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.”
It has become rather trite to refer to the actions of an addict as a “cry for help,” but if there ever were one, it is the Tucson tape. He wipes sweat from his face, rubs his nose, smokes nervously. His actions are erratic — at one point he graphically mimes masturbation, apropos of nothing; later, out of nowhere, he asks the unfortunate interviewer, “Can I play with your dick?” When the reporter begins a question about “young comedians,” Pryor immediately changes the subject to “young girls” and then challenges him thus: “Say you don’t like young girls on television.” Occasionally he goes off on a talking jag that could be described as stream of consciousness, were it not for the question of the speaker’s actual consciousness; to wit: “I ain’t no good, I ain’t tryin’ to be no good, I don’t care what you all think, because you always told me my mother was illegal, my father was illegal, my uncle was illegal — he just had a heart attack two days ago, he’s gonna live through that. I have had a heart attack, I’m gonna live through that. Here I am, they’re paying me a million and a half dollars to do this movie. FUCK YOU. I didn’t earn it! I don’t know how much a million is! You ever counted a million? You have to have an accountant. A Jew!”
At times, particularly early in his career (on albums like Insane, in the film Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin’), you can see and hear Richard testing his audience — pushing his boundaries, defining the line between entertainment and confession that he would later eradicate. But that’s not what he’s doing here; he isn’t testing his audience, he’s testing this one man, seeing how far he can push him before the poor schmuck just gives up, and for no real reason other than because he can. Richard pushes back at the reporter’s offhand comment about Steve Martin (“Don’t knock Steve Martin to try to build me up”). When the guy tries to steer the conversation back after a particularly odd tangent, Richard calls him on it (“You don’t wanna hear that”), and then belittles the question he poses (in a mock-serious voice, he intones, “This is the intellectual shit”). Most tellingly, when the reporter tries to flatter him by predicting that someday soon, Pryor would write, direct, and star in his own vehicle — which, incidentally, he did — Richard looks the man square in the eye and informs him, somewhat testily, “Richard Pryor would never do anything y’all want.”
The dynamic between the two men is exhausting and inexplicable; you can’t help but sympathize with the poor guy, who was just trying to get his interview, only to see it conscientiously sabotaged by its subject. And why? One can only guess — but the best guess is that the interview was about the only thing Pryor could consciously control at that particular moment. In later years, he spoke of being in thrall to freebasing during this period, how that pipe would whisper to him, comfortingly and somewhat seductively, and that it would decide what its owner was going to do, when. What we see in this 13-minute tape is a man who is clearly not in control, of either himself or his considerable gifts. He laughs a lot, but says precious little that is actually funny; many of his “jokes” are vile and mean-spirited (“Gene Wilder ain’t shit, he’s a faggot”) in a way that even his most superficially “vulgar” material never was.
And yet, you cannot take your eyes off it, because although Richard is clearly geared out of his gourd, it is almost as though we’re getting at the concentrate of his person — not his essence, exactly, because he usually diluted this hostility and danger with his considerable warmth and charisma. Here, we’re looking at a raw, pure, and unfiltered man perched precariously on the edge between sanity and madness that he walked through most of his career (the best parts, anyway). In 2006, when Mel Gibson turned an arrest for driving under the influence into an unexpected forum for his anti-Semitism, he proclaimed that in his drunken state, he had “said things that I do not believe to be true” — which set off everyone’s bullshit detector, because we all know that there is no moment when one is more likely to share one’s true feelings than when under the influence of “truth lubricants” like drugs and alcohol.
On the Tucson tape, Pryor is a rambling, incoherent mess — and also, at times, as lucid and honest as in his best moments onstage. The year before, his grandmother had died; he called her Mama, as she had been much more of a maternal presence in his life than his mother. Her death hit him hard. “I was awash in a depression which had crashed over me following Mama’s death,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography Pryor Convictions. “Nothing struck me as funny.” She comes up in the interview, unexpectedly. “They’re paying me two million dollars to do this movie, do you believe it?” he asks the reporter. “My grandmother didn’t make that all her life, and she was a better woman than you are a man.”
Later, after Richard has blown the umpteenth answer by throwing in an unairable profanity, the reporter pleads (begs, nearly), “C’mon, Rich.” Pryor isn’t deterred from his train of thought: “I’m serious! Shit, you didn’t let my grandmamma talk… Fuck all you motherfuckers, I got my money. I’m rich! I’m a rich, black, ignorant ni**er.”
At several points in the interview, he looks right into the camera — ignoring his interrogator, peering instead into the abyss, addressing an invisible audience, an audience that he was ensuring, with every “motherfucker” and “ni**er,” would never see hide nor hair of this interview. He peers deep into the lens at one point, ignoring a serious question from the man to his left. “I don’t know nothing, do you understand me?” he asks the transparent glass. “I don’t know shit. I’m lucky. I drew seven, 17 times. And my number’s up, but I kept the money.”
And with that, he literally thumbs his nose at the camera.
“All I wanna do is leave Tucson alive,” Richard says in the interview, and he did, just barely. The following June 9th, in what was originally (and strenuously) called an “accident” but which he later admitted — on film and in print — to be an attempted suicide, Richard capped off a long freebasing bender by dousing himself in cognac (or rum, the stories vary) and setting himself on fire. The burns covered more than half his body. He spent six weeks in recovery.
The public outpouring of affection and support that followed was poignant, but not terribly surprising; part of the genius of Richard, as a performer, was in the degree to which it felt as though we knew him, understood him, even as he confronted us with ideas and accusations that made us uncomfortable. That brutal, blunt candor, that sense of danger and hostility, co-existed with a palpable vulnerability. They weren’t in conflict with each other, because they were both the same thing: truth.
His earliest breakthroughs as a performer came in the mid-1960s, as a gentle, easygoing comic in the Bill Cosby mold. If a socio-political ideology could be assigned to his early persona, it would be firmly integrationist; there was little in his early work specific to the black experience. He was a jokesmith, a storyteller, and not much more. That ended in 1970, when he walked away from his lucrative career (right in the middle of a Vegas performance, no less) because he’d grown bored with his tame, uninspired material. His reinvention of his onstage persona dovetailed with a political rebirth that recast his philosophy closer to Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton than Martin Luther King.
Yet Richard, whether he intended to or not, became a symbol of the progression of civil rights in the 1970s, not because he led marches or organized rallies, but because he provided a common ground for audiences of varying races, creeds, and classes. There had been plenty of entertainers that white and black audiences could enjoy together; that was nothing new. But here was one who was aggressive, sometimes insulting, often hostile, who spoke truth (uncomfortable truth) to power — but who was unfailingly, unreasonably, unquestionably funny. Pryor laughed at us, and laughed with us, and he was so funny that we laughed at ourselves, too (and he made it okay to do so, because he was also laughing at himself).
Richard’s journey was America’s journey: the attempts at quiet integration, the political awakening, the power of that engagement and the disappointment that followed, softened and buried in money and sex and drugs, so many drugs, mountains of cocaine, until the breaking point came. In 1980, the nation burned itself to the ground figuratively, by electing Ronald Reagan; that same year, Pryor did it literally. Neither was ever quite the same, and with rare exceptions, both spent the next quarter-century playing it very, very safe.
But there is nothing safe about this clip. As in the best of his work on stage and screen, Pryor seems capable of anything: he’s shocking and vulgar and offensive and dangerous (not only to us, but to himself). He was not, as is clear here, always in control. But he was always uniquely himself.
BAMcinématek’s “A Pryor Engagement” retrospective begins tonight and runs through February 21.