Some time in 1979, shortly after I had done The Big Fix for Universal, the studio called to ask if I would like to write a movie for Richard Pryor. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Pryor was at the top of his game then, acknowledged by many to be possibly the greatest standup comic of all time. Not only that, he was a cultural icon of extraordinary proportions, the very voice of black America, “Daddy Rich.” What more could a Jewish white boy who grew up on Miles Davis want than to work with this man?
When I first went out to Pryor’s spread in Northridge with Thom Mount and Sean Daniel, the “baby moguls” then running Universal, Richard was dead drunk. It was a harbinger of things to come, but I never blamed Richard for his legendary substance abuse problems. He was, as the cliché goes, his own worst enemy. His famously turning himself into a human torch while freebasing cocaine is proof enough of that.
When I actually started to work with Richard, I would drive afternoons out to that Northridge place – a sprawling Spanish estate with its own boxing ring and Shetland pony that wandered wild around the grounds – where I would be greeted by his housekeeper. “Would you like some quiche?” she would say, ushering me into the kitchen. “Mr. Pryor’s asleep.” It didn’t take me long to figure out that was a euphemism for “wired to the ceiling” on coke. After a while, sometimes hours, I would be ushered up to his office and we would talk about the script.
The project we were working on was then called “Family Dream” – a story idea by Pryor about an ex-con who is forced by his parole officer to drive a dozen orphans from Boston to Washington State on an old bus so they could attend a new school. With them on the trip was the children’s strict teacher (always to be played by Cicely Tyson, in Pryor’s view). Naturally the teacher and the ex-con are at loggerheads at the beginning, but ultimately brought together by their adventures with the kids – “African Queen on a bus,” as Universal exec Verna Fields described it. (The studio marketing department subsequently changed the title to Bustin’ Loose, probably to take the “family” onus off a Richard Pryor movie.)
After a few weeks of these meetings, Richard, perhaps because I wasn’t judgmental, began to trust me. Despite intermittent bravura, part of him was embarrassed by his drug habits, by the daily visits of his dealer, known as “The Rev,” in a brand new Rolls I assumed had essentially been paid for by Pryor. In actuality, Richard was one of the sweetest people I have ever met, always empathic and extremely generous. I once sat in his office as he gave hundreds of thousands to a hospital in South Central Los Angeles on the strength of a phone call, as long as they promised not to mention his name. And while the drug problem undoubtedly made it difficult, he was quite loving toward his kids, several of whom I came to know, especially his daughter Rain, who years later launched a standup career of her own.
On a couple of occasions, I drove up with Richard to an orphanage in the San Gabriel Mountains for research for “Family Dream.” This was an odd event for several reasons. The idea that Pryor would have to do research about children from disadvantaged backgrounds was ludicrous. His father had been a pimp and his mother a prostitute. But he wanted to go to be with the kids himself – and maybe to humor his middle class white boy screenwriter. It was on those jaunts I came to experience up close what Richard meant to the African-American community. When black people saw us pulling up at a stoplight in his red Mercedes convertible, it was as if Jesus Christ himself had just come up beside them. “Daddy Rich! Daddy Rich!” they would shout through tears of excitement. It was unlike anything I have seen before or since with any movie star or even rock singer. I would feel awkward, but I knew that it was Richard’s remarkable humanity they were reacting to, his ability to express a people’s pain without rancor or anger, with a forgiving grace that finally defused all rage in laughter and put everything on a different, even strangely color-blind, level.
I also spent time with Richard on the road when he did his incredible standup. At a certain point, we were getting along so well Pryor got the idea I should direct “Family Dream” as well as write it. This irritated the studio that wanted to pick the director and not long thereafter I was fired from the project with nary a word from Richard. (He had a tendency toward washing his hands of the power struggles around movies, which may account, in part, for why his standup is so much better than his films.) But a couple of months later I was hired as writer once again. Then I was fired a second time when Cicely Tyson complained I gave all the funny lines to Richard. (Who wouldn’t have?) The movie was then rewritten again and made with a first-time director named Oz Scott who had directed For Colored Girls on Broadway. I heard second-hand that Richard chewed him up on the set. The film was a botch. Scott was fired and Michael Schulz, who directed Richard in Car Wash, brought on. Schulz read my first draft and hired me a third time on the film. I worked with Michael on a new draft and two-thirds of the movie was shot all over again. By this time Richard, too embarrassed or too worn out from his freebase-burning episode, which occurred in the midst of all this, wasn’t speaking to me.
Still, the film got completed. When it came out, it was, with Alan Alda’s Four Seasons, one of Universal’s two biggest box office hits of 1981. It also won the first Image Award of the NAACP and the organization’s screenwriting prize. (I never liked the finished version of Bustin’ Loose much. Like most screenwriters, I preferred my early drafts.)
After that, I only ran into Richard a couple of times at parties, before he fell ill and essentially became a recluse. One of my regrets is that I never got to discuss with him the ins and outs of our experience. But he had other things on his mind, like multiple sclerosis.
Rest in peace.
(Cross-posted at Pajamas Media)