The Frisco Kid is a 1979 movie directed by Robert Aldrich. The movie is a Western comedy featuring Gene Wilder as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi who is traveling to San Francisco, and Harrison Ford as a bank robber who befriends him.
This AP article neglected to mention it as well. And I noticed The Frisco Kid had been excluded from Mr. Wilder’s movie credits in articles I had read prior to his passing. I suspect this is due to being overlooked in favor of far more popular titles such as Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
In our home it was our first, and possibly our favorite, Gene Wilder movie. It’s not exactly kind of material of which my young children’s rosh yeshiva would approve. But I considered it a ‘Jewish must watch’ for my kids (and ‘almost child-safe’ entertainment). So, in remembrance of the great Gene Wilder, here are some scenes from The Frisco Kid.
Thank you, Mr. Wilder. You were a light of laughter unto the nations. The world was blessed to have you.
UPDATE: August 30, 2016 3:27:18 AM
Tabletmag.com has a wonderful article about Gene Wilder which has some interview excerpts focusing on The Frisco Kid.
I ask him how it felt to play two classic Jewish film roles and he holds up one finger: “You mean one,” he corrects me.“In The Frisco Kid.” But what about Leo Bloom in The Producers? I ask. “Oh! Oh!” Wilder says with a smile, “I never thought of that. I suppose so. I never thought of it. Of course, Leo. Well, because Zero and Mel made it Jewish. But there was nothing overtly Jewish in the writing. Well, actually, I can’t say that either, because the way Mel writes, it is Jewishy, but not filled with Jewishisms.”
Leo Bloom in The Producers (1968) is the uptight accountant who conspires with a failing Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) to produce a guaranteed flop. In The Frisco Kid (1979), Wilder played on Orthodox Polish rabbi in the 1850s, Avram Belinski. Complete with long black coat, thick beard, and black hat, Belinski schleps his prized Torah across the plains on a grueling journey to his new congregation in San Francisco. The naive rabbi undergoes myriad hardships, several of which involve being mercilessly assaulted, until he hooks up with a tough cowboy, played by Harrison Ford.
Wilder needed to supplement his scant Jewish education to prepare for the role, so he hired two rabbis and a cantor. “The cantor recorded prayers for me on the tape recorder,” Wilder explains, “and I had to study to be able to sing them. Everywhere I went I had that recorder. Then for technical advice, I consulted one Conservative rabbi and one Reform rabbi. Just to answer questions for me. But the cantor was the most helpful. The idea of singing in Hebrew on-screen was something I would have instinctively rejected—‘How am I going to do that?’ But when I heard it on the tape recorder and I could repeat it and I knew what the words meant and the phrasing, and I could make it my own, then I could do it.”
I ask him if that role made him think about being Jewish. “A lot of it did come easily,” he answers. “I wrote a lot of that movie. Not the prayers, I mean,” he says with a chuckle, “but the dialogue. When I was writing I was thinking, ‘What would be funny for a rabbi to do?’ I didn’t think, ‘What would be funny for a Jew to do?’ I know I’m saying the same thing, but in my mind, it wasn’t. I am Jewish, so I don’t have to wonder, ‘What would a Jew do?’”
In one hilarious scene in the film, Rabbi Belinski has just been beaten, robbed, and abandoned by bandits in the desert when he spots a happily familiar sight in the distance: men in long black coats and black hats. He rushes toward them, assuming they’re Hasidim, frantically talking in Yiddish about his ordeal, when he realizes they’re not fellow Jews: They’re Amish. I ask him how he learned the Yiddish that he jabbered in the scene. “Oh, that was from Mel,” he says with a laugh. “I told him, ‘I want to get all excited when the Amish come; what can I say when I’m trying to talk to them and I think that they’re Jews and I want to tell them I was beaten up—” Suddenly he’s in character, accent and all. “ ‘They nearly killed me, they chopped me, they kicked my kishkes!’ And I asked Mel, ‘How would I say that in Yiddish?’ And Mel said, ‘You say, G-gyhagen machin dyhuda yhiddina . . . !!’ ” (It’s a rant of makeshift Yiddish that sounds like vintage Mel Brooks.) “I told Mel, ‘Wait! Wait!’ And I wrote it down. I got it all from Mel. Whether it makes any sense, I don’t know.”