Starting with 1976’s Silver Streak, Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor were joined at the hip as a comedy duo. With Pryor as the improvisational dynamo and Wilder as his hapless accomplice, their on-screen chemistry was electric — on par with Laurel and Hardy’s.
“The timing of everything we did on-screen came so spontaneously to us that it was almost like sexual attraction,” Wilder said in his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. It was a relationship that stretched into the ’90s; in all, they made four films together.
The duo’s debut was supposed to have come in 1974, in Mel Brooks’s Western spoof Blazing Saddles. Brooks hired Pryor to work on the script and planned on casting him in the lead. Pryor had previously penned episodes of Sanford and Son and had been shopping a script for his own politically incorrect Western comedy, The Black Stranger. But hopes of casting the bright young comedian were dashed when he started bringing Courvoisier and cocaine to script sessions. Cleavon Little got the part, though Pryor’s pungent racial humor is in evidence throughout the film.
Drug problems also led to another casting change. Gig Young was supposed to play the whiskey-guzzling Waco Kid, but his real-life alcohol problems got the better of him. Wilder came in to save the day for what would become the year’s most unexpected blockbuster.