The recent passing of Gene Wilder and the subsequent outpouring of grief focused on a string of remarkable performances. His work with Mel Brooks was rightly lauded, as was his partnership with Richard Pryor. Most obituaries waxed lyrical about his startling and ambiguous performance as Willy Wonka while some found time to champion his subtle and nuanced turn as a man in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).
Few, if any, tributes made reference to The Frisco Kid, a 1979 gem directed by Robert Aldrich and held together by the brilliance of its lead. Like Blazing Saddles, a much-heralded Wilder classic, this is a buddy movie masquerading as a comedy Western.
The plot is simple; Avram Belinski (Wilder) is a naive Polish rabbi in 1850 sent to America to lead a congregation in San Francisco. He arrives in Philadelphia, is promptly robbed by a group of conmen and befriends a bank robber named Tommy Lillard (played by Harrison Ford in the interval between the first and second Star Wars films). Together, the pair gain set out to gain vengeance and get Avram to California.
There is one school of thought that suggests acting is reacting and there can have been few actors quite as gifted in this regard as Wilder. Every reaction shot of wide-eyed innocence and lovable naivety indicates a performer asking us to laugh with him. Crucially, throughout all his travails, Avram never has a crisis of faith and his Judaism is celebrated rather than mocked by director Robert Aldrich.
As with Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles earlier in the decade, the comedic chemistry between Wilder and his co-star is something to behold. Incredibly, the Ford role was initially planned for John Wayne as a kind of comic take on his True Grit persona. Salary concerns put paid to the idea and it was undoubtedly for the best. Ford’s conflicted but genial criminal is the perfect counterpoint for Wilder’s fish out of water shtick. While The Frisco Kid might not be the first film that comes to mind when you think of the career of one of the medium’s most sensitive and hilarious actors, it is well worth seeking out and reminding yourself that here, truly, was a one of a kind.