A major influence on such contemporary comedians as Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Eddie Murphy, and countless others, the wild and wired Pryor emerged from the Midwestern Chitlin’ Circuit, became a successful mainstream nightclub comic in the 60s, and went on to become a cultural phenomenon, ushering stories and voices from the black underclass into the public eye. In addition to releasing a steady string of epochal, smash-hit comedy albums, Pryor translated his incredible audience rapport into movie stardom, appearing in no less than 40 films.
A Pryor Engagement starts Friday, February 8, with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979—Feb 8), which Pauline Kael called “probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films” and is easily one of the most influential stand-up films of all time. Pryor sneak attacks the stage at Long Beach’s Terrace Theater while the audience is still filing in and doesn’t take his foot off the gas, soaking through with sweat as he impersonates the whole of the great outdoors, delivers a brilliant monologue on the sweet science of boxing, and gets confessional about doing coke at grandma’s dining room table. Also screening Friday is the cult classic, ensemble comedy Car Wash (1976—Feb 8), which stars Pryor as Daddy Rich, an evangelist who preaches the power of money and rides a gold-plated limousine, and George Carlin, as a taxi driver in pursuit of the prostit ute who swindled him.
As a special treat, Monday through Thursday screenings will be single-admission double features, including an “On the Road” double feature (The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and Bustin’ Loose), a “Pryor-Wilder” double feature (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy), a “Pryor in Over his Head” double feature (Which Way is Up? and Brewster’s Millions), a “Cavalcade of Stars” double feature (Lady Sings the Blues and Dynamite Chicken), a “pre-Valentine’s Day twisted love” double feature (Lost Highway and Some Call it Loving), and finally, a “Strictly for Pryor-maniacs” double feature (Richard Pryor… Here and Now and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling). For double feature schedule, download the full press release at the link below.
Richard Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois, to a middle-class family in the business of bars and brothels, and it was this early exposure to the red-light side of American life that would profoundly inform his style of hypocrisy-dashing comedy. After a stint in the army cut short by an act of film criticism—Pryor stabbed a white soldier who’d been guffawing at Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life—Pryor decided on his return to civilian life to try the nightclub circuit. The young comedian cut his teeth in the Chitlin’ Circuit, a select group of venues across the country that were considered safe for African-American entertainers, then worked his way into New York City’s Greenwich Village scene. It was there that he had early success by imitating the crossover appeal of Bill Cosby’s innocuous, middle-class comedy. While steadily doing stand-up g igs and releasing a string of comedy albums beginning in 1968 (and one-upping himself with each new release), Pryor embarked on a career in movies. His unique path led him through counterculture oddities, along the fringes of Blaxploitation, through the industry self-empowerment of Motown Productions and Sidney Poitier’s nascent filmmaking career, and into genuine superstardom and, finally, auteurdom.
Early appearances in counterculture-oriented fare like Dynamite Chicken (1971—Feb 11) were followed by Pryor’s first hefty dramatic role, as Piano Man in Motown’s Lady Sings the Blues (1972—Feb 11), opposite Diana Ross’ Billie Holiday. Pryor modeled the performance on a piano player from a Peoria dive called Collins’ Corner, and that authenticity was appreciated. Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, Kael wrote that Pryor “has such audience rapport that a shot of him in Los Angeles in fancy clothes and a beret is enough to bring down the house.”
While appearing in movies that touched on the black criminal underclass—either seriously, as in The Mack, or in burlesque, as in Sidney Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night (1974—Feb 9)—the cagey, vulnerable Pryor never had any truck with the superhero cops and robbers of Blaxploitation. In 1974, he kicked off a streak of number-one comedy records, accompanied by a celebrated stand at Los Angeles’ Comedy Store and a profile-raising appearance on Saturday Night Live. And while studio suits anxious over Pryor’s flamboyant drug use and growing addiction kept him fr om being cast in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, which Pryor had helped write, he continued to add to his resume with appearances in genre triumphs like the sunny Negro League fable The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976—Feb 19) and Silver Streak (1976—Feb 12), his first palpable box-office hit and the first of four films in which he teamed up with Gene Wilder.
With newfound clout, Pryor signed on for a four-episode run of The Richard Pryor Show on NBC, and took on films that examined his raised social consciousness onto the screen, including Which Way is Up? (1977—presented on Feb 20 by journalist and filmmaker Nelson George), which transposed Lina Wertmüller’s 1972 Italian farce The Seduction of Mimi to contemporary California, and Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, Blue Collar, (1978—F eb 10), in which Pryor gives perhaps his finest dramatic performance as a Detroit line worker who decides to knock over the union, with Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. The set was famously contentious, but the results undeniable: The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called Pryor’s part “a role that makes use of the wit and fury that distinguishes his straight comedy routines.”
Certified stardom hushed up Hollywood front office reservations, and even Pryor’s first heart attack, at age 37, and a much-publicized 1978 New Year’s Eve party which ended with Pryor shooting up his Mercedes with a .357 Magnum—both attributable to a legendary cocaine habit—couldn’t stop his career trajectory. After he vaulted to a new level with Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Pryor scored his biggest hit to date with the Poitier-directed Stir Crazy (1980—Feb 12), which threw Wilder and Pryor into the slammer. More of the same seemed im minent with Bustin’ Loose (1981—Feb 19), an off-color kids’ movie adapted from a story by Pryor, were it not for the fact that Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine before the release of either film. He later described it as a suicide attempt.
“In less than a year I’d gone from my artistic peak to personal pits,” Pryor wrote of his freebasing period. But, like a phoenix rising from the flames, Pryor survived to relive his addiction and his near-death experience in his comeback concert film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982—Feb 9), and delved still deeper into the darkness in Richard Pryor… Here and Now (1983—Feb 21), which he directed himself. It seemed like nothing could stop the chastened, sporadically sober Pryor, who was lining up work on mainstream blockbuster fare like Brewster’s Millions (1985—Feb 20), as well as learning to balance this work with passion projects like Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986—presented on Feb 21 by The New Yorker s Hilton Als), a loosely autobiographical and his fiction directorial debut.
Then, finally, the onset of multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed in 1986, did what heart attacks, firearms, rock cocaine, and innumerable divorces could not: slow Pryor down. He can be seen as one of the melancholy ghosts of Hollywood in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997—Feb 13), wheelchair-bound, as he was for the last decade of his life. If he was diminished, Pryor’s rapport with his public never ceased, and the outpouring of affection that followed his death in 2005 was not the response to the death of a comic, but to the loss of some kind of national treasure.