The passing of Gene Wilder yesterday caught us in our heart and in our soul. One of the best actors of our generation, a man who could play comedy and tragedy and off-kilter characters, and switch from one genre to another with minimal effort, Gene Wilder was a true theater genius.
And while most of the tributes focused on his most iconic roles – the mysterious chocolatier in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the mad scientist in Young Frankenstein, his scene-stealing appearances in Blazing Saddles and The Producers and even The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother …
I remember him best for his four comedy films with Richard Pryor. You know them – Silver Streak, See No Evil Hear No Evil, Another You, and my favorite of the four – Stir Crazy.
In fact, one of the reasons why I enjoyed playing in the World Tavern Trivia championships last May with the Stir Crazy trivia team was, in fact, the team’s name. It reminded me of an amazing and fun moment from high school.
It’s a few weeks before graduation, and the senior class for the Street Academy of Albany – my old high school, God bless it – were going to take a Friday field trip after school.
With music teacher George Mastrangelo acting as our school field trip liaison, we packed ourselves into the school’s VW microbus, and traveled from the school campus – 165 Clinton Avenue in Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood – out to Northway Mall.
Now for all of you who aren’t as old as me, Northway Mall was one of the more popular malls back in the day. You either did your shopping at Northway Mall, Colonie Center or Mohawk Mall. Maybe you went to Latham Circle Shopping Center, but that was on you. The microbus pulled up to Northway Mall’s movie theater – Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6 – and we all bought tickets to see Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy.
I should mention that the film was rated R, under 17 not admitted without parent. Thankfully, either the ticket booth operator was open-minded or looked the other way, because she let a bunch of 17-year-old and 16-year-old kids buy tickets for an R-rated film.
And there we were, chomping on popcorn and soda and candy, and laughing our collective heads off for this film. Seriously. It was that funny. Especially when you’re 17 years old and are hyped up on salted popcorn, sugary candy and even more sugary sodas.
And then there was that scene. If you’ve seen this film, you know exactly what “that scene” was.
But if you haven’t, let me fill you in. It’s a joke that’s based on a very popular documentary of the time, Scared Straight!, in which prison convicts teach high school troublemakers what life is really like when you’re behind cold steel bars and concrete, echoing jail cells.
Well, in Stir Crazy, Richard Pryor’s character starts walking down the jail corridor in an exaggerated cool-breeze strut, almost as if he channeled the spirits of John Shaft and Truck Turner. Meanwhile, Gene Wilder tries to mimic Pryor’s bad-ass strut, almost as if he channeled the spirits of Mine Shaft and Tina Turner. Yeah. Dolemite and Vegemite.
And that scene resonated with us. Heck, the next school day, almost everybody who saw the film on that field trip started strutting around the school, doing their best “We bad, that’s right, we bad, we ready to bang” impersonations. It was funny and unifying at the same time.
And that’s my best memory of Gene Wilder. Not to take anything away from his performances in other films, but yeah Stir Crazy was stellar.
So while many of my friends’ Facebook posts remarked about how he and wife Gilda Radner were reunited in the next world…
I hope he takes time in the next world to make a new movie with Richard Pryor.
Because, honestly, Another You just wasn’t one of their best. They need a do-over.
That, or just two hours of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder walking through prisons and shouting, “That’s right, we bad, we bad…”