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Author Archive: "David and Joe Henry"

Why Richard Pryor? Why Us?

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 ...

Richard Pryor among the Panthers

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 ...

Open the Door, Richard

"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 ...

No One Could Do Onstage What Pryor Did

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 ...

Citizen Pryor

"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 ...

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