Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, Chapter 14
It had been nine years since Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor had last worked together. Fans of Silver Streak and Stir Crazy had long hoped America's favorite salt and pepper comedy team would reunite. In 1989, those fans got their wish when Wilder and Pryor starred in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which again gave them the opportunity to work with Arthur Hiller, who directed them in Silver Streak. Why did it take almost a decade for Wilder and Pryor to get back together onscreen? According to Gene, "I know it's hard to believe, but nobody asked."
Actually, both Wilder and Pryor had been attached to the 1983 comedy Trading Places. Pryor dropped out, however, to do The Toy with Jackie Gleason. Eddie Murphy, who was cast in Pryor's place, didn't want to work with Gene because, according to Murphy biographer Frank Sanello, "he feared being too closely identified with Pryor's screen persona." Murphy had helped Paramount Pictures score a major hit with 48 HRS., so when he lobbied to get Gene replaced with Dan Aykroyd, the studio acquiesced.
Producer Marvin Worth had been developing the script for See No Evil, Hear No Evil for years. The first draft was written by Earl Barrett and Arne Sultan, perhaps best known for producing the Ted Knight sitcom Too Close For Comfort. Hiller had actually been sent an early draft of the script years before Wilder and Pryor were involved with the project, and wasn't interested in it at the time, feeling it "lacked something." Worth brought the Saturday Night Live writing team of Eliot Wald and Andrew Kurtzman in to do a rewrite. Hiller liked the new script, but Worth and Tri-Star were interested in casting a pair of younger actors in the lead roles. Hiller talked the studio into considering Wilder and Pryor.
Both Wilder and Pryor felt the script had problems. "It didn't ring true, and the characters weren't defined," Gene said. Gene convinced the studio to let him rewrite the first 22 pages of the script. He told Tri-Star that if they didn't like his reworking of the script, "No hard feelings. Don't pay me a thing." But the studio did like Gene's rewrite and gave the film the go-ahead.
Hiller was impressed with the generosity Gene demonstrated in his rewrite. "I said, boy, he's writing, he's the star, he could take all the good things [for himself]," Hiller said. "[But] he wrote so many wonderful scenes for Richard Pryor. There's no ego in acting terms at all."
In See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Pryor plays Wally, a blind man who refuses to accept his disability and tries to cover up by reading newspapers (upside down) on the subway and looking through binoculars (in the wrong direction) at the racetrack. Wilder plays Dave, a deaf man who, after losing his hearing eight years ago, has given up his acting career and now operates a newsstand in Manhattan's Union Square.
One day Wally goes to Dave's newsstand for a job, and after some very funny mishaps, Dave hires Wally. A little time passes, and then one day Wally's bookie goes to the newsstand and, as Dave's back is turned, is murdered. Dave couldn't hear the gunshots, but he did catch a glimpse of the killer's sultry legs. Wally couldn't see anything but he did smell her perfume. Now the police suspect Wally and Dave are the killers, but after escaping from the police station, Wally uses his hearing and Dave uses his sight to go in search of the real killers (Joan Severance and a pre-Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey).
Taking what was familiar territory for Wilder and Pryor -- nice guys accused of a crime they didn't commit -- and adding the blind and deaf angle made See No Evil, Hear No Evil an acting challenge for both leads. They were very concerned about offending blind and deaf people, so Wilder and Pryor studied at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and the Braille Institute in California, respectively. "I wanted to make sure the deafness and the blindness was taken for real," Gene told Joel Siegel. "Even though it's a comedy -- all the more reason why it had to be based in reality."
Despite Wilder and Pryor's attention to detail and their attempts not to make a mockery out of people with disabilities, there were some who were less than amused with the film. "They use our disability to make gags, to make fun of it, and that really encourages the stereotype of who we are," said one deaf actress. Some in Hollywood's deaf community felt Wilder and Pryor's roles should have been cast with actors who really were deaf and blind. "You can study a person with a disability all you want," said Christopher Templeton of Media Access, "but unless you are inside their head and you know what their life has been like, you can't portray them as well as they can portray themselves."
The feeling that only a blind person can play someone blind or only a deaf person can play someone deaf seems to defy the entire definition of what acting is. Sure, no one is likely to argue that Marlee Matlin's real-life experience of being hearing impaired didn't add to her impassioned performance in Children of a Lesser God. But would a talented actress who could hear not have been able to play the role competently? Should a real autistic savant have been cast opposite Tom Cruise in Rain Man instead of Dustin Hoffman? Should Tom Hanks' heterosexuality have been a reason to replace him with an actor who was really gay in Philadelphia? It was exactly this kind of unwarranted controversy Gene was looking to avoid when writing the film and preparing for his role. "We wanted to make sure -- Richard and I -- that we weren't going to offend anyone," Gene said, "but on the contrary that they would be happy that we were doing it because it would increase the awareness of what it's like."
Thankfully, it was only a very select few who seemed to have a problem with See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The New York League for the Hard of Hearing agreed with Gene's defense of the film. "There were communication tips woven through the film," said the League's Ruth Green, "but basically the film is a comedy. And it's fun. And you laugh."
The sign language expert Gene spent most of his time with was named Karen Webb, a fortyish divorcee whose impact on Gene will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter. "So I said, well, I think [it would be] a good idea if he could come in and experience some of the speech reading classes and meet some people so that he could portray that person as honestly as he could..." Webb said. "And I found him delightful and charming. He showed very much respect to all of our clients and to the people he met. And of course they were very excited to meet him."
Having not worked together for almost a decade, many -- including Wilder and Pryor themselves -- pondered whether the chemistry they had previously had would still exist after such a long hiatus. "You wonder after eight years," Gene said, "will it be nervous time? Will you get along and all that. It was easier. It was like a knife going through soft butter. It was like coming home again. I've never had that experience with another actor. It was very comforting to know whatever it is between us is still there."
In the nine years between Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil both Wilder and Pryor had been through a lot in their personal lives. For Gene, of course, there was Gilda's cancer ordeal. As for Pryor, he nearly died in 1980 when he caught fire while freebasing cocaine. He also went through his fifth divorce and began having health problems that led to rumors he had AIDS (he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). Both men felt these experiences made them a lot more mellow than they were while doing Stir Crazy.
During publicity for See No Evil, Hear No Evil virtually every interviewer asked both Wilder and Pryor what the secret of their rapport is. They even asked each other. "We don't know the answer to it," Pryor said. "You just be grateful that it happens to you... Something happened with us. And it's nice."
Gene tried analyzing their onscreen connection in a more interesting way. "We have almost a sexual relationship," Gene said. "It's like lovers. When we see each other on the set there's a certain nervousness, a little anticipation. We're very spontaneous. I could say anything during a take, even if he never saw it before [and] he would respond, just as if it was written in the script, and vice versa. And there's an energy that's there that people call a chemistry, but I call it an energy, like a sexual energy. And when we finish filming for the day, we go home. We don't talk to each other and we don't see each other socially. And I'm telling you it's almost as if [we're] lovers who have just met -- they're afraid to spoil it for the next time."
Arthur Hiller summed up the Wilder-Pryor magic very simply. "They are both actors with good comedy sense," Hiller said. "It wasn't like putting two comedians together. They work very well with each other and off each other."
See No Evil, Hear No Evil opened on May 12, 1989. Critical praise was mixed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "the first pop comedy of the year that is really funny" and wrote that "Wilder and Pryor have never worked better together." Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times called it "brisk, ingenious and funny," while the Today show's Gene Shalit declared it "the funniest movie of the year so far."
Among the critics who spoke evil of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor's third film together was Roger Ebert, who noted that the film had "a fatal problem: Both of its heroes are nice guys. Wilder and Pryor both play loving, sensitive, kind and gentle souls, and that would be wonderful in life, but a movie needs some edge to it. I doubt if Gene Wilder has it in him to play a mean-spirited, vindictive character, but Pryor use to be able to call on that other side. He became a movie star by being a wise guy. In recent years, however, he seems to have locked himself into a series of sweet roles in which the cutting edge of his personality remains concealed." Rex Reed, never known for mincing words called the film "a nightmare" and "a trough of swill," adding that "there isn't one shred of humor, originality or intelligence in the entire film."
See No Evil, Hear No Evil was the number one film at the box office for two weeks straight and took in more than $43 million. It wasn't as big a moneymaker as the two previous Wilder-Pryor pairings, but it was a hit nonetheless. And having enjoyed working together again, Gene seemed to echo Pryor's sentiments when Pryor said, "I hope it won't be as long, another nine years, before we join up again."
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