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 December, 2005


 A personal look at comedian Richard Pryor

What’s Wrong Rich?

By Al Owens

He’d grown up in brothels, he’d suffered two massive heart attacks (in 1978 and in 1990), he’d been arrested for shooting at one of his many estranged wives with a .357 magnum (in 1978), he’d set himself on fire while in the midst of a cocaine marathon (in 1980), he’d been charged with tax evasion (between 1967 and 1970), he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (in 1986) and he’d been convicted of marijuana possession (in the early 1970’s). Yet, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor made us laugh uproariously at just about all of it.

Known to the world as Richard Pryor, his life was, at once, tragic and outrageously funny! If anybody we knew had tried to shoot at his wife’s car with a large handgun, they’d probably try to keep it from the world. Richard Pryor turned it into a show stopping piece of knee slapping theatre. “If you leave here today”, he told his fleeing wife, “You’ll be driving them hush puppies you got on!”

But Richard Pryor wasn’t just some comedian who pulled his life from a police blotter and slapped it onto his records and into his stage performances. He, more than many comedians, had the ability to talk about two different things at the same time. One of his more memorable routines had an alcoholic lecturing a junkie on where the junkie went wrong. “You used to book the numbers, didn’t need no pencil nor pad. “Now you don’t even know who you is”, said Pryor in perfect drunk-speak. His purpose had been clear. That everybody needs to feel superior to somebody!
It was Pryor’s sly take on race relations in America. It was one of Pryor’s most fertile themes, and he return to it repeatedly with anger - yet without ruffling many feathers.

Pryor’s 1979 theatrically released Richard Pryor Live in Concert has been hailed as one of the funniest comedies ever released. I can remember both Siskel and Ebert lamenting the fact that he’d not earned a Best Actor nomination because of it. Rent it and you’ll see why this troubled soul was also a master mimic and social commentator. In a little over an hour and a half, he convincingly became a deer, monkeys, a car, a human heart, a boxer, his father, his grandmother, his legs, and his next door neighbor’s dog. “What’s wrong Rich”, asks the curious house pet as he jumps over Pryor’s backyard fence. “My monkeys died”, Pryor replies. “Shoot! “I was gonna eat them too!”, says the disappointed dog.

But Pryor’s life wasn’t just comedy and near tragedy. He had his serious artistic moments too. He directed, co-wrote and starred his, mainly autobiographical, 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life is Calling. It was while he was doing publicity for that film that I first met Richard Pryor.

He was in High Point, North Carolina shooting his next film Critical Condition, when I was flown from Los Angeles to conduct the interview for Entertainment Tonight. Despite the fact that he asked for me personally, I was still shaking at the thought of asking him a question so stupid I’d end up one of his punch lines!

It’s not like he was incapable of putting aside his sometimes profane social commentary long enough to make his audiences convulse in laughter at one person. Leon Spinks, the onetime (and short time) World Heavyweight Champion, had become notorious in the mid-1970’s for his lack of driving skills. When he wasn’t being ticketed for reckless driving and speeding, it seems he was driving off the road – all over the country!

“They took away his license”, Pryor announced in concert, “and he walked into a fence”.

So now it was me. Some guy from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in fear of asking the funniest man on earth (in my opinion) the kind of stupid question that would ultimately send me in search a doctor who could perform emergency plastic surgery!

As it turned out, my fears were well-founded. It wasn’t a stupid question, however, it was a stupid answer. Upon meeting Pryor the morning of the interview, Pryor asked me how I liked his new movie. Too in awe to lie, I blurted out, “It was ok”. “Just ok”, he asked. “Well, er, ah, it was ok”. (the k was one of those high pitched k’s you use when you really mean you don’t care much for something!)

The interview began. It ended. I was relieved to get out of the room alive, despite the fact that from that second “ok”, he barely spoke above a whisper. It wasn’t until I looked at the tape of the interview that I realized I was hearing the real Richard Pryor. His answers were sensitive, personal and quite revealing. It was the serious side of Richard Pryor that the world had hardly ever seen. And he was letting me see it!

The following year, when he was conducting the same kind of media blitz for Critical Condition, he asked for me to conduct that interview too. I was confused, but happy!

This time, when Pryor entered the room, he was smiling and even joking with me. “Well”, feigning a defensive karate move, “Did you like this one better”? Without even considering my fate, I blurted out, “YES! I liked it a lot better.”

A couple of years later, while story at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles (the world famous race track), I spotted Richard Pryor standing in line waiting to make a bet. He saw me, and invited me to his private box overlooking the track. I spent an afternoon with him, while he was making thousand dollar bets and once again I saw a Richard Pryor most people had never seen. I saw a man at peace!

Richard Pryor died on December 10th, from the effects of a massive heart attack. According to one of his biographers, he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the week he did interviews for his film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling!