Richard Pryor — comic genius who let Hollywood use him

Ishmael Reed – The San Francisco Chronicle

Monday, December 19, 2005
The Richard Pryor I knew was a wounded, sensitive, tortured and lonely
human being.
I was in my mid-20s when I first saw him perform. The setting was a
Greenwich Village night club and his performance was part of a benefit
show. It lacked the scatological and biting humor of his later concert
performances.
I would meet Pryor again in Berkeley through Cecil Brown, who had scored a
huge success with his novel, “The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger.”
He’d appeared with Bill Cosby on the Tonight Show; Alger Hiss, Jon Voigt
and Robert Altman were among the celebrities who attended his book party.
Brown had an apartment in the Berkeley Hills where show-business
celebrities mingled with Berkeley intellectuals. I was introduced to Pryor
at one of these gatherings. He was in a sort of exile, having offended a
Las Vegas audience that included members of organized crime and their
families — on Mother’s Day. Bill Cosby had to intervene so that Pryor
could leave town unharmed.
He wrote poetry and I asked to publish some, but he was shy about exposing
this gift. Though he could entertain huge audiences, he seemed afraid of
rejection. I used to visit him at his apartment on University Avenue. He’d
be watching daytime programs and talking on the phone. You’d be in his
company, but there’d be long stretches of silence.
This was also a time when many black intellectuals and writers were torn
between an anti-white brand of black nationalism and integrationism. Pryor
tried, but he made a poor black nationalist. His dim view of humanity
prevented him from siding with any group. I caught Dick Gregory in San
Francisco last year and he is still raging against The Man and adopting a
whole list of conspiracy theories. Except for one bad movie, Gregory was
never able to make the compromises necessary to become a success in
Hollywood that Pryor had to make.
After one good movie “Which Way Is Up,” co-written by Cecil Brown and Lina
Wertm¸ller, Pryor was assigned to a series of tepid, mediocre ones
because, as he said in the last conversation I had with him, he wanted to
“get over.” Like Whoopi Goldberg, he won over white audiences by creating
a list of black underclass characters. But unlike the vile, cruel and sick
portrait of the black homeless woman on the infamous police video, both
Goldberg and Pryor endowed their underclass characters with humanity.
I tried to persuade him not to go, because I’m one of those who believes
that Hollywood is no place for a black actor or writer. It’s a landscape
strewn with black casualties: Dorothy Dandridge, James Edwards and Stepin
Fetchit, to name but a few.
Fortunately, the San Francisco Black Film Festival is nurturing the
abundant film talent among young African Americans so that their
generation won’t have to suffer the demeaning roles that black actors have
had to take. In Hollywood, black male actors get to play impotent
sidekicks (as in “Collateral”), while the women are cast as prostitutes
(as in “Rent”).
I think that there came a moment when Pryor realized he’d been used, when
he told a Hollywood Bowl audience to kiss his behind. Cecil and I marked
that moment as the beginning of the end for Pryor in Hollywood. These
people don’t give you fame and millions of dollars and then allow you to
turn up your behind to them. The late August Wilson found that out.
Hollywood didn’t kill Richard Pryor, but it certainly contributed to his
demise. Remember “The Toy,” the film where he was cast as a white kid’s
“toy”? No wonder he turned to freebasing.
I suspect that if Pryor had remained in Berkeley instead of “trying to get
over,” he’d still be alive, perhaps writing poetry and performing from
time to time at the Black Rep, a venue where black playwrights and actors
can present their material, uncut.
Pryor signed a $40 million agreement with Columbia Pictures in 1983 to
begin his own Indigo Productions to produce million-dollar movies over a
five-year period. But Pryor, unlike some of the new generation of black
filmmakers who are armed with M.B.A.s, squandered the opportunity. He was
a comedian, not a business person, and as a comedian his genius arose from
his defiance of the restrictions that his packagers had placed upon him.
His career shows that unless you define yourself, others will do it for
you.
Ishmael Reed is a poet, novelist and essayist who lives in Oakland. ———————————————————————-
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle


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