The 'Flickering, Fragile Flame' of Richard Pryor

Talking with the authors of a new book that chronicles the obscenely candid comedian's tragic, drug-fueled peak
AP / Lennox McLendon

“The funniest man in America”—those were the words Columbia Pictures used in TV spots promoting Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, its 1982 concert film. The claim wasn’t far off. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a comic making the kind of cultural impact today that Pryor did back then. Pryor’s stand-up fit with the tumult of the Vietnam War and Watergate eras. His guest spots on Saturday Night Live made the NBC series a brand name. His records—That Nigger’s Crazy, … Is It Something I Said?, and Bicentennial Nigger won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album three years in a row. By the end of the 1970s, after the box office success of such pictures as Silver Streak and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, he was becoming a force in the motion-picture industry, too.

People born after 1980 might only remember Pryor as a comedian who starred in The Toy, Superman III, Harlem Nights, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But those pictures feature only a remnant of the comic he once was. When he was at his best on stage, he exposed the truths that rarely went mentioned in America. 

David and Joe Henry chronicle those days and the force that was Pryor in their new book, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. They’re brothers who set out to write a film about Pryor, who died in 2005. Joe is a songwriter and music producer (and Madonna’s brother-in-law). David is a screenwriter. For now, they’ve ended up with a book that’s garnering critical acclaim and working its way up bestseller lists. We spoke with them at the Palihouse in West Hollywood, within a few blocks of the Troubadour, the Comedy Store, and other clubs where Pryor performed.

This book started because of music producer T Bone Burnett. He doesn't come to mind when you think of Richard Pryor. What was their connection?

Joe Henry: Well, T Bone has been my professional godfather since 1983 when I mailed him a cassette demo of songs from my apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As it turned out, Richard Pryor’s wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, crossed paths with T Bone numerous times in the mid-1970s because she was a hanger-on with a lot of musicians. So when I told T Bone that I’d written a song about Richard Pryor called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” and that the record label insisted I get Richard’s permission, he said, “Joey, I’ve known Jenny Pryor for years.” T Bone put us in contact, and the Pryors listened to my song. Jenny called and said, “Richard wept. I wept. How can we help you?” I said, “I need your permission to use his name in the title.” She said, “You can.” I said, “While we’re at it, I’d like to use his picture in the album packaging.” And she replied, “You can.”

Your song about Richard Pryor was released in 2001. The next thing was a script about him. How did it come about?

Joe Henry: Esquire asked me to write an article about my song. After it was published, Jennifer and Richard asked, “How do you feel about writing a screenplay based on Richard’s life?”

But you weren’t a screenwriter.

Joe Henry: They didn’t want one. They said people had been approaching them for a decade, proposing a film on his life. He was finally starting to feel like this was the time. I told them I’d give it a try, but that I wanted to work with my brother, David.

David Henry: We had no agreement with them. We just started working.

Joe Henry: So we wrote a screenplay, and were very close to getting it into production. I even had a deal for them with Billy Bob Thornton to direct. But at the 11th hour, Jennifer Lee Pryor pulled the plug.

What was her objection?

Joe Henry: She likes to take meetings and plan for things, but I don’t think she ever wants to be done. We sort of went away licking our wounds.

How did you plan to surmount the challenge of finding someone who could play Richard Pryor?

Joe Henry: Eddie Murphy can do a spot-on imitation of Richard Pryor, and his was the first name people kept throwing out. But Richard didn’t really like Eddie.

David Henry: In the book, we quote people who say that nobody could steal Richard’s material because nobody could do it. Richard was all about delivery and the way he moved and embodied characters. In his 1986 movie, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Callingwhenever Richard is doing “Richard Pryor material,” the scenes just fall flat because he’s not really doing it. Even Richard couldn’t imitate Richard.

Joe Henry: A producer would be better off with a complete unknown playing Richard.

Did you interview Richard?

Joe Henry: I spent time with him, but he wasn’t able to speak because of severe multiple sclerosis. I would go over to his house and play music. He was a big jazz fan and I would take records. I took David over there and we sat with him for an afternoon.

David Henry: He was strapped in a wheelchair. His face had full paralysis. He had no real use of his body.

Joe Henry: Nurses would wheel him into the middle of the floor and I would sit next to him and just talk. It was a very strange way to commune. I would get home and feel as though I’d had a conversation with Richard Pryor.

Where was he living?

Joe Henry: He was in a modest, two or three-bedroom ranch house that was probably built in the 1960s in Encino. I got the feeling that most of his neighbors had no idea who lived there. On hot days, his caregivers would take him to the Sherman Oaks Galleria. He went unnoticed. It was disconcerting to realize that the person I was talking to was once so visceral and electric. Now all that physicality was trapped in a vehicle that was no longer cooperative. Mentally, he was still there.

David Henry: During that period, he watched Silence of the Lambs over and over again.

In screenwriting, you should always have your character facing a complication. What was Richard Pryor’s?

Joe Henry: Self-loathing. That was the gift that kept giving. If you begin your whole life being abused and living in a culture that’s already telling you that you’re of less value, even people with the most supportive families will struggle under those weights. Richard had no reliable emotional comfort from the beginning of his life. My impression is that he thought so little of himself that the more successful he became, the more intent he was in showing that he wasn’t worth it.

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Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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