a string of capable side-characters, from fellow cons (including nice ones like Georg Stafford Brown to baddies like Jonathan Banks) to guards (led by Craig T. Nelson) and a good old boy warden that yearns to beat his rival in an annual prison rodeo in which, again, miraculously and without explanation, Wilder is a sudden pro at – first riding a mechanical bull and then the real deal...

First thing shown at end of movie
As the climax, practically taking up the entire third act, gets a bit long, the same TV-style "pulling off a caper" music playing on an annoying loop, and yet there's always something to keep the audience, and the characters, guessing, even when the Fish Outta water hilarity is long past.

Gene Wilder & Lee Purcell in STIR CRAZY
To cap this review, and in paying closer tribute to Gene Wilder, who died on August 29th, this year, 2016, after a lifetime of eclectic films including WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, here's a selection of an interview with actress LEE PURCELL, who shared a scene with Wilder in STIR CRAZY when, in New York City, working as a part-time store detective, he accuses the beauty for shoplifting while attempting to land a date, or something...

LEE PURCELL: The way that I ended up doing that role is unusual: I had auditioned for the role that Jo Beth Williams got. Sidney called me at home and told me that I wasn’t right for that role, but that he wanted me in the film, so he offered me the Susan role...

I really didn’t want to do it, as it was so small, but they made me an offer I could not refuse (check out the billing sometime in the film, no, not on the notoriously inaccurate, overrated imdb, but in the actual film’s opening credits) (what I got was way over the top for the size of the role) and I got to say some funny swear words and work with Sidney and Gene Wilder, so need I say more?
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