‘Rumours of my death spread as far as New York newspapers,’ remembers Richard Pryor. ‘It’s a bitch to be watching the nightly news and see the motherfuckers talking ‘bout you in the past tense!’
News of the great comedian’s demise had at this point spread throughout the civilised world, even pervading the sanctity of the man’s own bedroom. He recalls his housekeeper walking in, making a lot of noise and squeezing his big toe when he failed to stir.
“’What you doing?’ I’d scream. And she’d say, “Well, Mr Pryor, I thought you wasn’t living anymore.” And I’d say, “Why d’you think that?” And she’d say, “Cos you lying on the bed with you eyes closed an’ all.”’
You can see where his housekeeper was coming from. For decades Pryor had pushed the boat out so far out that it had begun to drift without direction or destination.
‘It’s amazing I didn’t O.D. on heroin, get stuffed with coke, or die from AIDS,’ says Pryor, the self-confessed Bard of Self Destruction. ‘Even I think it’s remarkable that I’m still here.’
An undervalued master of understatement, Pryor failed to mention that he has also survived a humongous freebasing cocaine habit ‒ once setting himself on fire after smoking the drug ‒ seven marriages, and a quadruple heart bypass. He now lives with multiple sclerosis.
‘It was as if God had all this shit left over from the other afflictions he created and decided to throw it all into one disease called MS,’ he says, before adding the punchline, ‘Kinda like a Saturday Night Special. It’s a motherfucker.’
Pryor was first diagnosed with MS in 1986 while shooting the movie Critical Condition in LA. Feeling unusually exhausted, he was resting on a chair between takes when Michael Apted, the director, called for him to take his place.
‘I said, okay Michael,’ recalls Pryor. ‘But my brain told my legs to get up but the job order got lost around my waist. Nothing moved. My legs were on vacation.’
While the rest of the world thought Pryor a victim of a supersize cocaine habit, the proud comedian kept his ailment completely under wraps, and it wasn’t until he teamed up with old cohort Gene Wilder for Another You in 1991, that he realised it was time to tell the world.
‘We were doing a scene in which I was supposed to have a run-in with a real live bear,’ remembers Pryor. ‘He was a trained bear but he was a big motherfucker with claws and teeth and shit. And he scared the shit out of me, but when the director shouted, “Run, Rich! Run!” I couldn’t move. That was the beginning of me not being able to do the shit anymore.’
Part of the ‘shit’ he is not able to do is conduct an interview in person. So today the fastest tongue in the West has been reduced to responding to questions via email over several weeks. But Pryor has still not lost his edge or his considerable cojones.
‘When I discovered I had MS I didn’t think, “Why me?” Why bother? It's the hand that was dealt me... and I’ve had a great life ‒ fuck yeah!’
The life of Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III began on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois. He was born to Gertrude Thomas, a book-keeper for the local brothel, and Le Roy Jr (AKA Buck) Carter, an ex-Golden Gloves boxing champion turned pimp.
‘Once I saw my mother in bed with a man. White dude. She didn’t seem to mind. But it fucked me up,’ stated Pryor. ‘Tricks used to come through our neighbourhood. That’s where I first met white people. They said, “Hello, little boy. Is your mother home? I’d like a blowjob.”
‘She drank a lot. She’d be home for six months or so and then leave as if she was going shopping and not come back till six months later. I just thought it was nice to see her when she was home.’
Pryor’s mother eventually abandoned him aged ten, leaving his moral, spiritual and physical well being in the hands of his father’s mother, Marie Carter, a barnstorming madam who ruled her brothel on 317 North Washington, Peoria, with belt, buckle and brimstone.
‘I lived in a neighbourhood with a lot of whorehouses,’ wrote Pryor in his autobiography Pryor Convictions. ‘Not many candy stores or banks. Just liquor stores and whorehouses.’
While sitting on his grandma’s stoop shooting the breeze, he was exposed to all kinds of people ‒ white, black, businessmen, politicians, junkies, winos, hookers.
‘I remember a white dude used to come down and ask, “Do you have any girls who’ll cover me with ice cream, and little boys that will lick it off?” And that was the mayor.’
He seems to have seen more as a child than most do in their lifetime.
‘One night a man came in and cussed my grandmother,’ he recalls. ‘Buck heard it, grabbed a pistol and shot the man full of bullets. Blam! Blam! Blam ! Scared the shit out of everyone in the place. But liquor makes you do strange things, like not die when you’re supposed to. The man was pissed and managed to crawl across the floor and cut Buck on his leg. My father was crippled the rest of his life.’
After being raped by a teenage neighbour, sexually abused by a priest and losing his cherry to a hooker called Penny, Pryor found he had a flair for comedy.
‘I first noticed I could make people laugh when I slipped in dog shit and made my grandmother laugh!’ he says. ‘Then I spent all day making up shit. Some kids sang on the street corner, I talked. But I was in every gang in Peoria, which had about five. I was only tough for about half a minute, no more.’
Pryor now had the bug ‒ the entertaining bug. Consequently, the classroom became his stage.
‘I sat in the back row and entertained my neighbours as if I was at the Comedy Store working out a new routine. One day he [his teacher Mr Fink] got real fed up. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and took me downstairs. Just to show I had a sense of humor I took a swing at him. He opened the front door and literally threw my ass on the ground. Threw me out of school for good.’
After his expulsion, the 14-year-old would-be comedian drifted. At first he took a job as cleaner in a strip club. ‘The problem was I liked the show more than the work,’ he wrote. Then he tried his arm as a shoeshine boy, a meat packer and finally, purely to get out of Peoria, joined the army.
‘I thought the army was like hunting, camping, a little fishing. But I learned to kill from a guy who killed in World War Two, and they couldn’t stop him. So they gave him a job. “Can’t let him on the streets, so we’ll let him train these guys for World War Three.”’
Pryor was stationed in Germany. One day his closest friend ended up in a fight with a white guy who promptly gave him a proper pasting.
‘The white boy seriously hurt my guy’s ass,’ wrote Pryor. ‘A crowd gathered. I knew my guy was going down if something didn’t happen. From within a crowd of soldiers I reached into my pocket and drew out my switchblade. Pushed the button. Flifft! I waited for the right moment. Then I stabbed the motherfucker in the back six or seven times… I was lucky. Lucky I didn’t kill that white guy and luckier still they didn’t kill me.’
Consequently he was dishonourably discharged. ‘I was disappointed that I hadn’t connected with the service,’ said Pryor. ‘I’d hoped to start a new career. Something with more security than working at the packing plant… Instead I settled into the most popular career among young uneducated black men ‒ unemployment.’
Soon he blagged his way into entertaining at Harold’s Club (a ‘black and tan’ club, meaning both blacks and whites went there) in Peoria where he claimed to be both a singer and a pianist, neither of which he was or ever had been.
Using the only four chords he knew, augmented by whatever lyrics came into his head, he impressed the club’s owner, who was more appreciative of his sheer nerve than ability. Grateful to find himself casually employed he soon realised that the audience responded better to his jokes than his singing.
‘Talking was much easier than making up songs. I told jokes, did impressions of Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Junior, and sometimes I simply picked up a book or the newspaper and read the shit out in a strange voice while adding my asides.’
In 1962 he started at Collins Corner ‒ a predominantly black club ‒ as emcee. Shortly afterwards he cut his teeth touring ‘the Blackbelt’, the unofficial coloured club circuit, in Pittsburgh. After an altercation with a female singer he spent 35 days in prison. Once back on the streets he moved to New York in 1963 with just $10 in his pocket.
‘Before long I became a regular act at the Bitter End, Papa Hud’s, and The Living Room, and introduced myself to Woody Allen at the Café Go Go,’ he recalls. ‘Woody said, “Stick around, watch me and you’ll learn something.” But oddly I learned more from a hooker in Baltimore.’
That particular lady took Pryor to her house and played him an album by Lenny Bruce. ‘That destroyed me,’ admitted Pryor. ‘I went fucking crazy.’
Crazy or not, that didn’t stop Pryor emulating Bill Cosby ‒ then the biggest black stand-up in the country ‒ until he became known as just another pale imitation of the straight-playing comic.
‘I went for the money,’ he confessed. ‘Even though there was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming in my brain to get out.’
Even though a copycat act, he appealed to the rather staid TV executives who’d rather go for formulaic than new. You can imagine their conversation: ‘We can’t get Cosby so let’s get Pryor. He’s black isn’t he? They’re all the same anyway.’
TV offers flew in and, as he readily admits, he ‘entered the mainstream.’ On the other hand, his personal life remained less conventional.
He became involved with Tia Maria, a prostitute who introduced him to his true love ‒ cocaine ‒ and soon after he was imbibing ad nauseam.
‘Somebody told me that if you put coke on your dick you could fuck all night,’ he wrote. ‘Shouldn’t have told me. My dick had a Jones. Six hundred dollars a day just to get my dick hard.’
The coke had an altogether different effect on Tia Maria.
‘She liked to take all her clothes off, climb out the apartment window and walk on the ledge of her building,’ recounts Prior. ‘With her titties blowing in the wind, she yelled at people in the street.’
Still, it was she who kicked him out after he confessed to having had sex with her lesbian lover.
His next paramour, Maxine Silverman, stabbed him through his upper arm. When she was nine months pregnant with his child, he saw the writing on the wall, panicked and ran to Mexico to somehow block out his misgivings. On his way back he was arrested for possesion of marijuana and thrown in jail.
‘I was in jail in California,’ he wrote in his memoir. ‘When they’d arrest you they’d be serious. They’d look in your asshole… What you be looking for in my ass? There ain’t nothing in my ass! If I had a pussy, I might dig it. You can hide something in your pussy. But in my ass? What am I gonna hide in my asshole? A pistol?’
After posting his own bail (he’d forgotten that he had $7,500 in his pocket) he arrived back to find his daugher Elizabeth had been born. Not surpirsingly the couple split up shortly afterwards.
By now Pryor was moving in circles he’d never dreamed of. Singer Bobby Darin threw a party for him welcoming him to LA. He guested on the Merv Griffin Show with Jerry Lewis and had a spitting competition while Groucho Marx gave him advice. ‘Do you want a career to be proud of?’ asked Marx. ‘Or do you want to end up like a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis?’
Even though the money was rolling in faster than he could count, Pryor was suffering a major identity crisis. Things came to a head in Las Vegas in 1967 when, now snorting mountains of cocaine, he suffered a nervous breakdown on stage at the Aladdin while performing in front of Dean Martin.
‘The fog rolled in,’ said Pryor. ‘Then I finally asked the sold out crowd, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Then I walked off stage.
‘The breakdown was the only way I could shed the phoney image and start building my self respect,’ said Pryor. ‘I read a copy of Malcolm X’s collected speeches and I really searched for the truth.’
On January 13, 1968, Pryor married a rich hippy chick called Shelly Bonis. Meanwhile his stage act became increasingly radical.
‘Each outing was like jazz,’ he stated impenitently. ‘I was searching for the perfect note. Then one day I repeated the most offensive, humiliating, disgraceful, distasteful, ugly and nasty word ever used in the context of black people: nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. “Hello, I’m Richard Pryor. I’m a nigger. Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.” It was the truth and it made me feel free to say it.’
Of course many clubs weren’t hip to this new, irreverant and controversial version of himself, so back he went to New York and found work at the Village Gate – NYC’s most progressive club – where he opened for and befriended Miles Davis. The jazz supremo subsequently introduced him to his coke dealer whom Pryor claimed sold ‘the purest shit I’d ever had!’
Now he had the proper ‘taste’, so back in LA he snorted up a snowstorm, staying out for weeks on end and getting up to ‘some real sordid shit.’
This was 1968, a tumultuous time in the US. Martin Luther King was asassinated on April 4, followed by Robert Kennedy on June 6, while the Tet offensive had turned the tide of popular opinion against the war in Vietnam.
It was also a traumatic period for Pryor. His wife Shelly tried to kill him and there was a warrant out for his arrest for failure to pay child maintenance to Maxine.
‘I got in my car and aimed the motherfucker north. I wanted to go to Berkeley. I didn’t know why there, except I had it in my head.’
Back then Berkeley, just over the bridge from San Francisco where free love, LSD, and the hippy movement were in full unrestrained bloom, was the undoubted hub of intellectual black radicalism. It also neighboured Oakland where the Black Panthers were based.
Pryor was soon hanging out with Angela Davis (the black Communist freedom fighter), snorting Bolivia’s finest with Huey Newton, the Panthers Defence Minister, and hanging out with African-American wordsmith Ishmael Reed.
‘By the end of 1970 I just felt full. I knew it was time to go back and resume my career as Richard Pryor comedian. For the first time in my life I had a sense of Richard Pryor the comedian. I knew what I stood for. I knew what I had to do. I had to go back and tell the truth.’
As a stand-up he was groundbreaking. Few had reeled out monologues on the subject of ‘getting high, fucking my wife’s girlfriend, and rednecks looking for pussy.’ And, even though he upset a few applecarts, he soon became comedy’s hottest yet emininetly provocative ticket.
In 1971 Pryor recorded his first concert film, the seminal Live and Smokin’, and explored areas hitherto un-adventured. With routines entitled ‘Black cat with Neat Hair’ and ‘Coloured Guys Have Big Ones’, Pryor singlehandedly set the tone for all black comedy to come, inspiring a vast slew of copycats.
‘I got more free drugs and a lot more pussy after Live and Smokin,’ acknowledged Pryor. ‘But that piece scared a lot of people.’
After Live and Smokin’ offers for film work poured in. First came a big role in the Billie Halliday biopic Lady Sings The Blues. He then wrote Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks (he came up with the fart scene and the idea for a black cowboy), but was turned down for its lead role. (‘They saw me as a volatile, vulgar, profane black man who wisecracked about getting high and screwing white women.’)
He also had a shortlived relationship with a transvestite, but ‘after two weeks of being gay, enough was enough and I went back to being a horny heterosexual.’
In 1974 he was imprisoned, first for a bunch of traffic warrants, then for tax evasion, while his third album, That Nigger’s Crazy, sold over one milion copies.
By now he was rolling. He did a five-week stint at the Comedy Store in LA and a legendary performance on Saturday Night Live with Belushi and Chevy Chase. Now a household name, by the time he co-starred in Paul Schrader’s monumental heist flick, Blue Collar, in 1978, he had notched up some 18 appearances in films as diverse as Car Wash, Silver Streak and Greased Lightning.
‘As befitted my stature, I spent $500,000 on a Spanish-style Hacienda house in Northridge with an electronic gate, a pool, tennis court, guest house and a miniature horse,’ he said. ‘But you know what? One of the scariest things in life is to get what you wish for. I don’t give a fuck about nothing. I don’t know nothing. I don’t know shit. The IRS have busted me. I been in prison nine times, man. I don’t give a fuck. Richard Pryor is a criminal. I’ve sucked white pussy. Man, I’ve done it all. People say I’m as good as Charlie Chaplin but he don’t say shit. Motherfucker don’t even talk.’
After being invited by Lily Tomlin to appear at a star-studded gay rights benefit at The Hollyood Bowl, Pryor, incensed by the way he’d seen a black act on the bill treated compared to their white counterparts, took the mike and said, ‘You Hollywood faggots can kiss my rich, happy black ass.’
Incredibly he then got his own TV show, remarried and was again divorced within a year.
Over the next few years Pryor’s cocaine abuse reached new heights ‒ or rather lows ‒ thanks to his newfound friend, freebase, a pure form of cocaine smoked in a pipe.
‘I can’t remember how much I did,’ admitted Pryor. ‘But shee-it, motherfucker! It was a lot!’ Conservative estimates put Pryor’s Charlie bill well past the $1,000 a day ‒ $300,000 dollar a year ‒ mark. But it wasn’t his wallet that suffered, it was the man.
‘It started out innocently enough. Every now and then,’ bemoaned Pryor casually. ‘Then I fell in love with the pipe. It controlled everything I did. The motherfucker would say, “Don’t answer the phone, Rich ‒ we got smokin’ to do.’”
In 1978 Pryor was once again arrested after he had shot his wife’s car in an attempt to apprehend her understandable departure.
‘I thought it was fair myself,’ chuckled Pryor. ‘She was going to leave me so I shot the car. I shot the tyre ‒ BOOM! Another tyre said, “Ahhh!” I shot another [and] it went, “Ohhh!” I shot the motor. But the motor fell out. It said, “Fuck it!”
‘If you want to get a cop to respond quickly, all you have to say is, “Hello, Officer. I want to report a black man with a gun.” It’s like announcing the start of hunting season at an NRA convention. The cops arrived so fast I barely had time to smoke my stash.’
Whatever Richard Pryor was shooting, smoking or sniffing, nothing could impede his rise to the top. In 1979 he recorded and released Richard Pryor Live In Concert which confirmed his place as the world’s greatest ever stand up, launched a sea of imitators and became the most essential video tape of the 1980s. It was passed around college dorms faster than a case of the clap, sold millions and was the must-have item for the common-or-garden hepcat. If you didn’t know Pryor you just weren’t happening.
But by 1980 his freebasing addiction had snowballed while his paranoia – a direct result of the drug – knew no bounds. ‘I left all my guns right out in the open so when the bogey man bust in my house... he could see ‘em,’ he said. ‘I thought everyone was stealing from me. I continued to smoke until I ran out of coke. I was suffering serious dementia. Miserably alone. Frightened. Then I thought, “Okay, I’ll set myself on fire.”’
Dousing himself in cognac, Pryor set himself alight, dived through the bedroom window and ran down the street like a Mexican jumping bean.
‘You know what I noticed?’ he said. ‘When you run down the street on fire, people get out of your way.’
With third-degree burns covering fifty per cent of his body, Pryor suffered a long and painful rehabilitation, but exited hospital feeling on top of the world having ditched his old friend and nemesis ‒ cocaine.
The movie Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder topped $100 million at the box office and he presented an Oscar at the ‘81 Awards, while Bustin’ Loose became the most watched film in the States. All was looking good. Too good for our Richard.
‘Then one day I returned from Hawaii,’ sighed Pryor. ‘And even though the house had been cleaned of all the drugs and paraphernalia eight months earlier, I could sniff it like a bloodhound. I looked in my super, super secret stash and there it was. One perfect little rock. I found my glass pipe and climbed on board the old self-destructive roller coaster without anybody knowing it.’
In 1984 Richard flew to London to play the villain in Superman III.
‘The movie was a piece of shit,’ he admits, ‘but before I’d even read the script I was offered $4 million ‒ more than any black actor had ever been paid. I told my agent, “For a piece of shit, it smells great.”’
Armed with such a fee, Pryor flew back to the US and was soon up to his old tricks. Then, out of the blue, he had his Damascene moment.
‘I took my kids to Hawaii,’ he reminisced. ‘And Rain – my daughter ‒ was standing in the doorway. “Daddy,” she said. “Come with us.” I really wanted the kids to go so I could smoke my shit. Then the strangest thing happened. Left alone, I had a moment of clarity. I asked myself what was I doing. I saw the pitifulness of my situation. So I tossed all the shit into the garbage for real. No hiding the pipe in one drawer, a rock in another. I chucked it.
‘Grabbing my cigarettes, I shuffled to the sand ‒ my kids looking at me as if I was an alien. But then it was great. Rain taught me how to float. The water slapped the shore and I was in the middle of it. And do you know what? I was grateful to be there.’
Back in LA, having kicked the coke, he saw all the previously strewn pieces of his life slowly come back together and admitted in rehab that he was indeed an addict. In 1986 Jo Jo Dance, Your Life Is Calling, a semi-autobigraphical movie of his life that he wrote, directed and starred in, hit the screen. Tragically, a few months later he was diagnosed with MS, which he said stood for ‘More Shit’.
‘I found that my life, instead of ending because of MS, has only changed,’ said the now retired comedian. ‘Perhaps it was God’s way of telling me to chill, look at the trees, sniff the flowers rather than the coke, and see what it’s like to be a human being. Or perhaps God was thinking, “Shit, why did I have to go give this Pryor more funny muscles than me? I’ll drag the motherfucker back down to earth!”’
Pryor died of a heart attack on December 10, 2005, eight months after I conducted this interview for the Independent. I think it was the last interview he did.
To the very end of his life he was as sharp as a razor, an extraordinary and wonderfully maverick human being who had even suggested a rather innovative way of distributing his ashes.
‘Sprinkle my ashes in about two pounds of cocaine,’ he once remarked. ‘Then snort me up!’
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