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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 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.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.

÷ ÷ ÷

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.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the... Used Hardcover $9.95

David and Joe Henry is the author of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

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