A genius self-destructs, with a little help from Hollywood
Richard Pryor should have died on June 9, 1980. Early in the evening, out of his mind on crack cocaine, the comedian covered himself in rum and set it alight. Before his guests could rescue him, he jumped out of the window of his house in Northridge, California, and ran down Parthenia Street in a ball of flames. Ignoring pleas from passersby, he staggered around the San Fernando Valley suburb for several minutes while his clothes melted into his skin and the flesh on his upper body bubbled and blistered like meat in a wok. Eventually, two cops managed to stop him long enough for an ambulance to arrive. Pryor was then taken to Sherman Oaks Hospital, where, it was generally thought (at least by his family and business associates), he’d be spending his last few hours alive. Obituaries were prepared. Unsympathetic acquaintances and certain family members started eyeing up his possessions. Indeed, some things were taken from his house in those first critical hours.
Although shocked, those closest to Richard Pryor had seen something like this coming. His behaviour had begun to intensify in its destructiveness. His consumption of drugs and alcohol knew no limits. He was wracked with anger, emotional pain and insecurity — demons from his youth that wouldn’t leave him no matter how rich and famous he got. On stage he was lionized, on screen he was adored, but in life he continued to lash out at those around him. He beat up wives and girlfriends and deliberately sabotaged professional engagements. Filming Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar 1977, he’d had fistfights with members of the cast and waved a loaded gun around in front of the director. In November that same year, just before his thirty-seventh birthday, he’d suffered a heart attack “whilst screwing one of the most attractive white women ever.” The following month, on New Year’s Eve, he took a gun and shot up his wife’s car when she tried to leave him. In 1979, he took his drug consumption to a new level and started freebasing — mixing rock cocaine with ether and smoking it. He carried his cocaine pipe around with him everywhere, stoked it up as much as he could, sucked on it like a “chick’s dick.” Early in 1980, he was out of control on the set of Stir Crazy, throwing the shooting schedule into complete disarray by turning up half-a-day late for scenes and then holding the producers for ransom for another half million just to complete the film.
On June 9, it all came to a head. Pryor, in his state of round-the-clock paranoia, thought he was being lied to, abused, cheated out of his money. He went into his bank on Sunset and Vine and tried to withdraw everything from his various accounts. The bank manager informed him that he needed notice, and couldn’t authorize the withdrawal. Pryor went back home and continued to smoke the pipe until he ran out of cocaine. “By then,” he later wrote, “I was experiencing serious dementia. Stuck in a surreal landscape of constantly shifting emotions . . .”1 At this point he decided to commit suicide by covering himself with rum and firing up the Bic lighter he used with his pipe. It took three attempts to become a human torch.
At the Sherman Oaks burns unit, Pryor underwent a tortuous course of treatment, from agonising baths and skin scrubs to grafts and plastic surgery. Fifty percent of his body had been burnt, with the most severe damage concentrated on his upper torso, where, he later said, “third-degree burns turned what was once smooth, unmarked brown skin into a raw fleshy paste that oozed brown pus and left the nerves exposed.”2 He was given less than a 50-50 chance of survival. But after six weeks of treatment, he was discharged from the hospital. It looked like the phoenix might rise from the ashes.
The line that emerged from the Pryor camp was that the comedian had burnt himself accidentally when a glass of rum caught fire, but the persistent rumour was that he’d set himself alight freebasing when the potent ether unexpectedly exploded. Both these explanations, characteristically enough, smacked of the kind of tragicomedy audiences had come to expect from the performer. Either way, no one considered suicide: Richard Pryor clearly had too much to live for.
* * *
Although he had never made a great film, Pryor’s appearances (however small) in the films of the mid to late seventies — Car Wash (1976), Silver Streak (1976), Greased Lightning(1977), Blue Collar (1978) — had been energizing, illuminating and infectiously appealing. As early as 1972, Hollywood heard rumblings of a subversive genius at work. He got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1972 for the Diana Ross-starring Lady Sings the Blues. He played with Lily Tomlin on TV and won an Emmy. He contributed to the script of Blazing Saddles (1974), but missed out on the lead role. His own short-lived NBC comedy sketch series (four episodes in 1977, above) was a landmark, network-challenging piece of television. Even his turn as guest presenter on Saturday Night Live was incendiary and exhilarating. But above all this stood his reputation as the most ground-breaking stand-up comedian since Lenny Bruce.
Those who saw Pryor on stage, when his act finally gelled in the early to mid seventies, were left gasping from the comic assault. No one had spun such comic gold from a life scarred by racism and abuse; no one had talked about sex and drugs with such candid obscenity; no one had turned the raw agony of his life into such a searing cabaret of mimicry and mime. And Pryor surpassed Lenny Bruce, by liberating his act from the mike stand and creating a solo theatre of movement and sound. Pryor didn’t tell jokes — he interpreted the agonising hilarity of his life. He became his own pets, parts of his own body, the inanimate objects in his house. He became his own conscience, his demons, his ego, his id. But most of all, his shtick was bathed in a new radicalism that would have been unthinkable in Bruce’s day. He talked of a world where white cops shot blacks, where women yearned for orgasms, where drug highs showed the real truths. He peppered his routines with “nigger’ and used “motherfucker’ as noun, verb, and exclamation. But none of this was savage or offensive; indeed, it evinced vulnerability and honesty. In truth, Pryor on stage had more humanity than a Sunday school teacher.
Despite his comedy albums selling in the hundreds of thousands, the complete experience of Pryor’s live act at its best would have been lost to posterity if it hadn’t been for Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979). Shot at Long Beach, California in December 1978, Live in Concert caught the comedian firing on all cylinders. Time may have dampened its explosive appeal, but Live in Concert remains the most influential stand-up movie of all time. And commercially it broke the mould, setting box office records for a filmed performance and playing to audiences that comprised as many middle-class whites as blue-collar blacks. In the U.S., it was a barrier-breaking experience: an adult film event as culturally significant as Deep Throat had been seven years earlier.
As a direct result of Live in Concert, Pryor’s superhuman recovery from the self-inflicted fire was matched with a rapid and meteoric rise in his Hollywood status. Stir Crazy, when it was released in December 1980, went on to gross over $100 million, making it one of the most commercially successful comedies of all time. In 1981,Bustin’ Loose, another project he’d started before his brush with death, also generated a healthy profit.
As he recuperated, an apparently “reborn’ Pryor set about consolidating his growing superstardom with a batch of projects that continued to marry his endearing screen persona with the raw subversion of his stand-up. But behind the commercial frenzy that surrounded him, something had changed. His demons had not gone away, of course, and his boozing and drug taking soon returned to monstrous levels, but part of Pryor had died on June 9, 1980. For the edgy, dangerous performer of the seventies would now give way to a lazier, less coruscating comic, one who was moving further away from his own truth. But was this the result of his near-apocalypse, or simply a consequence of mainstream success?
* * *
The signs that Pryor’s best days were behind him were soon to appear. Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), a record of the star’s first return to stand-up comedy eighteen months after the fire, immediately shows something of this decline. Although the provocative honesty still shines through, and the funny routines, when they come, are occasionally brilliant, some of his energy has been replaced with doubt and caution; he is a little less agile, less sure of himself. And his newfound aversion to the word “nigger” seems, although heartfelt, a curious concession to the encroaching political correctness of Reagan-era Hollywood.
It was by no means the life-threatening “accident” that had sapped Pryor’s magic by Live on the Sunset Strip, however. In fact, his long-awaited routine about setting himself ablaze turned out to be one of the movie’s high points. But in a remarkably candid interlude, the comedian admits to the audience that he knows he was better — funnier — when he was hungry, when he wasn’t the Hollywood hotshot. And this isn’t just a throwaway comment. On the first night of the concert, in December 1981, Pryor actually abandoned the stage of the Hollywood Palladium halfway through the act, announcing: “I don’t know what I’m doing here … I’m not funny any more.” Leaving the bewildered audience behind, he locked himself in his trailer and wouldn’t come out. He had to be goaded into resuming the concert film the following evening. Things went more smoothly this time, and judicious editing ensured that not too much of Pryor’s uncertainty dragged down the concert movie, but the experience left the comedian somewhat shaken.
Despite this, Live on the Sunset Strip earned almost twice what it cost to make in its first three days of release. And the box office reception to his downbeat comedy-drama Some Kind of Hero (1982), about a Vietnam vet returning to find himself distrusted by his government and ignored by society, also excited the executives. Soon after, Pryor was signed up as the comic relief in Superman III (1983) for an unprecedented four million dollars — a million more than Christopher Reeve was getting for playing the caped superhero himself.
Another big payday was to come with The Toy (1982), a witless and degrading farrago that casts Pryor as an expensive plaything for a spoiled little white boy. The Toy Could have had allegorical potential, not just regarding Pryor’s career but for all those ethnic actors in Hollywood, but it fell far short of any such insight, and existed solely to show Pryor freaking out and looking scared, like a comedy negro looking down the barrel of a redneck’s gun. Nonetheless, the film did respectable business. Nineteen-eighty-two ended with Pryor as the number-one box office draw in America.
But if the direction of Pryor’s film career was suddenly at odds with the renegade brilliance of his early success, things were to get much worse from here. Ironically, they did so as the star secured what appeared to be an all-empowering deal from the studios.
In 1983, Columbia Pictures gave Pryor over $40 million to set up a company to produce four films — with complete creative control. The deal established Pryor as the most powerful black actor in Hollywood. He named his company Indigo Productions and announced he was looking to make serious, relevant, and challenging films with black actors and filmmakers.
In effect, it was a case of giving the lunatic control of the asylum. Indigo was a disaster from the start. Perhaps more than anything, it finished Pryor as a radical force. He was required to make business decisions, select scripts, and green-light projects, oversee them from concept to finished film. At the press launch, he was all noble ambition and worthy intent. But underneath he had no idea what he was doing. Indigo would become — in his own words — a fiasco.
Despite all the big talk, the first project Pryor decided to produce was yet another concert film. As a commercial decision, it seemed sensible enough, but it was hardly an artistic gamble. Even so, the expectation was understandably high.
Worryingly, the result, Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983), confirmed the warning signs of Live on the Sunset Strip, catching the comedian badly off form. Pryor professed to be clean and sober now — he’d gotten his act together since spending the Superman III shoot in London completely off his rocker. (Revealingly, it’s fair to say that Superman III is the last film in which Pryor is spontaneously funny, although whether he is four-million-dollars funny is another matter.) But free of the drugs, Pryor is out of his depth in Here and Now. He’s trendily suited and slick, but moves uncertainly about the stage, falling back into some old routines that — this time — fall quite flat. And he is quite unable to deal with the raucous New Orleans crowd, whose frequent heckles catch him off-guard. Always acutely self-aware, Pryor is consciously playing to a crowd that knows he’s sold out. The calamity-prone performer of Live in Concert is gone, and Pryor can’t imitate him. Here and Now simply highlights John and Dennis Williams’ assertion that for Pryor “the absence of pain would be the kiss of comic death.”3
Not that there was a complete absence of pain in Pryor’s life. Indigo Productions was already going out of control, and at the end of 1983 he fired the company president, former football star Jim Brown. Brown had been Pryor’s close friend and right arm for some years, and the move smacked of corporate coldness. Worse, the firing upset the black community. Brown was a popular black figurehead — he and Pryor had made for a loveable badass couple. They were the brothers who’d infiltrated the white corridors of power and were going to stick it to The Man. Instead, Indigo fell dormant and didn’t release another film until 1986.
* * *
Nineteen-eighty-four was a significant year for black stars in Hollywood, but Richard Pryor wasn’t one of them. On the big screen, Eddie Murphy overtook Pryor’s box office status with Beverly Hills Cop, one of the biggest money-makers of the year and the 23-year-old’s third hit movie in a row. On TV, veteran Bill Cosby launched The Cosby Show, which quickly became one of the most successful series of the 1980s.
Pryor, however, was falling into limp imitations of Murphy’s successes (the spineless Brewster’s Millions, 1985, having more than a few similarities to the snappy Trading Places, 1983) or giving way to a “Cosbification” of his screen persona. This was apparent in his return to TV — seven years after his controversial, quickly aborted sketch show — with Pryor’s Place, a Saturday morning children’s series in which he played “a sombre, earnest figure … hosting the wholesome adventures of two black boys” on a Sesame Street-style set. Although the series represented, according to John and Dennis Williams, “a minor racial breakthrough”4 — given the casual acceptance of the blackness of its characters — it hardly befitted a performer who, only handful of years before, could hardly do anything without it being “radical.”
This hadn’t been the first time Pryor had presented himself in the mould of Bill Cosby. He’d begun his career trying to emulate the older performer, who by the mid-sixties was the highest-paid black actor on television and the first to achieve equal billing in a hit series (I-Spy, 1965-68, alongside Robert Culp). Cosby, of course, was already a well-known stand-up by then, and he had succeeded by avoiding issues of race to present a laundered, family-friendly form of comedy that relied on his dry but affably avuncular delivery for its impact. Pryor worked for years trying to copy this style, but in a legendary “breakdown’ in front of a Las Vegas audience in the late sixties, couldn’t square it with himself any more. One night, he abruptly left the stage and fled for California. Only then, settling in Berkeley, going deeper into drugs and hanging out with counterculture figures, could the birth of a unique comedian truly begin.
The Pryor of the ’70s, of course, couldn’t have been more different from Cosby, but they happily co-existed, even working together in the 1978 film adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite. Cosby, however, had been seeing his own career limp along on TV and the big screen, so his return to prime time with the 1984 series was something of a major comeback.
But if The Cosby Show signified a new direction for “black” comedy in the eighties, it was a direction disturbingly out of synch with everything that Pryor had stood for in his best years. The Cosby Show ran for seven years and dominated the ratings, but it achieved its success not only by avoiding the edgy and confrontational aspects of race-oriented comedy, but also by appearing to bask in a smug, upper-middle-class elitism. The show’s Huxtable family, with their Ph.D.s, law degrees, M.B.A.s, and diplomas, may have presented a highly positive image of blacks, but somehow they looked tailored to appeal to a rigidly non-progressive audience. They were as primly self-satisfied as the households in the blandest WASP sitcoms. Perhaps this was the series’ radical raison d’etre, but for all Bill Cosby’s twinkly sarcasm and the gentle reference to some distant race struggle every fifty episodes or so, The Cosby Show often appeared ultraconservative, even reactionary. The Huxtables reflected a relentlessly upbeat image of success in Reagan-era America, when the reality of many black lives couldn’t have been more different. Of course, NBC wouldn’t have had it any other way — the network was saved by the show’s success.
Now, Pryor was falling in line with this fashion for “collaborationist comedy.” If the Pryor of The Richard Pryor Show in 1977 had been a ferocious comic bulldog, not safe to be let out amongst children and the weak, then the Pryor of Pryor’s Place and Brewster’s Millions had clearly been house-trained, able to sit placidly by as the young ones pulled at his ears — not dissimilar from the character he’d played in The Toy. Like the Huxtables, he was well-scrubbed and unthreatening; any spark of activism had been summarily defused.
There was hope when Indigo Productions finally got its act together enough to make a “proper’ feature film, the blatantly autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling(1986). Co-written, produced, and directed by Pryor, Jo Jo Dancer is so clearly about the comic’s own life that it was barely worth inventing a new name for the protagonist. Told from the mystically omniscient vantage point of a literally burnt-out comedian, swathed in bandages in a hospital bed after setting himself ablaze while freebasing cocaine, Jo Jo Dancer sees its eponymous hero (Pryor) retrace the steps of his life, and pay ghostly visits to his younger self at key episodes in his development. Many of Pryor’s character-forming experiences, familiar to us from his stand-up routines, are recreated in Jo Jo Dancer: growing up in a whorehouse, his first faltering steps into showbiz, the move to Berkeley, the breakdowns. But for a movie so close to its creator’s heart, it lacks any of the fire (metaphorically speaking) and passion that Pryor himself had already brought to these episodes when recounting them on stage. It is a curiously empty and detached film, ultimately drowning in its own pious solemnity.
Perhaps the worst thing about Jo Jo Dancer is Pryor himself. In what should have been a primal scream of a performance, a fusion of the electrifying power of his best stand-up with the howling demons that dogged him off-screen and offstage, the actor instead gives an awkward, largely poker-faced turn, occasionally hitting the high notes but generally looking lost in his own movie. There is little spirit or energy in his recreations of the routines that made his name — he simply goes through the motions, something which prompted the great Pauline Kael to say, “If I’d never seen Richard Pryor before, I couldn’t have guessed — based on what Jo Jo does here — that he has an excitable greatness in him.” The disturbing truth of Jo Jo Dancer is that it confirms that Pryor’s excitable greatness had vanished. All we see is the laundered Pryor of 1986 trying to imitate the wild, wired, and reckless Pryor of a decade earlier — and as in Here and Now, it’s an act he could no longer pull off.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling failed critically and commercially upon release. All that can be said about it now is that it does give us one last glimpse of a Richard Pryor who in some way resembled — physically at least — his old self. But all this would change in the months that followed.
* * *
In 1986, on the set Critical Condition, Pryor tried to respond to a call from director Michael Apted but found himself unable to get out of his chair. He couldn’t get his legs to move. The director asked him to stop kidding around, but Pryor was frantic. He tried whacking his thighs, shaking his legs, but they remained inert. Some moments later, they came back to life, and Pryor got on with the scene he needed to shoot.
Later that year, Pryor appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and shocked the audience with his emaciated appearance. The days that followed the show saw speculation begin to mount as to the cause of Pryor’s physical alteration. This being 1986, the rumours soon pointed to AIDS. A few weeks later, Pryor appeared on Barbara Walters’s talk show to dispel the AIDS concerns; he reassured everyone that he’d had his blood checked and he was suffering from nothing more serious than a few ailments resulting from overwork. And just to confirm that he was a red-blooded family man, he brought along his new wife (his fifth), Flynn BeLaine, to appear with him.
But in truth Pryor had been concerned about his health since that episode on the Critical Condition set. More symptoms soon began to afflict him. He experienced problems with balance and movement and later wrote that his eyesight started to come and go without informing him of its schedule. His condition was eventually diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, a chronic, disabling, and degenerative condition that attacks the central nervous system. But Pryor wouldn’t disclose this diagnosis for several years to come.
The extent of how the disease had started to affect him was evident when Critical Condition was released in 1987. If ever a movie was aptly titled, Critical Condition Must be it. In comparison with his last few films, Pryor certainly looks out of sorts here — thin, spindly, and frail. But the most telling signs are in his face. With hindsight, one can see that the actor’s curiously immobile expression and staring, glazed-over eyes are key indicators of the facial paralysis brought on by MS. Watching the film at the time, however, suggested simply, if disturbingly, that his comic essence must have somehow evaporated. And although Pryor is agile enough for the low-rent hysterics of the plot, he does display some awkwardness with the physical gags, which also jars, given his usual reliance on his body as a hopping, gyrating tool of comedy. For his keenest fans then, Critical Condition must have made for pretty disturbing viewing. On the precious few occasions it is funny, it’s despite Richard Pryor.
Privately, Pryor battled with the MS, and symptoms that ranged from “loss of co-ordination and muscle strength to mood shifts and depression — with some bladder loss, spasms and … paralysis thrown in for good measure.”5His rapid decline, however, is dramatic even for the most disabling case of the disease. After discussing the symptoms with a medic, Pryor’s on-off wife/partner Jennifer Lee suggested that it was more a case of Pryor’s system “shorting out” after years of drug abuse, rather than a “simple’ case of MS. Nevertheless, over the next couple of years the comedian was able to get through three more movies: the forgettable domestic comedy Moving(1988), Eddie Murphy’s directorial debut Harlem Nights (1989), and another re-teaming with Gene Wilder, See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).
Harlem Nights was one of the major disappointments of its day, not least because of the absence of any spark of chemistry between Murphy and Pryor. But for Murphy, whose artistic folly this was, it had been a chance to finally work with the man he’d idolized from an early age. Indeed, until now, Murphy had continued to do well for himself by craftily adapting Pryor’s raw, uncompromising style into a shtick that pleased the teens and the movie executives. But Murphy’s expletives and hip sensibility were tempered by a calculated calmness; if he occasionally appeared as wild and reckless as Pryor, you knew it was only when the script demanded it. Like Pryor, Murphy was also to have success with a couple of concert films (Delirious, 1983, and Raw, 1987), which served up slickly obscene monologues to roaring crowds, but these do not remain in the memory like Pryor’s live performances. Indeed, they reveal little about Murphy himself, and look packaged and polished. Nevertheless, Murphy has always been vocal about his debt to Richard Pryor.
But the Pryor of Harlem Nights was very different from the man Murphy had admired for so long. On the set, he didn’t warm to Murphy (several people have testified to his jealousy of the younger star), and he brought little of value to an already misjudged and badly misfiring film. Indeed, Pryor in Harlem Nights is a void — stiff, hollow, and unsmiling, a frozen image of a man hobbled by some morose lethargy. As thirties club-owner Sugar Ray, he is not meant to be the comic centre of the film, but the Pryor of a decade earlier could at least have breathed some life into the proceedings. Here, the whole thing dies in the water.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil fared better at the box office. It was Pryor’s first “hit’ in four years, but this must have resulted from a wave of public affection for the Pryor-Gene Wilder partnership rather than from any discernible merit. See No Evil‘s lousy premise has a blind Pryor teaming with a deaf Wilder to foil some bad guys and create comic mayhem. The only thing one can say in its favour is that Pryor’s increasing disability actually makes him uncomfortably convincing as a sightless person (his eyes are locked in a stiff, thousand-yard stare throughout the movie), although next to the robust Gene Wilder it’s still disturbing to see how much he had declined since Stir Crazy. He does try to energize a couple of scenes, but his undernourished look and awkward gait conspire against him, and most of the comic heavy lifting is left to Wilder. And the lame and infantile scene at the end of the film, where the two buddies gently plonk upturned ice-cream cones on each other’s heads, comes over more like a tragic swansong than anything resembling spontaneous comedy.
From this point Pryor’s decline became much more pronounced. His ex-wife Jennifer had visited him on the See No Evil set in 1988 and was alarmed to see him “walking like an old man.”6 Pryor later wrote “each day I was forced to confront the disease … One day I would be able to get around using a cane. The next I wouldn’t have the strength to even hobble.” He was not yet fifty years old. His legendary philandering inevitably started to suffer too. He later recounted a painfully humiliating story about pulling up at some traffic lights (he was being chauffeured because he could no longer drive) and getting the eye from a beautiful young woman passing by. He beckoned her over and began talking, but before long they were both shocked to see that Pryor was in the process of pissing his pants.7
In 1990, the comic was forced to pull out of Look Who’s Talking Too because of ill health, although he had only been hired to do a voice-over role. In March that year he’d suffered another heart attack — and such were the symptoms of his MS he hadn’t actually realized it. With mortality very much on his mind, he remarried Flynn (who he had divorced shortly after marrying for the first time in 1986), which he later justified by saying, “If I was going to die, I wanted a bitch there to cry.” But the “success” of See No Evil, Hear No Evil actually offered up more work, so, despite being desperately ill, in 1991 he agreed to team with Gene Wilder a fourth time for Another You.
Another You has to be one of most distressing and dispiriting experiences any Richard Pryor fan will ever have to sit through. Not only is it a wretched mess of a movie, full of pointless asides and stillborn scenes, but also the sight of Pryor’s deterioration is jarring from the get-go. He is not just physically awkward but patently disabled — stick-thin, rigid-stiff, looking almost desperately weak. Just before filming, the comedian’s condition was such that he spent two weeks “learning how to walk again,” which clearly didn’t bode well for the comic potential of the movie. As if his ravaged state weren’t bad enough, Another You was also beset by production problems, with director Peter Bogdanovich fired a few weeks into the shoot.
As he was making it, Pryor was all too aware that this was going to be his last film as a comedy star. “It was the beginning,” he has said “of me not being able to do shit any more. The MS took over.”8 Indeed, the desperate results testify to Pryor’s complete submission to the illness. Needless to say, Gene Wilder again has to carry the entire thing on his shoulders, but his efforts are in vain. Another You Is a painful end to an unofficial partnership that once held a sporadic but true comic chemistry.
Just before the release of the film, Jennifer Lee visited Pryor again and was dismayed to see that he was now almost unable to do anything for himself. A bag of bones, he could barely shuffle around the house without collapsing. Cut off from many of his old friends and now too ill to work, he was convinced that he was paying for a lifetime of excess, indulgence, and abuse. During her stay, Lee, who Pryor had previously subjected to savage beatings, had to rescue Pryor when he fell in the shower, and wrote in her journal: “I shift into nurse mode; I pretend I am strong. I lift the love of my life and am amazed at how light he is. He feels like a young child and looks like the world’s oldest man …”
Jennifer ended her stay with a poignant reflection: “Richard is so sad now, confined to his bed … He can’t admit it but I can feel his regret like a steel rod through me … What happened to all that magical truth?”9
In fairness, something of Pryor’s honest rage was still there. He still had material, perhaps now more than ever before. Over the next year, he began to talk openly about his condition, and, when he felt up to it, even started working on a new stand-up act.
Pryor performed for the last time at The Comedy Store in 1992, sitting down on the stage in a large armchair, gripping a cane for support. He had some stories to tell about the trials of life with MS. But the act wasn’t funny. The spectacle of this former titan of stand-up sitting pitifully in a chair was too much to take in: the tragedy had consumed the comedy. Too much of Pryor’s best stand-up material had relied not just on the fact that he could stand up, but on the electric physicality of his routines. That’s why the best of the comedy albums, as good as they are, don’t quite match up to the best of the concert films. And if audiences were used to laughing at Pryor’s suffering, they were only laughing at him throwing himself into the act of suffering. Nobody could laugh at suffering itself, suffering like this. The Comedy Store audience in 1992 was suitably warm, however; they were probably aware that this was the last chance to see their icon perform. Pryor was nonetheless buoyed by it, and he planned a tour. But he wasn’t able to see through many of the dates, and it was quietly cancelled after a short time. His career was effectively over now; he was fifty-two.
Premiere‘s David Handelman commented that during the ’80s Pryor quickly went from “trailblazer to relic.” Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that this would have happened with or without the MS. Pryor showed every sign of throwing away everything he had achieved at least three years before the MS became apparent.
Of course, the comedian has to take much of the blame for his catastrophic sell-out during the 1980s, and no doubt had a lot to do with bringing about his own chronic health decline, but as John and Dennis Williams point out, an inherent racism may have prevented Pryor from truly becoming the King of Hollywood. It is intriguing that they say, of the $40 million-dollar deal from Columbia Pictures that brought about the birth of Indigo Productions, “it seemed to be an amount of money calculated not to give the comedian a chance to produce a blockbuster film.” Indeed, even in 1983, $40 million for four movies was not a fantastic amount of money. They add: “To a distant observer, it was almost as though Hollywood, having failed to destroy him in other ways, was now going to try kindness and generosity.”10
If this appears overly defensive, it is worth recalling the kind of trash Pryor had to accept to get to his pole position in 1982. Just as Bill Cosby seemed to be rewarded for the overriding complicity of The Cosby Show, Pryor had to be castrated before the studios gave him a real shot. The fate of black actors in the eighties, clearly, had not advanced much since the early seventies; there were still only a handful of black stars, and the ones that had “power” were few and far between. It is interesting to compare the Pryor of the 1980s with the Eddie Murphy of recent years. After four or five years of astounding success, the young Murphy quickly fell into a series of duds (The Golden Child, 1986; Boomerang, 1992; The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992; Vampire in Brooklyn, 1995). Only when he became something of a children’s party entertainer in The Nutty Professor (1996) did his career began to recover. Certainly, not much of the foul-mouthed, “dangerous” Murphy of the early eighties was allowed to infiltrate the Shrek and Dr. Dolittle franchises. Echoes of The Toy? Clearly, even thirty years after Pryor’s commercial impact, Hollywood still prefers to neuter its aggressive black actors before securing their mainstream success.
The sad thing is that the Williamses are forced to conclude that Richard Pryor as a film actor pretty much “failed to advance the cause of African-Americans.” This is certainly true, but it’s worth remembering that even before the fire of 1980, Pryor’s screen persona was much more palatable to white audiences than his stage act: he always looked to please onscreen, and this usually meant playing the harmless fool. Pryor may have had angry reservations about this in 1977, but in the eighties he quickly became an accessory to his own sanitisation. And for all the suspicions about the Columbia deal, Pryor didn’t have to make blockbuster movies with that forty million — he could have tried simply to make four good movies.
Pryor’s health worsened in the nineties. He divorced Flynn a second time; another ex-wife, Deboragh, returned and assumed the duties of a 24-hour nurse. He managed to make a couple of TV appearances (in one, the medical drama Chicago Hope, he played a cantankerous MS sufferer) and turned up for a suitably offbeat, chair-bound cameo in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996). He published an autobiography and later remarried Jennifer Lee. By 2002, his long-time friend and comedy writer Paul Mooney explained that although Pryor was bed-ridden, “he talks a little, he’s still got his faculties, still got his sense of humour.” The versatile Jennifer began taking care of Pryor’s publicity and the maintenance of his website, whose home-page declaration “I ain’t dead yet, motherf*cker!” was perhaps the funniest pronouncement to come from the comedian in years. But Jennifer was the mouthpiece now, the creative force. Pryor was no longer lucid enough to give interviews or even articulate his own comments.
By the time of his death in December 2005 (nine days after his 65th birthday), however, Pryor’s reputation as a cultural commentator was set in stone. He’d become (in 1999) the first recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Award; the DVD re-release of Live in Concert— in the UK particularly — brought a new wave of professional reverence and audience affection; and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had inaugurated a Richard Pryor Award for “outstanding ethnic minority comedy.” His film career, however, had largely faded from popular memory, and the power he’d wielded at the beginning of the eighties had been rendered meaningless. Things were changing in Hollywood, but slowly. In 2002, both recipients of the Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars (Denzel Washington and Halle Berry) were black. Jamie Foxx went on to win in 2006, Forest Whitaker the following year. Perhaps if Pryor had died that day on June 9, 1980, his name would have featured prominently in one of their acceptance speeches. But his burnout now stood as a warning, not an inspiration. It remains up to the less tormented — and perhaps less gifted — black stars to keep aiming for what many thought Richard Pryor could have achieved.
- Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (New York: Pantheon, 1997). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- John A. Williams and Dennis A. Williams, If I Stop I’ll Die: The Tragedy and Comedy of Richard Pryor (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1993). [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Pryor, Pryor Convictions. [↩]
- Lee, Tarnished Angel: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993). [↩]
- Pryor, Pryor Convictions. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Lee, Tarnished Angel. [↩]
- Williams and Williams, If I Stop I’ll Die. [↩]