By the time Cosby assumed the mantle of America’s dad in the '80s with the groundbreaking “The Cosby Show,” Pryor’s tortured life had given way to a career bottom from which he would never rise.
The irony today is that while Cosby’s reputation is in ruins, Pryor’s is being burnished.
Last year’s documentary, “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” was celebratory. Lee Daniels, the director and producer of “The Butler,” just cast Michael Epps to star in a planned biopic of Pryor. Now a new book, “Becoming Richard Pryor” by Scott Saul, lays bare the legendary life from the height of his genius to the depth of his personal hell.
Pryor, who spent his last years a near recluse suffering from multiple sclerosis, grew up in circumstances even more inhospitable. His grandmother, Marie, whom he revered, ran brothels in the slums of Peoria, Ill. She was a “boulder of a woman” who would turn a straight razor on any prostitute who tried to cheat her.
His father, Buck, terrified Pryor. Tall, muscled and vicious, he would lay fists to his son with little or no provocation. Buck died of a heart attack in bed with a prostitute and his 13-year-old daughter, Sharon, when Pryor was 27.
The year was 1968 and Pryor was finding his voice. Earlier he had followed the path beaten by Cosby, working the same West Village clubs with material that was pure Cosby. Actually, sometimes it was Cosby’s.
Manny Roth, the owner of Café Wha?, set him straight.
“You’ll never be Cosby in a million years. But you know what? You’re going to be bigger and better than Cos,” he told the young comic.
Pryor had gone on to court a crossover career and found success appearing regularly on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and laughing it up with Merv Griffin. He opened for Steven and Edie Gourmet in Las Vegas. But a radical change was coming.
One night on stage at the Aladdin, he asked the crowd, “What the f--- am I doing here?” Ashamed of his “Mickey Mouse” material, he crawled offstage along a thin lip of wood, hugging the curtain for safety. It was a breakdown that propelled him forward.
Pryor was in the process of “leaving Hollywood and hunkering down in a much blacker world,” Saul writes.
Steeped in the black power movement, his new radical and profane act turned off nightclub owners. But, while holed up in Berkeley, Calif., deep into cocaine, he produced routines that would be his mainstays for years like “Wino and Junkie,” a brilliant comic exploration of an addict.
But no one wanted the new act.
In 1971, he limped back into Hollywood — and into his career-making role as the junkie Piano Man in “Lady Sings the Blues,” with Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. He started out with one line and ad-libbed his way into stardom.
Next came “Blazing Saddles.” Pryor joined Mel Brooks’ team of writers and made brilliant contributions, but shocked everyone by openly snorting cocaine while consuming a full bottle of Courvoisier. When a woman came into the room with her hand in a cast, Pryor casually explained to another writer that he had punched her. He was forever bitter that the lead role was given to the decidedly more benign Cleavon Little and not him.
By the time Pryor started on his next film, “The Mack,” he had “pushed the self-destruct button.” Strung out and sleepless, he ordered his girlfriend, Patricia Heitman, to turn herself out as a prostitute. The former stewardess came back from a failed stint on Wilshire Boulevard penniless, and Pryor beat her over the head with empty Courvoisier bottles.
Drug-addicted and as physically vicious as his father, at least when it came to women, Pryor’s brilliance still flamed forth. “That N-----’s Crazy,” the album that asked “what do white people” do when blacks aren’t around, came out in 1974. It was immediately hailed as a defining comedic breakthrough.
So profane as to be rated X, it still brought Pryor back into the mainstream with gigs like co-hosting “The Mike Douglas Show.” Yet crazy carried particular meaning when it came to Pryor’s volatility. When an NBC page refused to let him open a fire door while he was working on a Flip Wilson special, Pryor swung at him. Co-star Cher was so scared during the pandemonium she fled and locked herself in her dressing room.
Pryor’s real focus was on becoming a movie star. After making several films like “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars,” that didn’t go wide, it didn’t seem he could expect much more from “Silver Streak.” He told a reporter on the set “I’m not a success yet.”
But he soon would be.
Pryor improvised madly and Wilder responded. He reshaped Wilder’s potentially offensive blackface scene to make a political statement that was also hugely funny. Pryor and Wilder were embraced as America’s favorite zany couple and made three more movies together.
Now a certified movie star, Pryor had his “Greased Lightning,” co-star Pamela Grier on his arm. He lived in a Hollywood mansion. And for a time he was clean, paying close mind to his health.
It couldn’t last. Pryor lived with too many demons — demons that inspired his art and brought about his decline.
He overextended himself by agreeing to a series of television specials at the same time he continued his big-screen career in movies like “Which Way Is Up?”
It was the same with women. When his grandmother, Marie, came to visit he introduced her to three women: Grier, model Deboragh McGuire and actress Lucy Saroyan. He asked her to choose which he should marry — before embarking on an affair with Saroyan’s assistant, Jennifer Lee.
By 1977, he was in a downward spiral that would mostly continue until his death in 2005. He married McGuire while continuing to romance Lee, who he would subsequently marry and divorce. He starred in “The Wiz” but at the same time was working off his contract with NBC with a final special that found the bottom in the ratings. At the wrap party he savaged his ensemble of young comedy players, including Robin Williams, with cruel remarks.
Still, he could right himself. In 1978, the film “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” was deemed by critic Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice to be “one of the most exhilarating experiences of my movie-going life.”
Then his grandmother, Marie, died. Soon after, he began freebasing. On a June night in 1980, Pryor watched a Buddhist monk set himself on fire. Possessed, he poured a bottle of liquor over himself before flicking a lighter. Pryor ran down the street, his polyester shirt melted into his skin, no longer willing to die, praying, “Lord, give me another chance.”
Recovered, he made lackluster movies that had critics begging for the reemergence of the old, badass Pryor.
In 1986, he was diagnosed with MS. As the disease progressed, an emaciated Pryor holed up in the bedroom of his Bel Air mansion clutching a .357 Magnum. Only when Jennifer Lee returned to his side in 1994 — they remarried in 2001 — did he find some semblance of life again. But he was so reclusive his children claimed Jennifer had taken him “prisoner.”
Pryor died of a heart attack on Dec. 10, 2005.
Comics from all generations always gave Pryor his due. Mel Brooks called him “the funniest comedian of all time,” while Jerry Seinfeld has said he was “the Picasso of our profession.” But only now does it seem the public is coming around again, proof that his body of fans has been growing stealthily through the years.
“Becoming Richard Pryor” goes on sale Dec. 9.
Date Posted: Sunday, December 7th, 2014 , Total Page Views: 917
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