Richard Pryor knew the film was a piece of shit, but he didn’t care. It was money in the bank, which means base in the pipe. It wasn’t just any paycheck, either. For the dubious pleasure of appearing in SUPERMAN III, Pryor would receive $4 million, a record-breaking amount for a black entertainer. Pryor noted to his agent, “For a piece of shit, it smells great.”
Peoria, Illinois, wasn’t the worst place for a black child to be born in 1940. It wasn’t by any means the best place either. Still, it would be comfortable enough for the demanding, extended family Pryor was born into. Abandoned by his mother, Gertrude, at age five, after she had taken one too many beatings from his father, Richard Pryor lived in the brothel his grandma ran. His father was her tough pimp son Leroy, and Richard’s mother was one of his hookers, Gertrude. Unlike most of the consequences of this kind of union, he was lucky not to have been thrown away in a box. The young Pryor himself once found a dead baby in a shoebox.
The brothels were profitable, catering mainly to the white folk. Pryor was skinny, gawky and had a taste for adventure. Sex was everywhere, and Pryor would look through keyholes watching the prostitutes, Gertrude included, turn tricks and occasionally take a beating for his sneaky behaviour.
He’d run errands and talk to the sex workers and their clients. His grandma had a rough streak, but Leroy had a rougher one, and his fights with Gertrude were ferocious. Outside, Pryor would lead a reasonably everyday existence: school during the week, church on Sundays.
The boundless energy that made him a natural performer in class would get him into a lot of trouble. He got expelled from school, and so joined the army. Pryor’s army career was a struggle, at first stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for Corps of Engineers training.
This base had a bad reputation for being among the most racist in the Armed Forces. He was later shipped out to Germany, where things got worse. In July 1960, while watching a movie on base with other GIs, a white guy started making jokes about a black actress on screen. One of Pryor’s friends started a fight with the laughing soldier. When it became apparent Pryor’s friend was losing, Pryor grabbed a switchblade and tried stabbing the man in the back, who didn’t even seem to notice. Pryor dumped the knife and ran.
He was arrested and thrown in the stockade. It was obvious that Pryor and the United States Army would never be a good match, so the brass offered him the chance to depart quietly.
Although he had only lasted 18 months, it was enough to change Pryor’s outlook on life, and he realised he wanted more than his upbringing had given him.
But he was again stuck back in Peoria, where he started hanging out with musicians and comedians in local bars and clubs. By this point, Pryor realised he wanted to be a comedian.
He was working on his comedy routine by playing in small nightclubs in Pittsburgh, where he became friends with a woman who sang in local clubs. He wrote in his autobiography: “Thinking I was a big shot, I told people we were going out and that she was giving me money … Someone told her and she came looking for me, seeking revenge. At the confrontation, backstage, I thought she was going to do serious damage to me, so I beat her a** first. I didn’t think about hitting a woman as much as I thought about my own survival.”
But there’s no excuse for such behaviour; her father was friends with some police officers. Pryor wrote, “Pittsburgh was like a small town.”
He was arrested and sentenced to 90 days in jail for attacking the woman.
After being released, Pryor eventually made his way to New York in 1963, where he finally met Bill Cosby. Cosby’s less-threatening, gentle comedy style had made him a cross-racial hit whose long shadow would intensely frustrate Pryor. That didn’t stop Pryor from carefully donning aspects of Cosby’s more apolitical act.
He found himself on TV, in minor movie roles and then in Vegas, but would have to edit the hipper bits of his act. The taxman was chasing him hard, he had a $100-a-day coke habit, and he was stuck behind Bill Cosby’s shadow. Disgusted, frustrated and very stoned, he walked off stage one night in Vegas.
In 1967, Pryor decamped to San Francisco, where he’d hung with the beatniks and black intellectuals. He’d snort coke with the Black Leader Huey Newton and jazz legend Miles Davis. Pryor’s own jazzy riffing style started finding its natural shape too. It was hip, raw and aimed right at the jugular. Usually, his own jugular.
Pryor laid his life bare. He’d draw on his childhood, crafting characters from the family, fuck-ups and assholes he’d known from the brothel days. Especially the assholes. No one had ever talked about sex like Richard Pryor, lancing his libido and all the macho bullshit that went along with it. (“Dudes always tell that lie, ‘I fuck eight-nine hours, Jack.’ You a lying muthafucka. I can do about three minutes of serious fucking. And then I need eight hours of sleep. And a bowl of Wheaties”).
He held a mirror up to his black audience’s own problems, like chasing women, crap jobs and getting braced by the cops. It’d be full of familiar characters, and Pryor seemed almost possessed acting them out. All were uncomfortably accurate and hilariously vivid. His volatile, occasionally violent relationships with women, self-destructive tendencies and spiralling coke abuse were worn on his sleeve, another featured part of the act.
A cult burgeoned into full-blown stardom. Albums like ‘This Nigger’s Crazy’ and ‘Is It Something I Said” sold millions and won grammies. He was simply a goddam funny genius. With a few small movie roles under his belt, like THE MACK, CAR WASH and a few other blaxploitation flicks, Pryor was ready for Hollywood. Hollywood, as it turns out, wasn’t prepared for him.
BLAZING SADDLES was a good sign as to how Hollywood would treat Pryor. Having co-written the movie with Mel Brooks, they had to fight to get Pryor his writing credit. The part of the black sheriff Bart, tailor-made for Pryor, went to Cleavon Little instead. Pryor’s fiery reputation, busts, drugs, jail time and gig walkouts had earned him a reputation. Despite an excellent role as a junkie pianist in 1974’s LADY SINGS THE BLUES, straight roles eluded him. Only 1978’s BLUE COLLAR would harness Pryor’s rawness. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it was a fractious shoot of ego clashes, with the improvising Pryor clashing with Harvey Keitel’s method acting. It sunk at the box office. A TV showing was heavily censored, much to Pryor’s public disgust.
At least Pryor was funny in 1976’s SILVER STREAK, teaming up with Gene Wilder, but it also condemned him to loveable, hapless parts.
Except for STIR CRAZY, again with Gene Wilder, Pryor was back straitjacketed in the Cosby shadow again, in a bunch of shit movies like THE WIZ and CALIFORNIA SUITE (with Cosby) that somehow made money. He was a confirmed box office draw, but his cocaine paranoia made him notoriously difficult on the set, sending his insecurities into overdrive, turning up late, and endlessly bitching. He took the money and ran as fast as his legs could carry him the other way.
The disregard for his talent may have to do with the fact that by 1979 he’d moved onto freebasing cocaine. He had a heart attack in 1978. In 1980, he accidentally set fire to himself, running down the street alight and suffering third-degree burns. It didn’t stop him from freebasing.
This brings us back to SUPERMAN III. He kicked the habit soon after filming wrapped, and the biggest hit of his career followed, with 1985’s BREWSTER’S MILLIONS. Still, his career slowly went into decline afterwards.
Eddie Murphy, whose debt to Pryor goes without saying, had stolen the march making the sort of movies like TRADING PLACES, 48 HRS and BEVERLY HILLS CPO that eluded Pryor. By the time Murphy cast his old hero in the grim HARLEM NIGHTS, Pryor was ill. In the mid-’80s, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and by 1991, he had to undergo a triple heart bypass. He carried on acting until the end of the ’90s, when, unfortunately, his Multiple Sclerosis meant he could no longer perform.
His best movie is a filmed stand-up gig, 1979’s RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT. Fresh from a run-in with the cops, he’d shot up the engine in his car with a .44 Magnum to stop his wife from leaving him; it’s still awesome, incendiary comedy: stand-up as an art form.
It’s also perhaps the most influential stand-up ever recorded. Virtually every notable stand-up since has cited it as an inspiration, from Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Eddie Griffen and Bernie Mac to guys like Bill Hicks and even Tim Allen. In rap, Pryor’s ‘lyrical obscenity and social snapshots (and occasional gunshots) would translate into obscene lyrics and Parental Caution stickers.
He helped enfranchise the street slang of African Americans, which in terms of style, language and music, became the most influential pop culture touchstone of the ’80s and ’90s. Some called Richard Pryor the Michael Jordon of stand-up comedy, but really, Micheal Jordon was the Richard Pryor of Basketball.
On December 10, 2005, aged 65, Pryor had a third heart attack in Los Angeles. After his wife attempted to resuscitate him had failed, he was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:58 a.m. PST. His widow Jennifer said, ” At the end, there was a smile on his face.”
He was a true hero. Rest in peace.