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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Wiz (1940-2005)

So, the question has to be asked. Did Richard Pryor ever make a decent movie?

Decent? Sure. Entertaining? Most definitely and extremely. Great? Well…

It’s telling that some of his obituary writers have offered his several concert movies, i.e. recordings of his live performances on stage, as being his best work on film. But I don’t think we have to go that far. His work as an actor in feature films is more than respectable. Even in supporting roles, he was often the best reason to see a movie. And at his height, he was a true superstar, whose name could draw audiences on its own. Indeed, he was the main draw for the otherwise boring Superman III and reportedly got paid more than Christopher Reeve for being in it.

Pryor’s film career was solid enough that we do not need to put the proverbial asterisk by his name. But, of course, writers about film invariably do. They point out correctly enough that, as a young African-American coming up in America in 1960s, Pryor had higher barriers to overcome than most performers. He was a pioneer, they say, and simply did not have the opportunities that, say, an Eddie Murphy or a Chris Rock would have later on. Okay, sure you want to see Pryor in the context of time and place. But you do not need to qualify his success. It stands quite well on its own.

To most of us, Richard Pryor was simply the funniest guy around. You could not look at him and help but laugh. And, when he began to talk, it got even better. In retrospect, he is seen as the “black comedian” who transitioned us from the “safe” personality of Bill Cosby to the edgier and angrier comedians who managed to cross over afterwards. But when we were watching him, we didn’t care about his ethnicity or skin color. He just made us laugh, as well as make us think. He was just extremely likeable.

His stage and screen persona belied a personal life that we really didn’t want to know about. He grew up in one of his grandmother’s whorehouses in Peoria, Illinois, and endured a childhood that, in the words of the Encyclopedia of Film, “would have given Dickens nightmares.” A father by 14 and an army veteran by 17, he found his calling as a stand-up comedian. He made his film debut in William Castle’s The Busy Body in 1967, soon followed by his turn as the militant Stanley X in Wild in the Streets, about a rock star who becomes president of the U.S. after the voting age is lowered to 14. Pryor was clearly pre-destined to star in “urban comedies” and he made a string of them. But he showed dramatic range when he got the chance. He got good notices as Piano Man in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, as well as a Detroit auto worker in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar. Meanwhile, his comedies were popular (especially when teamed with Gene Wilder) if not timeless classics. He did have a hand in one particularly seminal 1970s comedy. He was a screenwriter, along with Mel Brooks and others, on Blazing Saddles. We can only ponder what that movie would have been like if Pryor had played the sheriff, as he was supposed to, instead of Cleavon Little. That could have been an (even more) interesting movie.

Pryor did not get that role because his reputation for controversy at the time scared away the people with the money. (In fact, more than two decades before Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Saturday Night Live implemented its first time-delay feed when Pryor hosted the show.) But no matter. Within a few short years, financiers would be falling all over themselves to invest in a Richard Pryor vehicle. During the 1970s and 1980s, a Richard Pryor flick was a regular fixture at the cinema. We remember the titles: Uptown Saturday Night (supporting Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte), Car Wash (with a large ensemble cast), The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings (with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones), Silver Streak (with Wilder), Which Way Is Up?, Greased Lightning, The Wiz (with Pryor in the title role), Stir Crazy (with Wilder again), Bustin’ Loose (with Cicely Tyson), Harlem Nights (with Eddie Murphy). Around the time of that Superman sequel, he made a couple of ill-advised remakes with rotund costars: The Toy (with Jackie Gleason) and Brewster’s Millions (with John Candy).

Also, around this time, Pryor made his one auteur film. He produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, his Bob Fosse-esque quasi-autobiography. While interesting, it did not suggest that Pryor’s many gifts included feature film directing. But it does lead us back to the personal life we didn’t want to know about. Never mind the childhood abuse and neglect and hardship. We didn’t particularly want to know about all the marriages and divorces and remarriages. And we didn’t want to know about it when Pryor nearly burned to death. First, we heard it was a unfortunate but innocent accident. Then we heard it was the kind of accident that happens while freebasing cocaine. Then we heard it was a drug-induced suicide attempt. We really didn’t want to get the news that he had multiple sclerosis. This was a man who had always made us feel good. We didn’t want to have be sad about him. And we didn’t really want to see his appearance in David Lynch’s totally weird Lost Highway. We didn’t want to see how much he had changed and how bad he looked.

But that’s because we entertainment fans are basically selfish. That is, when we aren’t being voyeuristic. It is, after all, the entertainer’s job to make us happy. And he has no right to ruin it by letting reality intrude.

Anyway, let me pass on one single pearl of wisdom, relating to cinema, that I gleaned from Richard Pryor back in the 1980s. He did a very funny routine in which he explained (and I am trying to repeat his exact words as best as my memory allows) that “it is fun to watch movies with black people because black people think the movie is really happening.” I laughed when I heard him say it, and I laughed again when a young man stood up in the middle of the audience of the old Coliseum Theater in downtown Seattle in 1984 and pointed at the screen and yelled at Michael Biehn to “move yo’ g**damn ass now!” as he tried to escape a cyborg played by the future governor of California in The Terminator.

I am laughing again as I remember it. And that was the gift that Richard Pryor gave us and has left with us.

-S.L., 15 December 2005

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