“A Pryor Love”

February 15, 2006

September 13, 1999 I wish my associations with Richard Pryor went further back. Of course he was a big star by the time I started paying attention, although his prime was just ending. I remember him for ordinary movies like Silver Streak, Superman III, Brewster’s Millions, The Toy, Hear No Evil, See No Evil. Some are funny, some not. But his monumental standup document Live in Concert is for me the main evidence of greatness. His “job interview” sketch with Chevy Chase in the first season of SNL is up there too.

I think I sensed that Pryor was an unusual movie star even back when I was a kid, he seemed willing to be weak onscreen, he was scrawny and goofy and brought none of the pomp of a “real” movie star. He was like a little sliver of reality trapped in these plastic worlds, which I appreciated in some vague way. Even his line readings were more Mingus than Nat King Cole. Whatever that means.

These thoughts are prompted by … our first reader submission! Manu from California writes:

Just before he passed away, I read a profile of Richard Pryor from the CNY, and was astounded by it. It was written by Hilton Als, and published in the September 13, 1999 issue. Anyway, it was much better than any obit I read after his death, really capturing the tragedies of his life and his impact.

Manu is certainly right about this. Als’s profile was a kind of premature obituary, really, and a lovely one at that. In the 1990s Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and thus was granted that subtle death-before-death that has also befallen Muhammad Ali. One can speak of them in the past tense; it’s a little weird. I guess it’s nice in a way; one stops projecting a career on such people. It becomes enough to hope that they’re doing OK. It’s a kind of intimacy.

As Manu notes, there are a lot of surprises tucked in the profile. I had read the piece when it came out, so a lot of it was familiar to me, but how he spent the year 1959 surprised me all over again.

When I was finished with the article, I immediately called up my library’s card catalog and reserved some of Pryor’s old albums. I have some catching up to do.

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