Five things I learned about Richard Pryor from the recent Showtime documentary.

1)     He grew up in a brothel and his grandmother was the madam.

The likely source of most of his self-destructive behavior, Pryor grew up in a whore house with his dad pimping out his mom. His grandmother, the tough as nails maternal figure in his life who could have been the inspiration for Tyler Perry’s Madea, ran a tight ship with a stable of hookers who made up the family business.  His father slept with the girl that Richard impregnated at fifteen. I suspect that environment had enough traumas to forge a creative genius with bags full of demons.  

I found this quote from a director who worked with Pryor particularly fascinating, “I think when you grow up around a bordello you see people at their very core in a way, it’s like there is no façade, there are no masks on…” Directly afterwards, they superimposed a picture of Pryor as a kid over top of his chicken scratch diary entry which read, “I don’t know what made me that way but I could laugh at anything. Nothing was too sad that some humor could not be found in it.” I know some people like that. When you grow up in the jungle, you end up Tarzan.

2) He bombed terribly the night before filming his classic, Live on The Sunset Strip.

Pryor had just re-emerged from the other end of a near death incident where he lit himself on fire while high on crack cocaine. The odds were against him but he made a full recovery. His star was fading and his managers were putting pressure on him to release another concert special. I can’t imagine his fragile mental state fresh off a suicide attempt but like any good redemption story, he would  go on to rise from the ashes and reclaim his spot at the top of the heap.

Not so fast though, his crazed fan base came in droves to see him at the Playdium
including the who’s who of Hollywood at the time. In the film, they show Rev. Jess Jackson (of course) and Stevie Wonder taking a bow before he gets on stage. Pryor comes out to wild cheers but begins to pace the stage, fumbling over words and staring out into the crowd apologetically. Laughing sheepishly, he tries to do crowd work while he regains his form but ends up just leveling with them saying, “This shit didn’t work, for me, I mean I know y’all laugh, but I wanted it to be something else that it’s not. It’s just not there”. Obviously dejected he abruptly leaves the stage while the audience shifts uncomfortably. He choked like Rabbit in 8 mile.

The very next day, same show, same place, he comes out with that look of determination athletes get in crunch time like they are going to leave it all out on the field.  With an expression of steely resolve plastered on his face, he bursts onto the stage and launches into his material.Without missing a beat, he gives the performance many would consider his defining career moment. Having this little backstory made the performance I was introduced to in high school all the more significant. Coming off addiction, near fatal burns, and bombing horrifically to give the set he did proves he’s a fucking champion.

3) He was inspired by watching the monks in Tiananmen Square to light himself on fire while free basing cocaine.

In the eighties when the drug scene shifted from Hollywood rails to cooked crack, Pryor
began to unravel. Supposedly, he was taking out lump sums to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and purchasing kilos.The man had mounds of coke on his bed putting him in the legendary company of Rick James on coke’s Mt. Rushmore. A lot of people were concerned about Richard who was becoming a recluse hold up in his place appearing disheveled. Someone described him as having part of his soul wither up during this period. The tipping point came during one of his benders. Richard and a friend were watching a Vietnam special on the monks who lit themselves aflame in protest of the war.In awe, his friend turns to him and says, “Look at this man’s commitment” to which Richard replied, “Fuck this man’s commitment, he didn’t even flinch.”
His friend leaves to the kitchen and as he walks back, Richard bursts past him engulfed in flames running out the door. The friend in shock goes back to the room and see’s the bottle of rum Richard was drinking has been emptied.

When he arrived at the hospital, the prognosis was grim. He had third degree burns on forty percent of his body but he survived. He would later recount the tale as a bit in his classic special, Live on The Sunset Strip.

4)     While heavily involved with 80’s babe, Pam Grier, he knocked up another woman and married her in the spur of the moment.  

He met Pam Grier who Quentin Tarantino describes as the first female action star in 1977 when she was in her prime. In one of those scenarios, where life imitates art the couple met on the set of their film, Greased Lightning,  while playing the romantic leads. According to the documentary, this was one of the only times Pryor cleaned up his act. His grandmother approved of the match and everything looked to be headed for a storybook ending.

He walked in to his manager’s office one day and dropped the news that he was getting married. Thrilled, his manager bought a cake congratulating what he thought to be Richard and Pam’s big announcement.The cake had both their names etched in icing. That’s when the manager gets a call from Pam saying, “You tell that son of a bitch I’m coming down and I’m going kill him”. Next thing he knows, Richard walks in with this pregnant chick he’s just married runs to the cake shoves a plastic lid on top of Pam’s name and wheels out the cake to give to the happy couple.

Pryor was a notorious womanizer marrying seven times and having six kids by five
different women. He shares that feat with a few former NFL players. Travis Henry may have had him beat.

5)  Initially, he was trying to be a white-washed Cosby clone until  the day he was performing in a Vegas showroom and made eye contact with Dean Martin. He claims to have saw himself through his eyes and decided he wasn’t being true to himself.

I thought this was a crazy anecdote. Pryor had been trying to conform, so he could be passable for white audiences. He edited his material and was a shell of his potential self. First off, this pointed out to me that he was very aware of what he was doing so much so that at first he was willing to play along. Second, the imagery I get from him having an epiphany from looking into Dean Martin’s eyes and thinking the he must consider him a, “damn fool” is awesome. Who else can claim to have had a major realization while staring into the eyes of Sinatra’s right hand man?

The next night Pryor verbal assaulted the audience and literally hung from the chandelier in the lobby. The hotel called his manager and told him he was finished. He became a pariah in Vegas and vanished before re-emerging with his first iconic album.

Below is a behind the scenes promotion Showtime released before it aired: