Gene Wilder's Chemistry With Richard Pryor Came As A Surprise To Both Stars

The first time George Caldwell meets Grover T. Muldoon in Arthur Hiller's 1976 film "Silver Streak," George is in the process of stealing a police car. He's just been accused of a murder he did not commit, and now he is on the run. Panic-stricken, he drives nervously, unaware of the fact that he is not the only person in the squad car. "Dumb, stupid b******," he says to himself. As if on cue, a curious Grover pops up in the back seat, hands cuffed, and peers almost lovingly over George's shoulder. George, shocked by Grover's sudden appearance screams, "Who are you?!" before almost running off the road. "I'm a thief, man!" answers Grover. And so a friendship is born.

George and Grover, who are played by the always enchanting Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor respectively, quickly form an unbreakable bond as they attempt to outwit the police and a high-stakes criminal. Almost immediately, the two men have a rapport with one another on screen that borders on kindred as they partake in shootouts and try to stop a runaway train. Both cut from the same comedic cloth, Wilder and Pryor are no strangers to humor, and "Silver Streak" marked their first on-screen collaboration (Wilder had met Pryor previously through his work on "Blazing Saddles" which was co-written by Pryor). Throughout their lives, Wilder and Pryor would only go on to star in three more movies together, but their chemistry on screen is unforgettable. But surprisingly, their ease with one another on-screen came as a shock to them both.

An unlikely pairing

"Silver Streak" is a comedic thriller about a book editor (Gene Wilder) who finds himself unexpectedly caught up in a murder mystery while traveling on a train (the Silver Streak) to Chicago. About halfway through, the film turns into a buddy film when Wilder's character meets Richard Pryor's Grover T. Muldoon, and the two set out to set things straight together. In an interview for the now-defunct Filter magazine, Wilder — who passed away in 2016 — spoke to Gregg LaGambina about working with Pryor for the first time. Their conversation, which has been re-published at Little White Lies, is gracious as Wilder admits to being surprised by just how much chemistry he and Pryor had together. Looking back on their first scene together, Wilder says:

"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. We did that for a few lines and then came back, ended up on the script lines, and that was how we started our improvisational relationship. And at the end of the scene, when we had made a shambles out of everyone [...] we both, at the same moment, started humming the Laurel and Hardy theme song. [...] And when he hollered 'Cut!' and everyone was laughing, I said, 'Did you know you were going to do that?' And Richard said, 'No. Did you?' And I said, 'No.' But we both did it, I suppose because it appealed to the same silliness. That's the way it always was when we worked." 

Chemistry is all about attraction

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor's chemistry was not really something the two ever discussed. He tells journalist Gregg LaGambina that the two "never talked about anything to do with improvising," and that their remarkable ability to bounce off one another "just happened." In fact, Wilder even goes so far as to describe their chemistry together as being "like a sexual attraction." He explains, "You say, 'Why that woman and not this woman? That woman is much prettier — a better figure, a better body, softer skin, whatever. But I'm attracted to that woman.' You say, 'It's a mystery.' Why? Chemistry." Though his metaphor is a bit outdated — maybe even a little icky — the general sentiment of two people unexpectedly falling for each other remains. 

It's funny that he likens their compatibility on screen together to romance because during their first filmed scene together in "Silver Streak," a shootout happens on the side of the train tracks. When Pryor and Wilder reconvene after being apart for a while, they unexpectedly tumble onto each other. Pryor lands on top of Wilder, and it's as if the two are experiencing a meet-cute in a completely different film where they bashfully connect over a clumsy fall. There is a brief moment where they look into each other's eyes, and it's clear there is a connection. "It's just the chemistry," says Wilder. "In that sense, that's what Richard Pryor and I had."