RICHARD PRYOR: THE TRIP
FROM BOOTY STAR TO MOVIE STAR
I have warm memories of this
1977 interview with Richard Pryor. Despite a bang-up hangover, he
was generous with his time and extraordinarily candid in his reponses
to my questions. What a shame Hollywood never took full advantage
of Pryor's huge talent for comedy, drama and truth-telling. --Guy
Pryor is not an easy man to pin down. On my first attempt, I reached
the slyly evasive comic by phone in a Georgia motel room not far
from the shooting location of "Greased Lightning," his
Is this Richard Pryor?
"Yeah," he whispered, after a long pause. Suddenly, there
was a gasp on the other end of the line, followed by a shriek and
a storm of laughter.
"Stop it, for Chrissakes!"
"Dammit! I said stop it."
"Not you," he said to me.
"Please - you gotta stop tickling
me," he said to somebody else.
Maybe I should call back tomorrow?
"Id sure appreciate it," he replied, surrendering
to a seizure of giggles.
The next night, Pryor was alone in his motel room and more in a
mood to concentrate on my questions. I began by asking him how it
feels to be a movie star.
"I aint no movie star, man. Im a booty star."
" A booty star. Thats what you got to be before you get
to be a movie star."
What does booty mean?
"It doesnt mean nothing. Booty is just a ghetto expression,
and Im just a booty star."
Booty, of course, does have a meaning. When a dude loitering on
a street corner coos, "Hey, baby, how about a little booty?"
hes not talking about footwear. Pryors boast of booty-stardom
and his mischievous failure to define the term could lead a gullible
white reporter to grief. But then, it is never easy to know when
Pryor is on the level and when he is putting you on, as I was to
discover when I finally tried coping with him face-to-face in Manhattan
"Its true," he says in a deadly serious voice. "I
was brought up in a whorehouse in Peoria. My mother and father lived
there and worked there. I guess it was a harsh life for a child.
There was nothing left to the imagination, but Im not sure
its damaging to see life for real. And I dont know anywhere
else I could have gotten more love and attention than I got there."
There is a strained silence in Pryors stuffy hotel suite.
His bloodshot eyes stray to a knockabout kiddie cartoon on a silent
TV set. He sits tensely, barefoot and knobby-kneed in a short blue
and white robe, the single, forlorn survivor of a long nights
revelry. Rousing him from his deep slumber had been no small achievement,
and only now - a full hour after the appointed time for our
interview - does he begin to touch foggily on the events that
shaped his flamboyant personality and carried him from his raw youth
in a tough black ghetto to a limited but sensational fame as a rubber-faced,
rapier-tongued comedian in dusky cellar clubs, then to scandalous
success as the uproariously obscene star of X-rated records, and
then to his emergence as the most refreshing four-lettered iconoclast
to tickle and scorch the movie-going public in many a year.
It was once reported that Pryor was one of 12 children born to a
happy-go-lucky construction worker and his toiling, conventional
wife. "I was an only child," insists the 36-year-old actor.
"I was a loner and never hung out with anyone. I never had
any friends. Friends take up time, and I didnt have time.
But they all had high hopes for me in the neighborhood - my
parents and all those old soothsayers who used to baby-sit me. I
bought my parents a home before they died, and they got to see that
I was going to be all right. They always thought I would go someplace."
Pryors formal education was short-circuited in the 8th grade
after an ill-advised session of fisticuffs with a science teacher.
"I was kicked out of school because of my attitude. I was not
assimilating. So I went to work, taking any jobs I could get."
When he was 18, he got a two-year job with the Army, and it was
during his military hitch that he began to experiment with his irreverent
imagination, his inspired knack for clowning. "I became a performer
because it was what I enjoyed doing. Even when I was a little kid,
I always said I would be in the movies one day, and damned if I
didnt make it. Sometimes I just sit home and look out the
window and say, 'Daaaammmmmn!'"
A big-time movie star is exactly what he has become. He was nominated
for an Academy Award a couple of seasons ago for his performance
as the plucky, vulnerable piano man in "Lady Sings the Blues."
In "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings,"
he hit a homer with the critics as a raunchy, resilient baseball
player determined to crack the Jim Crow teams of the 1930s by posing
as a lushly accented "Coo-bin"; in "Car Wash,"
he sped off with the acting honors as a white-suited, bejeweled,
devoutly lascivious preacher; and in "Silver Streak,"
he swiped the show as the quick-thinking, jive-talking thief who
helps the lily-white, distinctly dim-witted hero and heroine demolish
a band of villains.
he was billed below Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in "Streak,"
he plans to be at the top of the cast in his future films, starting
with "Greased Lightning," an action-comedy in which he
stars as Wendell Scott, the real-life stock-car racer [poster at
right]. "Its a fun-time kind of movie, one that people
can enjoy, with nothing to scare them. There wont be any wrath-against-the-world
stuff in this movie."
In "Which Way Is Up?" - an Americanization of Lina
Wertmullers comedy, "The Seduction of Mimi" -
he will play a politicized grape-picker and the grape-pickers
father and a passionate preacher who impetuously impregnates the
grape-pickers wife. He will then team with Harvey Keitel in
"Blue Collar," a weighty drama about exploited factory
workers [poster below]. Later he will star as the befuddled nephew
of two lethal little old ladies in a remake of "Arsenic and
Old Lace," the first of six films under a writing-acting contract
with Universal, to be followed by an all-human version of "Animal
Farm," in which Pryor will play The Squealer.
None of the projects on Pryors schedule falls into the category
of "blaxploitation film," that lurid and bloody genre
depicting blacks as sex-driven studs, whores, pimps, and junkies.
On the other hand, he has not joined the brigade of outraged citizens
who vigorously protest movies such as "Shaft" and "Superfly."
"I didnt think Superfly was that good, but
I didnt object to it. Movies are movies, and I dont
think any of them are going to hurt the moral fiber of America and
all that nonsense. The black groups that boycott certain films would
do better to get the money together to make the films they want
to see, or stay in church and leave us to our work."
Nor does he condone the effects of the Rev. Jesse Jackson to banish
from radio "sex rock" songs, contagious ditties disseminating
such advice as "Its Alright to Make Love on the First
Date" and "Shake Your Booty."
"Its hard enough to get a record on the air in the first
place," says Pryor, who has given more than one disc jockey
the jitters with such magnificently profane albums as "Craps
After Hours," "Is It Something I Said?" and "That
Niggers Crazy." "You work your butt off and somebody
says you cant have your record played because it offends them.
Tyrants are made of such stuff."
Pryor, who is not lacking in sexual magnetism, is reluctant to discuss
the two women he married and divorced or the four children -
ranging in age from 19 to 7 - he fathered. Nor does he bubble
over with anecdotes about his courtship of Pam Grier, his stunning
leading lady in "Greased Lightning." "I dont
see myself getting married again, but if I do, it will be forever."
Although Pryor recently purchased a 10-room house, with swimming
pool, in North Ridge, Cal., and is the owner of a 1970 Mercedes
and a 1964 Porsche, his perceptions are still fundamentally those
of the street-toughened ghetto dweller. He does not apologize for
having spent 10 days in jail in 1974 for failure to file income-tax
returns on $250,000 earned between 1967 and 1970. "I wont
talk about what it was like in prison, except to say Im glad
Im out and that I plan never to go back and to pay my taxes
The trait that elevates Pryors comedy skill to the realm of
art is truth, the compulsion to burrow beneath the tawdry surface,
to illuminate the soul at the center of the stereotype. "My
comedy is a slice of life," says Pryor, making an uneasy appraisal
of his talent. "I cant just say the words, do a lot of
one-liners. I love each person I play; I have to be that person.
I have to do him true."
Pryor has not always been so committed to artistic truth. Emotional
stress brought about by efforts to pattern himself after various
conventional standup comedians was said to have resulted in a breakdown
in 1970, when he fled from the floor of a Las Vegas nightclub and
refused to return. "I had a breakup. I decided that I wasnt
going to do the sort of routines I was doing anymore. So I went
to work, trying to develop the thing I do now."
An astute observer of the American scene, Pryor sees problems remaining
for black Americans. "Theres a lot more hypocrisy than
before. Racism has gone back underground. I went to see that movie
Rocky, and it was full of latent racism. It was obvious
they meant the champion, who was not a very appealing person, to
be like Muhammad Ali. He was a big clown with some of Alis
dimension but none of his real style or spirit. You were meant to
hate him and root for the white fighter.
"Im not for integration and Im not against it.
What I am for is justice for everyone, just like it says in the
Constitution. If you ask me about womens lib, I say I dont
even know what that is. I say what about peoples lib? Im
for human lib, the liberation of all people, not just black people
or female people or gay people. I also say that if there isnt
a response to whats been happening to the people out there,
theres going to be a great explosion one of these days, and
this will not be one of the nicest places to live.
"If I thought about it, I could be bitter, but I dont
feel like being bitter. Being bitter makes you immobile, and theres
too much that I still want to do. The way I see it, the earth is
going to be here after were dead and gone. Even if its
a polluted planet, and they messed it up. Where do they go from
here - to another planet so they can mess that up too?"
Its surprising to learn that God figures prominently in Pryor's
philosophy. "Yes, Im religious. God has shown me things,
made certain ways clear to me. I believe in divine forces and energies.
I believe the ability to think is blessed. If you can think about
a situation, you can deal with it. The big struggle is to keep your
head clear enough to think."
There is a knock at the door. Its a young black employee of
the hotel asking for an autograph for his girlfriend. "We thought
you were wonderful in Bingo Long, " he says.
"Thanks very much."
"Could you sign it To Josephine?"
Pryor stands perfectly still, his pen poised in mid-air. Finally,
he turns to me and asks, "How do you spell Josephine?"