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The Frisco Kid

The Frisco Kid(1979)

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teaser The Frisco Kid (1979)

Between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Harrison Ford appeared in six feature films (including two cameos). Among them was The Frisco Kid (1979), a comedy co-starring Gene Wilder that Variety described as "a Jewish western." Wilder plays a Polish rabbi headed across the country in 1850 to San Francisco. Along the way, he forms a friendship with a cynical outlaw played by Ford, who takes him under his wing. (The film bears no relation to the 1935 Frisco Kid starring James Cagney.)

The episodic screenplay by Michael Elias and Frank Shaw had been making the rounds in Hollywood for quite some time. Originally entitled No Knife, it was optioned by producer Mace Neufeld in 1975; in the years that followed, various directors including Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, and Bud Yorkin were attached to direct. Finally, veteran director Robert Aldrich came on board -- primarily because the outlaw role was to be played by John Wayne.

But Wayne dropped out shortly before production because of a salary dispute, and the part was offered to Harrison Ford. Aldrich never got over his disappointment. Producer Neufeld later said, "Every time Aldrich directed a scene, in his mind he saw John Wayne. He was dealing mentally with a screen icon -- it did not help Harrison as an actor, and there was enormous pressure being put on him by the director." In his first cut of the film, in fact, Aldrich left much of Ford's performance on the cutting room floor; an angry Neufeld ordered the performance restored. Even so, Variety noted in its review that "Wilder is given too many solo shots."

In truth, The Frisco Kid was an odd vehicle for Aldrich, who remains best known for tough, violent masterpieces like Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Ulzana's Raid (1972). He made very few comedies in his career. Perhaps inevitably, he inserted a few violent set pieces into this picture that Variety described as "jarring in their sadistic intensity."

Nonetheless, both Aldrich and comedy master Wilder later said they greatly enjoyed working with each other. "Gene is brilliant," Aldrich told an interviewer near the end of the shoot. "I think it's the best job he's ever done." Wilder recalled that Aldrich "was smart, and he knew exactly what he was doing all the time. Like all of the best directors, he left the doors open for you to surprise him." Wilder also rewrote much of the screenplay, uncredited. Neufeld remembered that "Gene worked very hard on the religious [aspect] of the part. I got two rabbis in as advisors and a cantor who taught him to chant. Gene was very, very serious about that."

A three-month shoot in Colorado and Arizona ended in late 1978, and the picture opened in the summer of 1979, while Ford was already shooting The Empire Strikes Back. Critics were mixed, though most agreed that Ford's talents for sarcasm and wit, shown to such good effect in his portrayal of Han Solo in Star Wars, blossomed in this full-fledged comedy. "Excellent counterpoint in provided by Ford," said Variety, "who finally lives up to the potential he displayed in Star Wars... Ford provides the perfect foil for Wilder's gaffes, and their scenes play wonderfully.

"Wilder," the review continued, "has his best role in years. The manic gleam featured in the early Wilder pix has now turned into a mature twinkle, and this performance is particularly impressive in accumulation of small character details."

The New York Times was less enthusiastic, mainly due to Aldrich's work: "Asking Robert Aldrich to direct a sentimental Jewish comedy on the order of The Frisco Kid is like putting the late Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. in charge of a tap dancing class for tiny tots. Not knowing exactly what to do, he doesn't seem to do very much at all. The result is harmless chaos.... Mr. Aldrich is not most at home in the kind of lovable comedy this film wants to be. The comic timing is always a couple of beats off."

While on location in Rio Rico, Colorado, the film company found another picture shooting there as well: The Villain (1979), with Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both productions shared the one hotel in the area, and on July 4th, they threw a big party together.

By Jeremy Arnold

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Brian Mednick, Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad
Ethlie Ann Vare, Harrison Ford
Gene Wilder, Kiss Me Like a Stranger

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