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 Calling, whenever 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.

Even with Jennifer Lee Pryor’s unwillingness to go forward, you obviously never stopped thinking about Richard as a subject.

Joe Henry: We were always thinking of him. I talked to Tom Waits’s wife, Kathleen Brennan, because she was a script reader for Francis Ford Coppola. I asked her to read what David and I had written and she said, “You don’t really need Jennifer’s permission. You just need to rethink this.” One day I was talking to David and he said, “Look, we did this enormous research, we don’t know what’s ever going to happen to the script, let’s just write a book.” In the script we wrote, we used Raging Bull as a template—it was an eight-to-10-year period of Richard Pryor’s zenith. We realized that there was a lot we could do with a book, and we didn’t need anybody’s OK.

So writing this book had to be more enjoyable.

David Henry: They were both fun. But with the book, we had a deal signed and nobody else was going to say no.

What bearing did Vietnam and Watergate have on Pryor’s success?

Joe Henry: Well, the whole country had kind of cracked open in that era. Things escaped through those cracks. That’s when Richard found his voice. The stage he stepped upon allowed him to kind of reflect all that.

David Henry: Yes, but a lot of the characters he played, the way he told stories —they came out of where Richard grew up, in Peoria, Illinois. In a brothel. Richard’s family traveled up the river from New Orleans after World War I, and so did a lot of other people in his part of Peoria. He grew up in a very Creole-influenced Southern community in the middle of heartland America. On the album … Is It Something I Said?, he does 20 minutes playing a character called Mudbone, and he talks about visiting a voodoo woman. For a kid growing up in Peoria, that seems like it’s out of nowhere. But there was a big Creole culture there, and they were still telling stories from back in Louisiana.

How much does Richard Pryor owe to Dick Gregory?

Joe Henry: Well, Dick Gregory didn’t enter the mainstream white consciousness the same way that Richard Pryror or Bill Cosby broke through, but he was supremely important. He was one of the first, if not the first, African-American comics who spoke directly to a white audience. Physically, he sort of looked down on them from the stage.

David Henry: Back then, black comedians always had sidekicks. They would do skits, and they were always bantering. Dick Gregory just walked out. Before him there was Charley Chase who did monologues. There aren’t any recordings of him, so you don’t know whether he was talking directly to a white audience. Redd Foxx was talking to black audiences.

Joe Henry: Dick Gregory was urbane. He wore a suit and sat on a stool while holding a cigarette and cocktail. He didn’t seem to have any fear of what he might be telling an audience about themselves.

How did Richard Pryor regard Cosby?

Joe Henry: Bill was featured in Newsweek in 1963, and he was quoted as saying, “I’m trying to reach all of the people. I want to play to Joe Q. Public.” When Richard saw that, he thought, Oh, shit, this guy is doing what I mean to do. There’s only room for one of us. Richard had the period where he did try to sort of assume Cosby’s voice, even the rhythms of Cosby’s speech, and his more innocuous observations.

David Henry: Bill Cosby had a routine about Noah, so Richard Pryor started a bit on Adam and Eve. But with Richard, there was always a little more edge.

Joe Henry: Cosby was telling jokes.

David Henry: Yes, Cosby was telling jokes, but he doesn’t quite get the credit he deserves. Look, this is a man who did one-half of an album on what it was like sharing a room with his brother. There weren’t many jokes in there. Bill Cosby did more of that kind of thing than what he’s remembered for.

There are some outrageous scenes in your book, such as the one in Las Vegas in 1967. You write, “Richard whipped out his dick onstage and began pissing either on or in the general direction of a coterie of ‘very special people’ (read high-powered mobsters) who were so incensed that their henchmen seized him on the spot and trundled him off to await swift and certain execution.” Cosby reportedly took Pryor under his wing to protect him.

David Henry: Well, Richard had a meltdown. He was up on stage, saw Dean Martin sitting down front, and looked at the rest of the audience, which was white. He said he realized that his grandmother wouldn’t be welcome in that room. He told Paul Mooney, “It hit me that all those motherfuckers out there wouldn’t make room for Mama if you put a gun to their heads.” Richard said that the only way he could enter that room was through a stage door or the kitchen.

Joe Henry: So he just dropped the mic and walked off.

David Henry: That happened. There are several versions of the fallout, but we’ve found enough firsthand accounts to verify the initial walk-out. He told one interviewer that he ran through the casino, whipped out his dick, and yelled, “Blackjack!” Well, that never happened. Richard thought the interviewer would know he was joking.

Joe Henry: Richard Pryor recognized that Vegas wasn’t his audience. He realized he was standing there because he hadn’t been true to his own voice. So he retreats, heads to Berkeley, and starts spending time with Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. He’s living in a near-empty one-room apartment with a record player and a mattress and listening to Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and reading Malcolm X’s speeches. He’s trying to identify his responsibility and find his voice.

David: He did a late-night radio show where he talked about Attica. He would rant about politics and he played some bizarre songs in between. Some of those recording still exist. This is the period when he starts using the N-word. “I’m Richard Pryor,” he would say. “I’m a nigger.” Nobody did that.

It’s hard to talk about Richard Pryor without quoting the racial slurs or profanity.

David: That was the trouble buying his albums when we were kids. They were X-rated. Record stores kept his albums behind the counter. It was like buying condoms. And the salesman would usually try to make you say the title of Richard’s record.

Joe Henry: We’d go in and ask, “Do you have Bicentennial—uh, you know, that new comedy record?”

And these records were being released by Warner Bros.

David Henry: Yeah. And they were winning Grammys.

What would Richard Pryor have been like without drugs?

Joe Henry: At a certain juncture in his career, it would be hard to take drugs out of the equation. Asking what Richard Pryor would have been like without them would be like asking, “How would he have been if he hadn’t been beaten and abused in every possible way as a youth in the middle of America?” The fact that he was the walking wounded was what made him so vulnerable. But it also allowed him to be influential, to mirror it back in such a distilled and authentic way. His drug use was tragic, but it’s hard for me to imagine that character, that flickering, fragile flame as being anything other.

Practically everyone who worked with Richard Pryor called him a genius. Was that confined to his skills as a performer, or was he a sophisticated thinker, too?

David Henry: He wasn’t a political thinker, but he knew which way the wind was blowing. He was intuitive.

Joe Henry: But he wasn’t a phony. As a musician, I’ve worked with Harry Belafonte. He has a tremendous respect for Richard but was always frustrated that Richard wouldn’t invest himself in the politics. Richard would give voice to politics, in the way that it sort of passed through him. He was a lightening rod, but he didn’t do any work on behalf of anybody else. He wouldn’t step out of character and join the march.

David Henry: One time he showed up for a gay rights benefit. It didn’t go well.

That, too, is an astonishing scene in your book. It’s the Hollywood Bowl, a fund-raiser called the “Star Spangled Night for Rights,” held in September 1977.

Joe Henry: Lily Tomlin got Richard to appear. I think it’s safe to say that he wasn’t sober. He got out on stage and started riffing without a lot of forethought. He started volleying back and forth with a few people in the audience, and everything exploded.

David Henry: Well, really, he walked out and said, “I’ve sucked dick and it was beautiful.” People cheered and he just kept going with it. I think he reached a moment of panic where he realized what kind of Hollywood deals he was in the process of making. So he turned around and said, “This is an evening about human rights, and I’m a human being.” He said, “I wanted to test you and tell you to kiss my ass with your bullshit.” He said, quote, “While the niggers in Watts were out there burning, you motherfuckers was doin’ what you wanted to do down on Hollywood Boulevard. Didn’t give a shit about it.”

We went back and looked at the Los Angeles Times’s coverage. The paper printed some of what he said—“his language was from the street,” wrote reporter Lee Grant, who went on to quote him. “There’re only four niggers out there... niggers can’t deal with the word homosexual. There may be a faggot in the family, but there ain’t no homosexual.” Pryor then added, “Give the money to the people on welfare.”

Joe Henry: He let himself get a little too far out on the wire.

In 1980, Richard’s movie Stir Crazy was released. Your book highlights an on-set interview that he did while high on cocaine.

Joe Henry: It’s bizarre.

David Henry: Painful to watch.

In that interview, Richard says some things that would make Charlie Sheen during his meltdown phase look sane. He claims Stir Crazy is awful and calls co-star Gene Wilder a “fag.” Quoting him, “I’m happy because Sidney Poitier is directing a ten-million dollar movie and it don’t mean shit,” he says. Referring to the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran, Richard says, “They spent four billion dollars on the Americans who went to Iran, and they crashed. Eight people died and they was all black.” What must it have been like to direct Richard Pryor at this stage in his career?

David Henry: Sidney Poitier, the director, was frustrated. Richard cost the production lots of money for not showing up on time. Charles Weldon, who acted in the film, told me he didn’t know how a person who consumed so much drugs could continue to work. According to Charles, there was one scene they shot after being up for at least five nights partying with women and freebasing. Charles said he didn’t even remember doing that scene.

Joe Henry: Somebody once asked a great jazz musician, “How do you play when you’re so high?” And he replied, “Oh, I practice high.” That was the only way Richard could make some of these movies. He was so gone that he was in a sense standing outside of himself while he was doing it.

In your view, what are Richard Pryor’s best movies?

Joe Henry: For him as a comic lightening bolt, there’s nothing that touches Live in Concert, released in 1979. If you’re talking about Richard in the service of someone else, his best is in Blue Collar where he co-stars with Harvey Keitel. One can see what Richard might have become as a dramatic actor. It’s sort of like watching Jackie Gleason in The Hustler. You realize that this guy’s funny but that there’s a depth, too. Viewers feel a three-dimensional aspect to his character. Had Richard taken roles for less money that were more meaningful, he might have become an incredible dramatic actor. But he kept getting offered a lot of money to do stuff that was crap because he was funny and popular. He was responsible for a big world—a family, plus all the drug consumption. It’s not difficult to imagine why someone like him would say, This isn’t a good script, but it’s paying well and after I finish it I can do what I want. But before they’re done with that picture, there’s another offer that’s maybe even more lucrative than the last one.

That’s sort of what happened with Elvis Presley’s movie career. There was great potential, but great artistic frustration about the poor quality of the films.

Joe Henry: That’s right. Same thing. After Richard made Silver Streak, he gave an interview where he said, “I’m sorry for that movie. I watched it, and couldn’t make anything out of it. I did it for the money and I’ll never do it again.” He was publicly saying, I think the movie is shit. I’m glad you people liked it, but I saw it and couldn’t get into it.

David Henry: He made some other movies where he gave great performances. There was Hit, directed by Sidney Furie. Richard was tremendous. He was given a lot of leeway. You can tell he was improvising.

Speaking of Jackie Gleason, in 1982, Richard co-starred with him in The Toy. It’s strange. The story is about a rich man who tells his son that he can have any present he wants. The movie poster copy reads, “He picks the most outrageous gift of all.” The gift is Richard Pryor. Is the movie racist?

Joe Henry: Conceptually, The Toy is absolutely a racist film. A rich white man buys a black man to be a child’s toy. It’s unbearable. It’s unwatchable.

What was Richard’s attitude about being in it?

David Henry: Well, he idolized Jackie Gleason and the movie paid well. That was his attitude. Look, I never thought Richard was very good when he was trying to be funny. His brilliant characterizations happen when he’s embodying these characters on the stage, and he’s true to them. Richard doesn’t make fun of them. The Toy begins with him doing this bug-eyed stuff. To me, that’s not Richard Pryor so I’ve never watched the whole thing. His daughter, Elizabeth, said, “I will not let my kids watch that movie.” She told us, “People come up to me all the time and say, The Toy is my favorite movie.” She said she tells them that if that’s what they think, then they’re racists.

Your book starts in 1980 with the scene of Richard running down the street in the San Fernando Valley, after he’s set himself on fire. How did that incident impact his reputation in Hollywood?

Joe Henry: It affirmed what everybody feared was inevitable though it was a long time before Richard ever copped to the fact that this was in fact a suicide attempt, not an accident. For a long time, he portrayed it as a drug accident, that his pipe had exploded. But in truth, he had smoked everything he could possibly smoke. He was so demoralized that he poured rum all over himself and set himself afire.

David Henry: Hollywood embraced him. Marlon Brando brought a TV to his hospital room to watch the fights. Everybody was showing up to visit Richard. Meanwhile, his extended family was looting his house.

Finally, Furious Cool. It seems like the perfect title for a book on Pryor. How did you come up with it?

David Henry: I stole it from Jay Cocks. He wrote a piece for Time in the early-1970s describing Richard on stage. He said Richard embodies this “furious cool.” I jotted that down on the top of the page I was scribbling on.

Joe Henry: We never scratched it out.