December 19, 2013
The first time Richard showed up for Miss Juliette Whittaker’s Youth Theater Guild at Peoria’s Carver Community Center, they were in the midst of rehearsing a play based on the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. All the parts had been cast, but Richard was so eager and insistent, Miss Whittaker gave him a role as a servant.
He was a “skinny little kid” in his mid-teens, she remembered, although “he looked about nine.”
One day, the boy playing the king was absent and Richard begged her to let him fill in. He knew the king’s lines. He knew everyone’s lines. “The other kids just broke up, he was so funny. When the original king returned, even he had to admit that Richard was better in the part. “So Richard stayed on the throne,” she was fond of saying, “and he hasn’t come down since.”
In the autumn [of 1964], Richard took a walk through Harlem with his old cohort from the Chitlin’ Circuit, Redd Foxx. People downtown in the Village often recognized Richard from The Merv Griffin Show or Ed Sullivan, but up in Harlem it was Redd Foxx who stopped traffic. He caused excitement, like a one-man parade for a returning astronaut. People stepped out of shops and restaurants, leaving their work to come and greet him. They leaned out apartment windows hollering, “Hey, Redd! Zorro!” On that walk, Richard came to realize that the scene unfolding before his eyes contained everything he would ever want: for people in black neighborhoods to drop what they were doing and come running to greet him, to love him for who he was and for what he did.
When Richard went back to New York to open for Miles Davis at the Village Gate in the winter of 1968, Miles bestowed upon him a magnanimous vote of confidence by flipping the bill. He sent a member of his entourage to Richard’s dressing room to tell him there’d been a change in plan. “Miles is gonna play first,” he said. Miles had decided to make him the headliner. After the show, Miles took him to a midtown apartment to meet a woman known as Gypsy Lady who provided them with the best cocaine he’d ever had. They “chopped and snorted until the sun crept through the windows and then we disappeared like vampires.”
“From now on you get your coke from her,” Miles instructed him.
The Comedy Store became the workshop where Richard would develop material for his heaviest LPs, from 1974’s That Nigger’s Crazy through 1978’s Wanted: Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Anytime Richard wanted to woodshed new material, all he had to do was let Mitzi know and she would clear the decks for as many nights or weeks as he wanted. His name on the marquee guaranteed sold-out shows every night, and his appearances, William Knoedelseder writes, “had the frenzied feel of a heavyweight title fight in Vegas, with lines stretching around the block.”
Richard went to the bank one afternoon and withdrew a million dollars. He took the cashier’s check down the street and deposited it in a different bank. When his attorney Michael Ashburne asked him why he’d done such a thing, Richard said, “I wanted to see if the money was really mine.”
So many of Richard’s friends over the years—colleagues, cohorts, and business associates—have said the same thing, arriving at nearly identical metaphors, to the effect that there was a big emptiness somewhere at his core, a hole he kept trying to fill with drink and drugs. A pain he kept trying to numb.
A man is stumbling alone down the street, disoriented, arms raised, heading west. There is smoke rising from his hair and body. He looks familiar. People cry out when he joins them at a corner, smoldering, waiting to cross. As he moves on between halting cars they call after him, using his first name, as if he were a neighbor or relative.
Hey, wha—? Richard!
But he keeps moving.
Finally, a police cruiser rolls up next to him, keeping pace. When the officers’ shouts get no response, the one in the passenger’s seat vaults from the moving car into the street and begins jogging alongside him, calmly pleading with the burning man to stop.
“If I stop, I’ll die,” he answers, making odd sense of a moment that refuses any other kind.
Said his brother Dr. Richard Grossman, “There is virtually no skin on his torso. You can see the raw muscle tissue, fat tissue …If you saw our patient without his dressings, you would faint. Most people would.”
Paul Mooney did not.
He had his own theory about the fire, which was this: Richard’s money and success made him feel so white that he had tried to burn himself black. Under the circumstances, one might just as reasonably argue that he had tried to dispense with the skin issue altogether. Either way, it was a bust.
Mooney put on his bravest face and his most solemn German accent.
“Dr. Frankenstein,” he said, “the operation did not succeed.”
It hurt to laugh, but when did it not?
Laughter is anarchy.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time, there were no second acts in American life. Now, it seems, the second act is all that matters. The years of hard work and achievement that bring fame or stardom merely count as the qualifying round, a setup for the crash and burn. That’s the show everybody wants to see. In this, too, Richard Pryor was a pioneer.
David Henry is a screenwriter, and his brother Joe Henry is a songwriter/singer as well as a music producer. Furious Cool is their first book. They are also at work on a screenplay based on Pryor’s life and career.