Pryor wrote the book on comedy and now, a memoir of his tumultuous life

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Having just finished an hour of physical therapy, the funniest man alive -- the comic genius of a generation -- quietly sits on the motorized cart he uses to get around these days, idly fingering a green cigarette lighter.

As I stammer to ask if he'd like me to light the Marlboro precariously dangling just below his gray-flecked mustache, visions of celebrity self-immolation dancing in my head, it slowly begins to dawn on me.

Hobbled by his nine-year bout with multiple sclerosis, able to speak only just above a whisper, comedian Richard Pryor can still mess with your head.

"No, I just want to be frustrated," Mr. Pryor, 54, says slowly, breaking the tension as he finally lights his cigarette. Then he mischievously adds: "These lighters are great. 'Cause they're child-proof."

It's a good line, rendered, however haltingly, in the classic Pryor style: darkly funny, provocatively in-your-face. The reference, of course, is to the infamous 1980 incident in which the once-incendiary comic set himself on fire, resulting in third-degree burns over half his body.

That fire, his struggle with the degenerative neurological disease MS, his drug and alcohol abuse, his half-dozen disastrous marriages (resulting in six children and a grandchild), his heart attacks (which led to quadruple bypass surgery in 1991) as well as a host of other high-profile personal tragedies and ground-breaking professional triumphs, are detailed in the comedian's memoir, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences" (Pantheon, $23).

Written with Todd Gold, the Los Angeles deputy bureau chief of People magazine who has also worked on the recent celebrity autobiographies of Burt Reynolds and Ann-Margret, "Pryor Convictions" is due in bookstores this month, just as a trio of vintage Pryor comedy recordings -- "Wizard of Comedy," "Are You Serious" and "Supernigger" -- are also slated for re-release.

Which sort of begs the question: When most of Mr. Pryor's life has already been so bluntly and hilariously detailed in some of his funniest comedy routines, why write an autobiography?

"I needed the money, I'm not ashamed to say. I wouldn't do this if I didn't need the money," he says matter-of-factly. "My thievery days are long gone. I knew that. I got MS."

Mr. Pryor has parked his "Mobie," as he likes to call his scooter, behind a folding table that doubles as a desk in the cavernous, white-on-white living room of the large, tastefully appointed house he rents in a quiet, tony neighborhood in Encino, Calif., just a couple of blocks from downtown.

Occasionally, in the course of a 45-minute chat, he'll have a little trouble recalling some tidbit and call out to his ex-wife Jennifer Lee, who -- in an admittedly odd domestic arrangement -- now acts as a sort of business administrator and personal assistant for the comic.

So, does Mr. Pryor really need the money a book might bring? Is he broke?

"Not so's I know," the comedian answers, then calls out: "Jennnnnny? Am I broke?"

Piping up from a room off the entrance way that she uses as an office, Ms. Lee shouts back, "No, not at all."

And so the afternoon goes.

An audience with Mr. Pryor elicits so many mixed emotions. For millions of fans, as long as they've been laughing, they've been laughing at Richard Pryor.

"Pryor started it all," comedian-actor Keenen Ivory Wayans once told Premiere magazine. "If Pryor had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenen Ivory Wayans or a Damon Wayans or an Arsenio Hall or even a Sam Kinison, for that matter."

There's Richard Pryor . . . and then there's every other comic. When Pryor was on stage, nothing was sacred; everything was ripe for satire.

A 'revolutionary'

"It was nothing short of revolutionary," Mel Watkins writes of Mr. Pryor's humor in his book "On the Real Side," a definitive study of African-American comedy.

"He was the first African-American stand-up comedian to speak candidly and successfully to integrated audiences the way black people joked among themselves when most critical of America," according to Mr. Watkins. "It was a revolution that perhaps only Pryor, with his unusual background and astonishing array of dramatic and comic skills, could have accomplished."

But the revolutionary looks a little wispy this afternoon. His close-cropped hair seems thin. His movement, what little there is, is slow and determined. His beige pants and olive-drab pullover droop over a scarecrow's frame that was never exactly beefy.

His once-expressive face, now gaunt, usually settles into a frown. Sometimes he breaks into a faint smile when he cracks wise, or scrunches up into a look of profound concentration as he tries to follow an interviewer's meandering questions. Still, when the discussion moves to a topic that truly interests him, the spark of the old Pryor burns brightly in his eyes.

"What I've learned from the book is I'm not different from other people. We all remember our lives differently from how it really is. Jennifer likes to use words like 'catharsis.' So that's my catharsis right there," Mr. Pryor says, pointing to a newly minted copy of the memoir. "I'm waiting for something to happen."

Mr. Pryor says he's nervous about how fans and reviewers might receive the book, the product of almost a year and a half of labor. But if the early favorable notices are any indication, he has little to worry about.

This is no Hollywood tell-all. The only person Mr. Pryor tells on is himself -- and you can't help suspecting he's not exactly telling all. Most. But not all. What he does discuss, he seems painfully honest about.

For those who haven't followed his well-documented life -- he's the subject of at least eight previous books, 25 recordings, countless articles and TV interviews, five concert movies, his own semi-autobiographical film, "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling," and even a few college courses -- the book will seem full of revelations.

Throughout it, Mr. Pryor and Mr. Gold mix their narrative with pertinent bits from the comedian's most famous routines. It's a good move, since Mr. Pryor's humor and his life have been so often inseparable.

The introduction to "Pryor Convictions" is written in the voice of one of his most entertaining comic creations, the wizened old country coot Mudbone.

The book begins with a bang, as Mr. Pryor describes the first signs of what he would later discover was multiple sclerosis.

Self-destruction

"To everyone from fans to wives, I would always be a dark comic genius, the Bard of Self-Destruction, but in the summer of 1986 I literally saw the light, and if that didn't change who I was, it certainly transformed my life," the comedian recalls in the first chapter.

"It was the middle of the night. Lying in bed beside my ex-wife Deboragh in my house at Hana, on the island of Maui, Hawaii, I watched shards of light explode across my field of vision as if I was standing in an empty field during a lightning storm."

Not knowing what to make of that incident, Mr. Pryor soon found that his feet and hands would go numb, his neck stiff. His extremities would not follow the commands his brain sent to them. Within two months he was headed for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where doctors would diagnose his ailment.

As the book proceeds, we get Mr. Pryor's take on his "mine field" childhood in the Peoria, Ill., brothels run by his strong-willed grandmother, Marie Carter. Clearly, it set him up for a life-long search for love, acceptance and a sense of self.

Mr. Pryor was traumatized by his parents' breakup when he was 10. Described in the memoir as a bookkeeper involved with the bordellos, his mother, Gertrude, has been less subtly portrayed elsewhere as a prostitute.

Mr. Pryor was sexually molested at 6 by an older child -- who would later ask the adult Richard Pryor for an autograph -- then viewed as the object of desire by a neighborhood priest. By the time he entered school, racism began dogging him like a mad hound at his heels.

"I never thought I had a self-destruct mechanism working inside of me, but, considering the way things worked out, I see I caused most of the problems myself. It was always plain to other people, I suppose," Mr. Pryor says in the book. "When I was a kid, my grandfather and uncle bet that I wouldn't make it to 14. Even I figured the chances of me making it to 20 were slim."

Trying comedy

But he did survive, getting by in menial jobs, serving in the Army and finally taking a stab at comedy. Inspired by the success of Bill Cosby, he eventually began specializing in similar, safe material. That proved quite successful -- to a point.

In 1967, he freaked out on stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas (his first gig in that town was as an opening act for singer Bobby Darin). His identity crisis came to a head. Staring out at an audience filled with celebrities, focusing on the face of singer Dean Martin, Mr. Pryor had a nervous breakdown.

"I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted; I gasped for clarity as if it were oxygen. The fog rolled in," he says in his BTC memoir. "In a burst of inspiration, I finally spoke to the sold-out crowd: 'What the [expletive] am I doing here?'"

From there, he took off. Landing in Berkeley at the dawn of the '70s, he hung out with black intellectuals and writers, and honed the material that would eventually make him the hottest comedian and comic actor around.

BBut as the '70s wore on, Mr. Pryor would evolve once again -- this time into a Hollywood superstar addicted to liquor, cocaine and women. His talent -- put to good use in such movies as "Lady Sings the Blues," "Blue Collar" and "Silver Streak" -- would seem increasingly watered-down by a string of bad film roles. As his success grew -- he has appeared in close to 40 movies -- he began to feel that everyone from family and old friends to wives and show-business acquaintances saw him as nothing more than a meal ticket.

Close to death

In one of the book's more dramatic moments, he details his self- immolation, described at the time as a free-basing accident. Having reached one of his lowest points (not long before, he pictured himself as the devil incarnate during a drug hallucination) and coked-up into near-oblivion, Mr. Pryor doused himself with cognac, flicked a lighter and set himself aflame in what seemed like an attempt to end it all.

"That's what they say. I'm not too sure. Jenny harps on me about how I tried to take my life. I didn't. I did something worse. I tried to [expletive] myself up. You know, that I admit. But it never entered my mind about kicking the big one," Mr. Pryor says now.

"It's hard to explain to a sane person. I'd gone as far as I could go on coke and free-basing. I went as far as I could go -- you know what I'm saying? It was finished. And the pipe, I couldn't leave the pipe alone. I've broken 50 pipes, I'm sure, in my lifetime."

Has his current physical condition finally freed him of that habit?

"I'm farther away than I was a couple of years ago, but I'm not free of it. I don't have it," he says, then adds with a slight laugh. "I don't have it. I think I've said it the best I can."

His films, his award-winning albums and short-lived, far-sighted television series, his heart attacks, his epiphany in Africa -- all are covered in the book.

His last film role would be in "Another You" (1991) with Gene Wilder. It took two weeks of training for Mr. Pryor to walk well enough to play his part. The massive force of will needed to complete the movie shows on every frame.

Mr. Pryor's book ends on an upbeat note, with him determined to live what's left of his life as fully as he can. Before you get that far, you may begin to notice that, while the voice guiding you through the memoir is distinctively his, its tone seems a lot less angry than the Richard Pryor we remember. In fact, it comes off as downright sweet-natured.

"It's surprising. I'm glad you said that," says Mr. Pryor, adding that his days of rage are over. "I can't get to that. My anger doesn't stay with me. I get angry. I explode. And then I'm back in this chair."

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