As we mourn the loss of Hollywood trailblazer Sidney Poitier, we figured it is fitting to take a look back at an often overlooked film that he was attached to as a director: Stir Crazy.
The comedic pairing up of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor seems strange on paper. You don’t necessarily think of the two in the same breath when it comes to their comedic styles. They were both perfect on their own, but the matching up of them together seemed far fetched. However, as they would prove over time, they gelled like peanut butter and jelly and became Hollywood’s first successful interracial comedy team.
The two first teamed up together in 1976’s Silver Streak. The film was a moderate success, and saw Wilder getting star billing with Pryor actually getting third billing behind Jill Clayburgh. And it wasn’t quite an immediate response where someone decided they needed to team up two of the film’s stars for future comedies. But the seeds were planted, and eventually, something would in fact come of it.
By 1980, acting legend Sidney Poitier was coming off of a string of films as a director, such as Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. At this point, Poitier signed onto direct Stir Crazy. A silly and over-the-top prison comedy may not be the first thing you think about when you think of the dignified Oscar winner who literally broke down barriers. However, he rose to the occasion and showed that one doesn’t have to be pigeonholed as being just one thing. It was a different kind of creative muscle, and unsurprisingly, one he excelled at. And for this occasion, he teamed up Wilder and Pryor once again.
The film – which was written by Bruce Jay Friedman – revolves around two men who are mistaken for bank robbers and wrongfully thrown into prison as they travel from New York to Hollywood. And while in prison, Wilder’s character is chosen by the warden to compete in the prison’s annual rodeo competition, due to his ability to ride a mechanical bull without being bucked off. The plot for the film is definitely unconventional for a prison comedy, but having two leads like Wilder and Pryor makes it work ultimately.
Like Silver Streak, Stir Crazy is also more or less confined to a singular location. Unlike Silver Streak however, there seems to be more room in the script for Wilder and Pryor to play off of each other with their signature comedic styles. Something that sets the two of them apart from other duos is that they could each take turns playing either the straight man or the broader one, depending on what that particular scene called for. Each man had a comedic fuse that could be ignited at a moment’s notice. This allows even more room for richer comedy, as neither Gene Wilder nor Richard Pryor had to stay contained within a certain box. They both had a freedom to be as free as needed onscreen.
The two actors would again team up two more times. First in See No Evil, Hear No Evil and then again in the poorly received Another You. However, of their four outings together, it’s Stir Crazy that has exceeded the others as an 80’s classic, and is among the best film’s on both of their resumes.