"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 posted.