Tonight, BAMcinématek kicks off A Pryor Engagement, a two-week, 18-film tribute to the film work of the late, great comic genius Richard Pryor. The program is expansive, including his three sublime concert films, two of his pairings with Gene Wilder, his astonishing dramatic turns in Blue Collar and Lady Sings the Blues, and oddities like Some Call It Loving and Dynamite Chicken. All are presented in glorious 35mm, and all are worth seeing. But my favorite Richard Pryor movie (if you can call it that) is not part of the program; it’s not available on 35mm, or on DVD, and it runs only 13 minutes.
The most riveting footage ever captured of the comedian was shot on the set of Stir Crazy, his biggest box-office hit. But it was nothing that made into that film, a formulaic buddy movie; indeed, it is doubtful that the film was seen anywhere except on the Internet, all these years later. It is easy to find — numerous websites have uploaded it, and it has over a million and a half views on YouTube. An abbreviated audio version appeared on the 2003 compilation CD Celebrities at Their Worst. The video quality is rough, with the look of a VHS copy that is a couple of generations removed from the original master and worse for the wear.
As best as I can gather, Richard sat with the cheery television reporter that morning in the spring of 1980 for an interview, but an audio issue required a re-shoot at the end of the company’s lunch break. One does not have to be a police detective or drug counselor to deduce that, over the course of that lunch, Richard chose to enjoy some cocaine.
This was not a rare occurrence on the set of Stir Crazy. Rather than bunking at the company’s luxury hotel, Pryor isolated himself in a ramshackle home in the hills near the film’s Tucson, Arizona locations and freebased. He showed up hours late for work, when he showed up at all. He bought his coke from a motorcycle gang that, unbeknownst to him, was being monitored by state and federal agents. He snuck drugs into the Arizona State Penitentiary, where they were filming, and passed them to the prisoners inside whom he’d befriended.
So Richard was coked to the gills when the local reporter (and, we discover during the clip, high school teacher) attempted to sit him down in the broiling Arizona sun and recreate the apparently lucid morning interview. The clip that survives is the entirety of that conversation, raw and uncut; one cannot imagine that it ever aired in any form, as it is laced with nearly non-stop profanity and graphic sexual imagery.
Among the highlights:
- On the pleasures of working with Wilder: “Gene Wilder attracts pussy… and some pretty white boys!”
- Promoting the in-production film: “What do you wanna know about this movie? IT SUCKS.”
- On censorship: “Fuck censorship and his momma.”
- On the Iran hostage crisis: “They shoulda hired the Israelis, cause they know how to treat a Muslim.”
- Drugs: “I didn’t get caught yesterday buying seven pounds of cocaine in front of eight policeman. They couldn’t catch me. I’m a lucky, black, greasy motherfucker.”
- Priorities: “I got money, I don’t give a fuck about nothing.”
- Happiness: “I ain’t no good, I ain’t tryin’ to be no good, I’m happy. I just sucked three young white girls’ pussies.”
- Himself: “I ain’t no good. Listen, America, I love y’all, y’all did the best you could, but you can’t whip us. Because we’re the best that ever did it, ’cause we can take all kinda shit. I’m an exception, because I can’t take it. I ain’t shit.”