Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN -

Bon­nie And Clyde (1967) Se­lected by Jonathan Pile, Deputy Ed­i­tor

Two months be­fore film­ing be­gan on The

Pro­duc­ers, Gene Wilder ac­cepted a small part in an­other movie — War­ren Beatty’s Bon­nie

And Clyde. His first film, it cer­tainly isn’t much like the ones he would be­come fa­mous for — in fact, the counter-cul­ture call­ing card stands out as an anom­aly in his fil­mog­ra­phy — but the part of kid­nap vic­tim Eu­gene Griz­zard is quintessen­tially Wilder. The thing is, it wasn’t sup­posed to be.

Let’s re­cap first: Eu­gene and his girl­friend Velma (played by the beau­ti­fully named Evans Evans) are fool­ing about on her porch when the Bar­row gang steal his car. They give chase, only to be forced off the road and taken hostage. Af­ter driv­ing around for a while — telling jokes and eat­ing burg­ers — they’re kicked out and left in the mid­dle of nowhere.

The part of Griz­zard, as writ­ten, isn’t sup­posed to be funny. Direc­tor Arthur Penn ad­mit­ted as much to Wilder af­ter film­ing ended. But to Penn’s de­light, Wilder played it dif­fer­ently. From the prat­fall off the porch as he chases af­ter his stolen car to his barely con­cealed ex­cite­ment that he’s been kid­napped by not just any­one, but by the in­fa­mous Bar­row gang, he in­jects such warmth and hu­mour into the char­ac­ter the se­quence be­comes one of the most mem­o­rable in the film. It was an in­cred­i­bly smart (or more likely for­tu­itous) piece of cast­ing. Wilder had been in plays and on TV, but his tal­ents weren’t widely known. And while it didn’t make him a star, in ret­ro­spect it re­veals he was ready — ev­ery­thing that au­di­ences would love about Gene Wilder in the decades to come are on show in these five min­utes. Not bad for a role that wasn’t sup­posed to be funny.

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