Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!

While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…

“That’s right, we bad!”

It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.

Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.

Halloween TV Havoc!: Richard Pryor Meets The Exorcist on SNL!

Back when SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was actually funny, guest host Richard Pryor (making his first and only appearance on the show) starred in an EXORCIST parody called THE EXORCIST 2, which is no relation to the later film (and much better!). Pryor and Thalmus Rasulala (BLACULA ) play two priests battling Satan for a little girl’s soul, with Laraine Newman in the Linda Blair role. Enjoy this priceless Halloween spoof from 1975:

“A Little Nonsense Now And Then Is Relished By The Wisest Men”: RIP Gene Wilder

wilder1

The world just got a little sadder. News has been released that funnyman Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83 from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Wilder was without question one of the greatest comic actors of the late 20th Century, beloved by both filmgoers and peers for the manic energy he brought to his everyman characters.

wilder2

Born in Milwaukee, Gene Wilder (nee’ Jerome Silberman) made his film debut in the small part of Eugene, hostage of the outlaw duo BONNIE & CLYDE. He then scored the plum role of neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, caught by in Zero Mostel’s scheme to produce a Broadway bomb in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS. This was the first of three Wilder/Brooks collaborations, each one funnier than the last. BLAZING SADDLES casts Wilder as The Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter who helps Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) bring peace to Rock Ridge. Best of all was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (“That’s Fronkensteen!”), a hysterical send-up of the Universal horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s that’s a film buff’s dream, which Wilder co-wrote and starred as Fredrick Frankenstein, descendant of the monster maker who creates his own monster (Peter Boyle) with hilarious consequences.

wilder3

Wilder was the original Candy Man in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, playing the delightful trickster of the title. The film wasn’t initially a hit, but gained momentum to become a cult classic beloved by millions. Wilder’s next film, Woody Allen’s episodic EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) did hit box office gold, and Wilder’s sequence as a psychiatrist who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy, is side-splittingly funny.

wilder4

In 1976, Wilder began another film collaboration, as he played opposite Richard Pryor in Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK. The scene where Pryor teaches Wilder to act black, so he can escape the bad guys, is another comic gem. Their best pairing is undoubtably 1980’s STIR CRAZY, as two muttonheads framed for bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in max. Once again, Pryor has to teach Wilder the ways of the streets by “acting tough”, (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) with riotous results. As for their last two, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL and ANOTHER YOU… well, as Joe E. Brown says in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody’s perfect”.

HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures
HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures

But Wilder’s most important collaboration came in 1981 when, while filming HANKY PANKY, he met SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Gilda Radner. The two fell in love and were married in 1984. After making THE WOMAN IN RED and HAUNTED HONEYMOON together (both films written and directed by Wilder), Gilda began feeling fatigued, and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She battled bravely but succumbed to the disease in 1989, devastating Wilder. Though he did remarry a few years later, he never quite got over Gilda, his comic match.

Besides those mentioned, Wilder also wrote, directed, and starred in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER, the former as Holmes’ jealous brother Sigerson, the latter a silent film spoof with Wilder as Rudolph Valentino wanna-be Rudy Hickman. Gene Wilder was one of the 70’s biggest box-office stars, a true renaissance man of the movies. He may be gone, but surely won’t be forgotten by anyone as long as there are film fans eager for classic comedy. Thanks for the laughter, Gene. You’ll be missed.

Rockin’ in the Film World #4: WILD IN THE STREETS (AIP 1968)

max1

If you think today’s political climate is tumultuous and crazy, wait’ll you get a load of WILD IN THE STREETS. Filmed in the chaotic year 1968, this satirical look at the counter-culture vs the establishment revolves around a power-mad rock star whose call to lower the voting age to 14 results in him becoming President of the good ol’ USA, and sticking it to the over 30 crowd by interring them in concentration camps loaded with LSD-spiked water supplies!

max2

Christopher Jones is Max Frost, née Flatow, the charismatic leader of rock band Max Frost and the Troopers. Pre-credits flashbacks show Max’s unhappy childhood with an overbearing mother (Shelley Winters at her over-the-top best) and abrasive dad (Bert Freed). Max learns to hate all adults and dabbles in making LSD and bombs. After he blows up dad’s car, the rebellious Max leaves home and winds up becoming a mega rock star rivaling the Beatles in popularity.

max3

Frost’s Troopers include 15-year-old lead guitarist and financial whiz Billy,  former child star now acid head Sally LeRoy, drummer/anthropologist Stanley X, and anarchist trumpeter The Hook. Aspiring Senator Fergus, running on an 18-year-old voter platform (which in reality didn’t go into effect until 1971), hires Max and his band to play at a political rally. But the shrewd Max comes up with a new song “Fourteen or Fight”, aimed at getting teenyboppers the vote, and urges his young “troops” to descend on the Sunset Strip to protest. This goes up the ass of the ultra-establishment Senator Allbright sideways, and a summit meeting is held at Fergus’s home, resulting in a compromise to fifteen and a promise from Max not to lead the teenagers to riot.

max4

Teens from across the country flock to the Strip in droves, with stock footage of the real Sunset Strip riots, exploited by AIP in 1967’s RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP… but that’s another post for another day. Suffice it to say, Max gets what he wants, and the 14 year olds get the vote. Max runs 25-year-old Sally for a vacant congressional seat, and she’s overwhelmingly elected. Stoned out Sally proposes lowering the age to hold office to 14 for congress, senate, and president, causing chaos among the old guard and riots in the streets of Washington, with twelve teens shot down and killed. Max and his merry pranksters devise a plan to spike the D.C. water supply with LSD, resulting in a psychedelic scene of tripped-out elected officials giving a unanimous vote to change the age limits!

The Republican Party (!) ask Max to run for President because “Nixon would look dumb with long hair and Ronald Reagan would look even worse!” Max is elected in a landslide and calls for mandatory retirement at age 30, then sending 35-year-olds to his LSD concentration camps to live out their days under blissful control. Max’s “troops” become storm troopers rounding up the oldsters, including his own mother and Senator Fergus, who’s picked up by his own son Jimmy. Revolutions spring up across the globe, as teenagers everywhere take over the world!

max5

Sound far-fetched? You bet, but the folks at American International Pictures had been doing teen exploitation pics for years, and knew it’s audience well. This one has a better cast than most AIPers, with lead Christopher Jones doing his best James Dean as the pony-tailed rebel Max. Jones was familiar to youngsters as star of the TV series THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES, portraying the outlaw as an anti-establishment hero. His  brief but memorable career saw him star in the sexploitation comedy THREE IN THE ATTIC, 1970’s THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and David Lean’s lavish production RYAN’S DAUGHTER before he decided to drop out of movies altogether and devote his time to painting and sculpting. Christopher Jones is one of my favorites of the era, and made a final film appearance in 1996’s MAD DOG TIME as a favor to director Larry Bishop, who plays The Hook here (and was son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop).

max6

Besides Shelley Winters’ outrageous performance as Mrs. Flatow, the adults are represented by Hal Holbrook as Senator Fergus (who went on to star in a TV series called THE SENATOR), Oscar winner Ed Begley as Sen. Allbright, and Millie Perkins (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as Fergus’s wife. Former child star Kevin Coughlin plays Billy, Diane Varsi (PEYTON PLACE) is Sally, and Richard Pryor makes an early film appearance as Stanley X. Another James Dean wannabe, Michael Margotta, plays Fergus’s rebellious son Jimmy. THE BRADY BUNCH’s Barry Williams is Max as a child, and AIP vet Salli Sachse is a hippie mom. Some famous names of the times have cameos as themselves: Army Archerd, Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela Mason, and the venerable Walter Winchell. And yes, the narrator is none other than Paul Frees, who seems to be  in every other film I write about!

Director Barry Shear did mostly television, but his feature credits include a couple good ones: the Blaxploitation drama ACROSS 110th STREET and the Western THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Screenwriter Robert Thom (married at the time to Millie Perkins) also penned COMPULSION, ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS, BLOODY MAMA, and THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD, but is probably best remembered for DEATH RACE 2000. And believe it or not, WILD IN THE STREETS was actually Oscar nominated, for the fine editing work of Eve Newman and Fred Feitshans (it lost to BULLITT, but what the hell… a nomination for low budget AIP!)

But it really should’ve been nominated for was its rocking score. The Troopers songs (played offscreen by members of Davie Allen and the Arrows) were written by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the team responsible for classic hits by The Animals (“We Gotta Get Outta This Place”), The Drifters (“Saturday Night at the Movies”), Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Hungry”, “Kicks”), and The Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Soul and Inspiration”). A song from WILD IN THE STREETS made it to #22 on the Billboard charts, and was in heavy rotation on radio during 1968 (I still have the 45!) It’s “Shape of Things to Come”, a proto-punk call to revolution after the kids are gunned down in D.C.:

So if you’re sick of politics as usual (and who isn’t!),  WILD IN THE STREETS is just the thing to take your mind off all the noise and nonsense going on today. It’s a loopy time capsule of the hippie days, when you didn’t trust anyone over 30. I’m WAY past 30 now, but I’m thinking maybe we should send Hillary and The Donald to an LSD camp. Not Bernie though.. he’d probably dig it too much!