The Forgotten Western Comedy That Harrison Ford Made with Gene Wilder
Harrison Ford has had several different jobs over the years — movie star, carpenter, weed dealer to rock stars of the 1960s — but he’s rarely gotten work as a straight-up comedic actor. Granted, his crusty leading man roles sometimes call for him to flex his comic timing chops; even The Fugitive has some funny moments despite the fact that it’s about a guy whose wife is brutally murdered before the opening credits are finished. But now Ford is co-starring with Jason Segel in Shrinking, a new comedy series from the creators of Ted Lasso. (Sadly, it’s about psychology and is in no way a gritty reimagining of the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise.)
This new show might seem like a bit of a departure for Ford, but back before he ever played Indiana Jones, or Dr. Richard Kimble or “Harrison Ford having an existential panic attack as the result of a card trick while seemingly baked out of his skull”…
…Ford co-starred in another comedic two-hander: 1979’s The Frisco Kid. While somewhat anomalous in the context of the rest of his career, Ford, then hot on the heels of Star Wars, was apparently game to strap on a pair of spurs for a goofy Western featuring Gene Wilder. While largely forgotten today, The Frisco Kid follows Polish Rabbi Avram Belinski (Wilder) as he comes to America, immediately gets robbed and is forced to navigate the Old West in an effort to reach a synagogue in San Francisco. Along the way, he gets some help from a bank-robbing outlaw (Ford).
While audiences in 1979 may have been expecting a Blazing Saddles-esque farce, The Frisco Kid is an oddly earnest and emotional story about an unlikely friendship mixed with broad slapstick gags and a shambolic adventure tale. While its tonal inconsistency was criticized upon its release, looking back at the film, it’s impossible to deny that the two stars have a lot of chemistry and injected a surprising amount of tenderness into what otherwise could have been a total write-off.
Sandwiched between Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Frisco Kid likely did nothing to help Ford’s career any, but his old-school movie star charms are still evident — although he only landed the role after another actor’s deal fell through. Originally, Steve Martin wanted the gig, but he was rejected by the studio. Instead, they cast Western icon (and giant fraud) John Wayne to the excitement of everyone involved.
But Wayne dropped out of the film shortly before filming began due to the low pay ($750,000 rather than his requested $1 million), and Ford was cast after receiving a recommendation from his buddy Henry Winkler. It was helmed by legendary director Robert Aldrich, who made classics like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen, but who was clearly on the downward slope of his long career (he made just one more movie after The Frisco Kid). While Aldrich got along with Wilder, he was distraught at the loss of Wayne, and his “resentment toward Ford was apparent.”
The Frisco Kid is far from perfect and is pretty much just an oddball asterisk in the careers of everyone involved. However, there’s still something undeniably appealing about it that makes it worth revisiting. Plus, it’s literally the only movie in existence in which you get to see the future star of Hollywood Homicide cuddling with Willy Wonka during a snowstorm.
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