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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 Flatley

 

Richard 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 new movie.

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!"

What?

"Dammit! I said stop it."

Stop what?

"Not you," he said to me.

"Please -– you gotta stop tickling me," he said to somebody else.

Maybe I should call back tomorrow?

"I’d 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 ain’t no movie star, man. I’m a booty star."

A what?

" A booty star. That’s what you got to be before you get to be a movie star."

What does booty mean?

"It doesn’t mean nothing. Booty is just a ghetto expression, and I’m 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?" he’s not talking about footwear. Pryor’s 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 recently.

"It’s 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 I’m not sure it’s damaging to see life for real. And I don’t know anywhere else I could have gotten more love and attention than I got there."

There is a strained silence in Pryor’s 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 night’s 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 didn’t 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."

Pryor’s 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 didn’t 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.

Although 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]. "It’s a fun-time kind of movie, one that people can enjoy, with nothing to scare them. There won’t be any wrath-against-the-world stuff in this movie."

In "Which Way Is Up?" –- an Americanization of Lina Wertmuller’s comedy, "The Seduction of Mimi" -– he will play a politicized grape-picker and the grape-picker’s father and a passionate preacher who impetuously impregnates the grape-picker’s 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 Pryor’s 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 didn’t think ‘Superfly’ was that good, but I didn’t object to it. Movies are movies, and I don’t 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 "It’s Alright to Make Love on the First Date" and "Shake Your Booty."

"It’s 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 Nigger’s Crazy." "You work your butt off and somebody says you can’t 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 don’t 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 won’t talk about what it was like in prison, except to say I’m glad I’m out and that I plan never to go back and to pay my taxes every day."

The trait that elevates Pryor’s 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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. "There’s 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 Ali’s dimension but none of his real style or spirit. You were meant to hate him and root for the white fighter.

"I’m not for integration and I’m not against it. What I am for is justice for everyone, just like it says in the Constitution. If you ask me about women’s lib, I say I don’t even know what that is. I say what about people’s lib? I’m for human lib, the liberation of all people, not just black people or female people or gay people. I also say that if there isn’t a response to what’s been happening to the people out there, there’s 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 don’t feel like being bitter. Being bitter makes you immobile, and there’s too much that I still want to do. The way I see it, the earth is going to be here after we’re dead and gone. Even if it’s a polluted planet, and they messed it up. Where do they go from here –- to another planet so they can mess that up too?"

It’s surprising to learn that God figures prominently in Pryor's philosophy. "Yes, I’m 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. It’s 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?"