Richard Pryor was a bad-ass motherfucker who could handle his shit onstage or on screen like a champ. But unfortunately for him and those around him, he was a drug-addled shit-storm in real life.
That, in the street-smart terms Pryor famously used, is the fascinating story Scott Saul tells in his revelatory new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor. Saul makes a strong case that, despite Pryor's chaotic personal life, his talent was so large and his artistry so revolutionary that nearly every comic slinging autobiographical bits about sex and race today owes him a huge debt.
It's been almost 10 years since Pryor died at age 65, so it's easy to forget how influential and self-destructive he was. But anyone who has forgotten need only read this definitive biography to be reminded of those traits — and what a journey he made from his hardscrabble youth in Peoria, Illinois, to the heights of Hollywood.
In painful detail, Saul recounts how Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother, Gertrude, worked as a prostitute. His father, LeRoy “Buck Carter” Pryor, was a former boxer and a pimp who often beat him. After Pryor's alcoholic mother abandoned him when he was 10, his grandmother, Marie Carter, took over. Although Pryor grew to love her, she was a violent woman who beat him whenever he acted strange — and he acted strange a lot.
Saul, a historian who teaches English at UC Berkeley, backs up this horrific tale with quotes and anecdotes from more than 80 of Pryor's childhood friends and family members. He spent five years researching the book, with frequent trips to Peoria, and another three years writing it.
The fruits of all that labor are shared on a companion website, becomingrichardpryor.com, which features more than 200 documents from Pryor's formative years, including report cards, family photos and the records of his parents' bitter divorce.
Saul's narrative voice is a smooth blend of the meticulous academic and the savvy pop culturist, giving his story the texture and gravitas that previous Pryor biographies lacked. He takes the reader beneath the rampant profanity and shows us the subtle profundity of Pryor's riotous act.
“I was stunned that there wasn't a serious, comprehensive biography of such an important American cultural figure,” Saul says.
The trauma of being surrounded by moans and squeaking bedsprings was multiplied after a well-documented incident at age 7, in which a neighborhood bully cornered Pryor and forced him to perform oral sex. And things were little better in school, where Pryor usually was a rare black face in a sea of white. He tried to compensate for his isolation by playing the class clown. He was usually out of control, which led to his first lucky break: a sixth-grade teacher who was able to calm him down in return for giving him 10 minutes every Friday afternoon to stand up and entertain the class while channeling the manic slapstick of his first comic hero, Sid Caesar.
His next lucky break was meeting theater teacher Juliette Whittaker, who helped to transform him from a lost kid to someone who knew he could make people laugh.
Of course, there were many steps between his primitive performances in the mid-1950s and his eventual stardom in the mid-'70s. First he was expelled from school at age 14. Then he got a taste of showbiz playing drums at a nightclub. He joined the army in 1958 but spent most of the next two years in a stockade. In the early '60s, he moved to New York City and began performing at Greenwich Village clubs next to the likes of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.
His next role model was Bill Cosby, and Pryor's then-derivative, mainstream material soon got him on TV with Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. That led him to Vegas and more noncontroversial material. But one night he freaked out onstage, exclaimed “What the fuck am I doing here?” and walked off. Soon he began working profanity into his act.
His third album, 1974's That Nigger's Crazy, was his breakthrough. The followup, Bicentennial Nigger, was equally successful, and soon Pryor was a triple threat: a star of records, TV and films.
While his performances could be electrifying, there were no holds barred. In 1977 he gave a legendary performance at the Hollywood Bowl during a benefit concert for gay rights. Known as a compulsive womanizer, he shocked the largely gay crowd: “I came here for human rights,” he said, “and I found out what it was really about was not getting caught with a dick in your mouth. … I sucked one dick. Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harper's dick. It was beautiful. But I had to leave it alone.”
He finished his 10-minute stint by going on the attack: “When the niggers were burning down Watts, you motherfuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn't give a shit about it.” He mooned the crowd, told them to “kiss my happy, rich black ass,” and walked off.
The bizarre performance was part of a pattern that stretched all the way back to Peoria. “His art was a never-ending struggle to understand how his childhood had shaped him,” Saul says. “He was willing to go into the darkest places where you wouldn't think comedy would reside.”