Pryor wrestled with setbacks and genius

Appreciation

December 12, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Richard Pryor forged in his soul the uncreated comic conscience of his race -- and proceeded to rock, rumble and pratfall all over it.

He was a performing genius. A virtuoso of profanity, he fearlessly explored that jazzy realm where even curse words fail. Burblings of desire or yelps of pain or eruptions of rage took over to upsetting and uproarious effect. As elastic as Plastic Man, he boasted the balletic moves of a back-alley Baryshnikov, turning ghetto scenes into symphonies of the street. In mime and slapstick he equaled the great silent clowns. When he and Gene Wilder got hold of a decent bit in one of their hit comedies, they could create classic sequences -- like Pryor teaching Wilder how to act "black" in Silver Streak (1975).

Pryor, who died Saturday of a heart attack at 65, was foremost a protean creative force. He transformed comedy and performance art with a series of concert movies that make up the funniest fictional autobiography in American entertainment, right up there with Mark Twain or Philip Roth in literature. He began as an inspired miniaturist who, all by himself, could bring a cast of thousands onto a nightclub stage. He reached his peak when he acknowledged that he was the prime source of all these personalities.

In his late-'60s/early-'70s breakthrough years, when he was first summoning the energy, anger and bravado of the street life he'd experienced walking the wild side of Peoria, Ill., Pryor built his comedy around a diversity of characters. His rheumy winos and hipsters, his Uncle Tom lawmen and jive evangelists were all con men with a cause: survival. He celebrated their native wit and furtive cunning, and their street smarts.

Not even this rogue's gallery could encompass all that Pryor wanted to express. It was only after a series of public and personal embarrassments that he found his mother lode. NBC let his 1977 sketch-comedy series, The Richard Pryor Show, die after just four episodes. Pryor insulted the audience at a gay-rights fundraiser for "cruising" Hollywood Boulevard while blacks were rioting in Watts. He made headlines on New Year's Day 1978 for shooting up his wife's car with his .357 Magnum.

But then, in December of 1978, in Long Beach, Calif., he appeared before the cameras for a dirt-cheap, blessedly undiluted movie, Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Before this, Pryor's monologues had been mood mosaics, with characters springing out of nowhere like so many rampant ids and guilty consciences. But from the start of this concert, Pryor spoke as himself: "I'm thankful to see so many people showed after how I [messed up] this year." Before the evening was through, he told his audience about his father and his grandmother, his aunts and his uncles, his childhood and his own kids. His performance was a kinetic portrait, like those 3-D stills that change form or position when you look at them from different angles. He took experiences as euphoric or uproarious as sex and as tragic as a near-fatal heart attack and transmuted them into hyperbolic comedy like a stoned alchemist.

Without sentimentality, he portrayed the blunt fortitude of his elders and his own generation's restlessness and moody blues. His potent, menacing father was the antihero of much of his show, urging a preacher at a funeral to "get on with the dirt part, it's cold out here." But whites were even more inexplicable to him than his dad. In Pryor's view, blacks bawled at funerals while whites just sniffled; blacks bopped on through the forest in beat to the Call of the Wild while whites stumbled into snakes as if waiting for Mother Nature to spank them. Whites -- and pretentious black characters, too -- stood in for everyone who'd been civilized beyond their instincts.

After Live in Concert, Pryor wandered into more mediocre features and a personal morass that culminated in the scorching that nearly killed him while he was freebasing -- boiling cocaine in ether and then smoking it. But a mere year and a half later, on Dec. 9 and 10, 1981, he went back onstage and in front of two sold-out audiences at the Hollywood Palladium performed the material that hit the screen as Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip.

I was there both nights. The first night, he walked off stage after 40 minutes. He apologized despite applause for what he'd already achieved; his standards were higher than his fans' that night. The next night, Pryor turned his panic over appearing live into an energizer. It produced two comic masterpieces of fear, based on memories of working at a Mafia nightclub and filming Stir Crazy (1980) at the Arizona State Penitentiary.

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