by David and Joe Henry, November 15, 2013 10:00 AM
When we first set out to write this book, we both had serious doubts about our credentials, whether we had the right to present our version of Richard Pryor in such a format and at such length. Although we had spent years researching and writing a screenplay called Pryor
, authoring a book is another thing entirely. A book, to our way of thinking, carries greater authority and presupposes a greater burden of responsibility. Screenplays are like blueprints, and the ones that get made into movies are later reimagined and reshaped by whole squadrons of artists, actors, technicians, producers, and money people. This book is our own.
Even though — this needs to be said — this book was shepherded and considerably improved by the steady hand of our Algonquin editor Chuck Adams, it has our names on the title page.
Richard Pryor has loomed large in our imaginations since our early teens. We're old enough to remember him from his early TV appearances on Ed Sullivan and afternoon talk shows, but it wasn't until we heard his LPs — first from schoolmates who had older siblings — that he really hit home. We wouldn't have been able to tell you why at the time, but, intuitively, we sensed that he and Dylan were doing very similar work, bringing us news from a world that was operating and thriving somewhere down below the surface. Not the kind of news reported by Time magazine or network TV but, in the words of Ezra Pound, news that stays news.
When we were in our early teens, there was no one cooler than Richard Pryor — he and Bob Dylan. We didn't entirely understand this at the time, but both of them, through their LPs, were bringing us news from a world that thrived deep beneath the surface of the one we knew, one we'd only heard rumblings of.
Dylan made our heads spin; Richard hit us over the head. Alone, fully exposed, and defenseless onstage with nothing but a microphone in his hand, he was absolutely fearless, angry and irresistible at the same time. We'd never encountered anyone like him. No one else even came close. But we recognized him instantly as a kindred spirit. Not to say that we understood where Richard was coming from — how could we? — or that, through Richard, we came to understand "the black experience" (as if there were only one), but that he, inexplicably, understood who we were.
In researching this book, we didn't go looking for skeletons or scandals. There was no need. Richard went onstage with his closet door wide open. Yet, as we began talking to people who were close to Richard Pryor, we suspected that the things we were hearing and learning about him would diminish him irreparably in our eyes. That hasn't happened. His personal failings and the atrocious ways he sometimes treated the people closest to him only demonstrate how desperately he needed love, even while, it seems to us, he could never trust that anyone could truly love him. As time passes, it is his naked, unguarded humanity that is most memorable, and it was the thing we first responded to. Many people who were part of Richard's life were hurt or disappointed or brutalized by him; yet everyone we spoke to loved him — perhaps against their better judgment, or they now find him easier to love at a distance, beyond arm's length. But we have not yet met anyone who didn't get more from him than he took.
His longtime friend and sometime collaborator Rocco Urbisci told us that Richard had, in his most troubled times, confided in him things he will never divulge to anyone. However horrendous, illegal, imaginary, or merely embarrassing those things might have been, it's somehow oddly affirming to know that a figure of Richard's stature could still have some secrets — and a friend like Rocco Urbisci
by David and Joe Henry, November 14, 2013 10:00 AM
It was uncanny. Like Zelig, Richard Pryor perpetually found himself where it was at, in the company of those who were it
. Whatever "it" was.
On the Midwestern Chitlin' Circuit in the 1950s, he toured with Chuck Berry, Redd Foxx, and LaWanda Page; in the early '60s Greenwich Village he shared cellar club stages with Woody Allen, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Ritchie Havens; on Ed Sullivan with Alan King, Ben Stiller, and Boots Randolf; on afternoon talk shows with Joey Heatherton, Truman Capote, Ruth Buzzi, Milton Berle, Joan Rivers, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Steve McQueen; in Vegas he rubbed shoulders with Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Sinatra, and Shecky Greene; in West Hollywood with Janis, The Doors, Van Morrison; and then in Berkeley — especially in Berkeley — where he had his political awakening discussing Black Power and Malcolm X with literary lights such as Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, Claude Brown, Al Young, and Black Panther Party leaders Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seal, and Angela Davis.
Gilbert Moore, in his book A Special Rage (expanded from a Life magazine assignment to cover Huey Newton's murder trial — reportage the magazine declined to publish) told how Newton, Seale, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and 16-year-old "Lil' Bobby" Hutton, acting completely within the law, had the temerity to arm themselves and begin patrolling the police."
White leaders conceded, when pressed, that, even though there was no legal basis for denying African Americans their full civil rights and liberties, society was simply not ready for an upheaval of such seismic proportions. In other words, blacks would just have to wait until whites were ready.
An alarming headline ran on page one of the April 30, 1967, San Francisco Examiner:
It's All Legal
Oakland's Black Panthers
Wear Guns, Talk Revolution
"If a Hollywood director were to choose them as stars of a movie melodrama of revolution, he would be accused of typecasting," the story began. The writer marveled that the Panther's "lithe, slender, saturnine and handsome" leader — his good looks marred by the "blunt, ugly riot gun" in his hands — was "a Negro who doesn't use that word but calls himself black."
"What man in his right mind," the reporter asked parenthetically, "would call himself black?"
Early on, the Panther Party bought their guns and funded their Free Breakfast for School Children program by selling Mao Tse-Tung's "Little Red Book" to students at Berkeley.
Huey Newton had seen a story on the news about the growing popularity of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. The reporter mentioned that China Books on 24th Street in San Francisco sold the book for 30 cents. Huey called Bobby Seale and said, "I know how we can make some money to buy some guns." They bought 60 copies and sold them for a dollar apiece to the student radicals outside Sather Gate on UC Berkeley's campus. "We popped up right in the middle of an already ongoing nationwide civil-human rights protest, anti-war movement," Seale says. "It was already going on."
Seale still delights in reenacting his sales pitch: "Quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung! Get your Red Book, one dollar. All you free speechers up here who lost Mario Savio, read the Red Book and do it like the Red Guard did it." They sold out in less than an hour, then went back to the store and bought every copy in stock, even talking the owner into giving the Panther Party an organizational discount. "We made two or three hundred dollars that first day," Seale recalls. "Went out and bought two shotguns."
The Panthers provided the students with a connection to things exotic and dangerous, if only within the confines of that small patch of real estate outside Sather Gate. The question was — and still is — which ones were wearing costumes and which were wearing disguises?
There was one thing they all had in common, though; they were all groping their way through a brave new wide-open and uncharted world that neither side's parents would have cared to imagine. And here's one more thing the Panthers had in common with the students who bought their copies of Mao's book: none of them had read it. "We must've sold the durned thing for two or three months," Seal said with a laugh, "before we decided to open the thing up and actually read the Little Red
by David and Joe Henry, November 13, 2013 10:00 AM
"Will it play in Peoria?" was more than an alliterative showbiz catchphrase. Richard Pryor's hometown was the logistical stopover for vaudeville troupes and itinerant performers traveling between bookings in Chicago and St. Louis. As such, Peoria had more than its share of theatres for a town with a population of less than 80,000 people when his future grandmother and her fellow Louisianan migrants settled there after the first World War.
As silent movies became the rage, vaudeville performers could not help but notice that most of the new theatres were being built without stages, only screens. Then radio came along and killed vaudeville completely.
With the advent of radio, people could hear their favorite stars without even leaving the house. Milton Berle and Jack Benny entertained far more people in a single broadcast than they could have in a lifetime out on the road. Those who made the leap to radio found themselves suddenly flush with cash — and frantic to come up with new material every week (in some cases, every weeknight) while a seasoned vaudevillian could make a career off of one well-honed routine.
Such was the case with Clinton "Dusty" Fletcher (1897-1954) who thrived for more than 20 years performing a solo skit called "Open the Door, Richard." The premise: Fletcher's character returns to his rooming house late at night without his key. He pounds on the door and shouts for his roommate Richard to open the door. The audience never sees or hears Richard. He may not even be in there.
Jazz saxophonist Jack McVea had seen Fletcher, as an opening act in the early 1940s, perform the bit hundreds of times from his perch in Lionel Hampton's big band. On a rainy afternoon in Portland, Oregon, McVea set a simplified version of the skit to music. When he recorded the song with his own band in October of 1946, it went through the roof.
The song's refrain began cropping up in routines by Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Jimmy Durante, in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and ads for everything from ale to perfume. Its popularity made life miserable for anyone named Richard.
Time magazine reported that radio comedians "had only to mention the word Richard on the air to put their studio audiences in stitches." The phrase later became part of the early civil rights movement; for example, headlining an editorial in the Los Angeles Sentinel calling for black representation in that city's government. In Georgia, college students marched to the state capitol demanding the resignation of segregationist governor Herman Talmadge with banners that read "Open the Door, Herman."
With the song's success, Dusty Fletcher emerged from semi-retirement to claim authorship, claiming he had written the skit after seeing a drunk thrown out of a railroad station bar in South Carolina. The ejected patron, Fletcher recalled, stood out in the street and yelled for the bartender to let him back in.
Next, John "Spider Bruce" Mason (1895–1952) came forward claiming Fletcher stole the routine from him in the early 1920s. Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham (1904–1981) had made "Richard" part of his act in the 1920s and continued to perform it up through the 1960s. Markham claimed no authorship but offered up testimony that his mentor, producer and writer Bob Russell, had written the bit as early as 1919 for Mason to perform in a show called "Mr. Rareback."
When the legal dust settled, the sheet music credited the lyrics to both Fletcher and Mason (although it's virtually certain that neither penned the original) and the music to McVea and one Don Howell — a fictitious name inserted to garner a share of royalties for the publisher.
Within months of McVea's record, at least 18 discs were released by the likes of Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, Walter Brown with the Tiny Grimes Sextet, Dick Haymes, the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford, Burl Ives, and Bing Crosby. Both Count Basie and nightclub trio The Three Flames had scored number one hits with the song. There was even a Yiddish version by a quartet known as The Yokels.
But, at the end of the day, the verdict must be that "Richard" belongs to Dusty Fletcher. All other renditions were mere novelty numbers, whereas Fletcher honed it to a work of art that rivals Richard Pryor's "Wino and Junkie" act and, at times, comes close to treading on Samuel Beckett's sacred ground. Although Fletcher recorded a slightly expanded version to McVea's medley in 1947, it's his stage performance that stands out, incorporating pantomime, pratfalls, and an acrobatic balancing act atop a freestanding ladder. Happily, it was captured twice on film, as a 10-minute short directed by William Forest Crouch and as a vignette in the Cab Calloway movie Hi-Dee-Ho.
Critic Jake Austen noted that Fletcher's work — like Richard Pryor's — dealt with "fairly horrifying subjects: abject poverty, extreme alcoholism, spousal beating, homicide, and other rib tickers." Unlike Mason or Markham, Fletcher portrayed the character as a drunk who mutters to himself in between shouts up to his unresponsive roommate. In each segment of the routine he peels back layer upon layer of a complicated man gamely soldiering on with his threadbare existence in a harsh and uncaring
by David and Joe Henry, November 12, 2013 10:00 AM
When we spoke with comedian David Brenner, the first thing he asked was, "Did you ever see Pryor in person?"
Told that we'd never had the chance, he groaned as if mortally wounded. "Oh, my God! You missed it, then. There was no one — no one — who could do onstage what Richie Pryor did."
Standing alone on a bare stage, Richard Pryor knew as much about human fear and frailty as reckless desire; could see into the dark recesses of the heart as clearly and cunningly as Shakespeare or Cervantes. Up there in the spotlight he was, in the words of Henry James, "one of those on whom nothing is lost."
Say what you will about Richard Pryor's failings as a father, husband, costar, or business partner (offstage, he couldn't balance a checkbook), he lived his life immersed in the moment. Had he cared one whit about his legacy or posterity, we would still be buying up box sets of lost nightclub performances and concert films, just as we do Miles Davis's Complete Sessions and Bob Dylan's Bootleg packages. It maddens us to imagine all the unrecorded, never repeated performances Richard delivered during the flowering of his genius, lost now but for a few firsthand recollections.
We have a sketchy account from sociologist and jazz enthusiast Joan Thornell of Richard's portraying of Richard Nixon as the devil at Washington, D.C.'s Cellar Door. "The lights went red, and he got into it as an actor would get into a role," she says. "He out-Laurenced Olivier." Thornell's companion that night was a psychiatrist friend who declined an invitation to meet Richard after the show saying, "That man is so disturbed that he frightens me. I fear for him. I fear for his safety. He doesn't have any personal defenses."
We have the testimony of Franklyn Ajaye who went to the Comedy Store every night and watched in amazement as Richard gave birth to his most enduring and recognizable character, Mudbone, over the course of a single week in the winter of 1975. "That first night," Ajaye recalls, "Mudbone was a nameless old man who spoke only a line or two. But Richard would bring the character out again every night and work on it, building on what he'd done the night before."
And again, we have David Brenner who witnessed an inspired set at the New York Improv when Richard, a one-man ensemble, portrayed not only a nine-year-old boy stoned out of his mind threatening to jump off the roof of a tenement building, but the crowd that gathered below.
"There was the white priest and the black minister," Brenner recalls, "and the white cops and the gang members and the people screaming for him to jump... I think he even put the mayor in there somewhere. And of course Richie played all those parts, plus the nine-year-old kid. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen or heard in my life... The routine went on for 15, 20 minutes. And then he jumped.
"Do you hear what I'm saying to you? He jumped."
Richard stepped up to the edge of the 18-inch riser that was the Improv stage and hopped off, landing hard with both feet on the floor. And the kid was dead. Simple as that.
Richard walked out through the room weaving his way between the tables to dead silence. "To this day," says Brenner, "it's the most devastating thing I've ever seen a comedian do." He took an audience that had been wiping away tears of laughter and made them sob real tears of grief
by David and Joe Henry, November 11, 2013 10:31 AM
"So, are you all through writing about Richard now?"
The question was put to us by Jess Van Nostrand at The Project Room in Seattle during the first week of our book tour. We'd explained to her that Furious Cool rose from the ashes of a screenplay we had begun writing in 2001 at the behest of Richard Pryor and his fifth and seventh wife Jennifer.
Are we finished with Richard Pryor? We are not. Like an insect bite, the more we scratch it, the worse it gets.
And like the newsreel producer Thompson (we never know his first name, barely see his face) in Citizen Kane who, having turned in what he believes is a finished product, we are compelled to set forth afresh in search of a closely guarded bit of ephemera that — who knows? — might well make sense of the whole puzzle.
Richard Pryor's Rosebud is the 1969 movie he and his new bride Shelley Bonus financed with the $30,000 cash given them by her parents as a wedding gift. Variously titled Bon Appétit or The Trial, the film is now known — to the extent it is known at all — as Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales. It would be, they were convinced, a movie that would shake up the world and end racism once and for all. At that time and in that place, it was possible to believe that movies and songs could be calibrated to do such things. (See, for example, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie; hear Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction.")
Richard permitted no one else to read the spiral-bound handwritten script he carried with him during the shoot. The consensus recollection of those involved is that it told the story of a white man abducted by a group of Black Panther–like militants and placed on trial before an all-black jury and judge for either a) the rape of a black woman, or b) the collective crimes of white America against people of color. As far as we can determine, only two living people have seen this movie: the film's codirector, cinematographer, and editor Penelope Spheeris (best known now for The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, Wayne's World, The Beverly Hillbillies, et al) and Bill Cosby.
Ms. Spheeris, then a 22-year-old UCLA film student, spent a year and a half first shooting and then editing the film on a Movieola installed in the den of Richard and Shelley's Hancock Park house. Post-production came crashing to a halt on Monday, December 22, 1969, when Richard, in a rage, grabbed armloads of edited film from the movie bin and tore it to shreds with his bare hands, then fled the house in his VW Squareback with Shelley clinging naked for dear life like a Lady Godiva hood ornament down Wilshire Blvd.
Although Ms. Spheeris painstakingly reassembled the crumpled footage, splicing together some pieces that were only a few frames — or partial frames — in length, two reels of dallies — raw footage with no audio — are all that are known to survive, although Penelope Spheeris has reason to believe her "final" edit (with a running time of approximately 50 minutes) still exists.
Our best hope is that — as some hope might be the case with Orson Welles's cut of The Magnificent Ambersons — it is gathering dust, uncataloged, in an attic, an office drawer, or on a storage shelf somewhere, waiting for someone to come along with the wit to recognize what it might be. We'll keep you