(The Root) — Before there was Tracy Morgan, Dave Chappelle or Eddie Murphy, there was Richard Pryor, one of the greatest comedians to ever live. Now a new documentary about Pryor explores just how much he influenced those who came after him and how much of a toll his groundbreaking comedy took on his life.
"When Richard left us, I think he was a shell of a man, because he gave us everything he had. He never held back," Morgan told an audience during a panel discussion following a screening of Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.
The documentary, which will air on Showtime in May, is a no-holds-barred look at Pryor's life and starts with the infamous incident in which he set himself on fire and ran down the street after supposedly freebasing cocaine. (He later admitted in an interview that it was a suicide attempt.) In typical Pryor fashion, he later joked about it by waving a lit match and saying, "What's that? Richard Pryor running down the street."
Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard's widow, who married the comedian twice (he was married seven times to five different women), was a producer on the documentary and shared some of her late husband's personal-diary entries in the film. "I wanted to reveal warts and all, but I wanted to reveal more of the man as a whole picture," she told The Root.
Director Marina Zenovich said she made the film because she wanted people to know his place in entertainment history. "His legacy lives when you are exposed to him," Zenovich told The Root after the screening.
The documentary highlights key moments in Pryor's life: his early years growing up in his grandmother's brothel in Illinois, his stand-up routines, his rampant drug use and self-immolation suicide attempt, his multiple sclerosis diagnosis and his death at age 65 of a heart attack.
In his 40-plus-year career, Pryor released more than 20 comedy records, appeared in more than 40 films and was featured in a brief but groundbreaking TV show. He won five Grammys and one Emmy and hosted the Academy Awards twice, but he never received an Oscar nomination, which many consider a snub.
Pryor's breakthrough film role came in 1972 as the funny but tragic Piano Man in Lady Sings the Blues, a part that was expanded just for him. A series of movies followed, including Uptown Saturday Night, Silver Streak, Which Way Is Up? Car Wash and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, to name just a few. In 1983 Pryor took home an unprecedented $4 million for his role in Superman III.
He also became the first African American to helm his own studio-backed production company in a five-year deal with Columbia Pictures for $40 million. Then came Pryor's turn as the producer, writer, director and star of his autobiographical movie, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.
His concert movies drew critical acclaim and made big bucks. In 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert was the first instance in which a live comedy performance was recorded and released as a feature film. His comedy albums from the 1970s — including Craps, That Nigger's Crazy, Is It Something I Said? and Bicentennial Nigger — would have been enough to make him a legend.
Jennifer Lee Pryor told The Root that her husband would probably like to be remembered as much for his comedy as for his social activism. Pryor was not a civil rights leader in the traditional sense, but he enunciated the spirit of the movement. He joked about police brutality, stop and frisk and other social issues long before they were mainstream.
Pryor also used the n-word religiously. His album That Nigger's Crazy won the Grammy for best comedy album for 1974. Then, in 1979, he visited Africa for the first time and had an epiphany. Jennifer Lee Pryor, who was with him, says he looked around and did not see any "niggers," so he stopped using the word. It's a moment he shared in the 1982 comedy film and album Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.
Comedian Wyatt Cenac, who was also on the panel at the film festival, told The Root that it was an interesting dynamic that "there are comics who will say Pryor's such a big influence but don't remember that part of it and will say 'nigger' without context." He added that Pryor was such a "nuanced comedian, which is rare."
While Cenac said that Pryor influenced his comedy as a young man, Morgan also recalled being influenced as a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., listening to Pryor's routines. Now, he says, "I'm trying to bring back to the game what he took with him." Morgan and Pryor share quite a bit — both had NBC shows, raunchy comedy routines and addiction problems — but, Morgan told the audience, the difference is that "he sacrificed for me to be here."
Panel member and author Walter Mosley said to the audience, "[Pryor] saw the world in a certain way, and he loved that world in a certain way, and he acted that out … he lived in effigy for all of us."
Dave Chappelle, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel Brooks and Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney appear in the film, as do many other famous comedians who were influenced by Pryor. But the film is just as notable for who is left out. Zenovich said that Bill Cosby; Eddie Murphy, who starred with Pryor in 1989's Harlem Nights; and Pam Grier, whom Pryor dated, did not want to be interviewed for the documentary. Zenovich would not elaborate on why.
Cosby and Murphy do appear in Goldberg's documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You, which also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Of Cosby and Pryor's relationship, Jennifer Lee Pryor said, "It was a little awkward … but full of love," and of Murphy, she was quite blunt: "He's gotta f—kin' hate him on some level, because he's never gonna be Pryor."
While the 90-minute documentary may leave many of Pryor's devoted fans wanting more depth and insight into his life and comedy, Jennifer Lee Pryor saw the film as a way to keep his legacy alive while introducing him to a new generation. She also told The Root that she would like to produce another documentary.
She said that plans for a Pryor biopic, which Forest Whitaker has signed on to produce, are coming along. When the subject of who would play Richard Pryor came up during the panel discussion, Jennifer Lee Pryor nudged Morgan, who was sitting next to her onstage. But in the world that is Hollywood, that role remains a guessing game — the names of Murphy, Marlon Wayans and Mike Epps have been bandied about.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic will air on Showtime on May 31. Watch a promo for the film here.
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.