George Caldwell [played by Gene Wilder]: “I can't pass for black.”
Grover Muldoon [played by Richard Pryor]: “Who you tellin'? I didn't say I was gonna make you black. I said I was gonna get you on the train. Now we got to make them cops think you're black.”
[rubs shoe polish on George's face]
George: “It'll never work. Never.”
Grover: “What, you afraid it won't come off?”— Silver Streak (1976), screenplay by Colin Higgins, directed by Arthur Hiller
Sexually molested by a neighbor and a preacher, then abandoned at age 10 by his prostitute mother, Richard Pryor grew up in pain. He didn’t need more, in the form of white racism. But when the comic, in the middle of a studio picture with all the possibilities of a hit, came to this part of Silver Streak—a blackface segment reminding him of the vestiges of slavery and segregation—he balked, walking off the set.
It took some coaxing, but Pryor was lured back when director Arthur Hiller accepted his suggestion that the initial culmination of this scene—a white man coming in on Wilder and being fooled by the shoe-polish-and-jive act—be junked in favor of the comedian’s idea: “Instead of a white dude being fooled by the disguise,” Pryor recalled, “a black dude comes in and isn’t fooled. Here’s Gene snapping his fingers and holding his portable radio to his ear, and the black dude takes one look and says, ‘I don’t know what you think you’re doing, man, but you got to get the beat.'”
Far more consistently loaded on the subject of race was Pryor’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in the show’s first series. The comic’s demands for guest-hosting were far more numerous—and, often, less justifiable—than his grievances over the blackface segment in Silver Streak. On SNL, Pryor insisted that the new comedy-variety show hire as the episode’s musical guest Gil-Scott Heron, and that Pryor’s ex-wife Shelley also be allowed to perform. At the end of the haggling, showrunner Lorne Michaels said angrily of Pryor, "He better be funny."
He was. The "Word Association" skit with Chevy Chase (whom Pryor heartily disliked) might be the most famous, but Pryor's opening monologue was also well done, as is his part in the Exorcist parody.