Right away, it’s obvious that press interviews aren’t one of comedian Richard Pryor’s favorite things. But he’s hip to the drill; when you’ve got a new book on the market, hyping it goes with the territory.
Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (published by Pantheon) is a memoir that takes readers from the revolutionary comic’s childhood in Peoria, Illinois, to his battle with multiple sclerosis (MS), diagnosed nine years ago. The man may be down, but he’s far from out. “This is my life,” writes the guy many call the greatest stand-up in show biz. “I know the truth. If you aren’t here you’re nowhere. So I go on because it ain’t over. Only stranger.”
And while he may not love interviews, that doesn’t stop him from being funny as he deftly fields a series of intimate questions. In his career, Pryor’s made 25 comedy albums, about 40 films and logged in countless brilliant stand-up performances.
Now he is sitting in a battery-powered scooter at a small desk in his San Fernando Valley living room. At his left, a big bulletin board nails down his schedule for the week. Three of the days call for sessions with Maria, his physical therapist. Lately, he’s been making major progress: he’s able to get around with a walker and sometimes walks on his own with a little help. Pryor, 54, mostly owes this improved state of health to his fourth ex-wife, Jennifer Lee, whom he hired a year ago to get his life in shape. Their marriage was a nightmare of violence in which a drugged-out Pryor routinely beat Lee. These days, she says all is forgiven, and Pryor depends on her to run things. Before coming on board this time around, Lee was in New York lecturing on dysfunctional relationships.
Pryor’s home is tastefully decorated in light tones and accented by two enormous swordfish mounted in the living room and above Pryor’s bed. But the comedian will soon be moving to a new house complete with Jacuzzi, allowing him to begin a program of water therapy. His treatment involves a low-fat diet with lots of vegetables, and he sips some twenty glasses of water daily to prevent atrophy of the throat muscles, thus making swallowing easier. For respiratory congestion, he drinks herbal tea.
All this heath care is in stark contrast to Pryor’s previous lifestyle, which ran to extreme drug and alcohol use and ultimately, setting himself on fire one terrible day. Father of six and now a granddad, he calls his early years, “like walking on a minefield.” His grandmother was “controlling,” and his mother “scary.” Now that they are gone, Pryor, once fueled by anger, says he’s finally found peace.
ABILITY talked with the comedian one rainy afternoon. Lee was preparing to leave for a business meeting, but stopped first to chat for a while.
Jane Rusoff: What prompted you to write the book?
Richard Pryor: I needed money.
Jennifer Lee: He also wanted to set the record straight.
RP: Oh, yeah.
JL: Because there were like nine books out on Richard.
RP: And I talked to none of the people who wrote them.
JR: You wanted to set the record straight about your personal life?
RP: Yeah. About s— in my life they said, which wasn’t true.
JR: For example?
RP: Jenny can help here. Help! Jenny! For example?
JL: Some of the women stuff probably. Richard took responsibility for the physical abuse, which I think is important.
JR: Did you deny it in the past?
JL: And people still had the perception from Pryor’s film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, that the fire was an accident.
JR: You consciously…
RP: Set myself on fire.
JR: And wanted to kill yourself?
JL: He wanted to roast marshmallows!
JR: Why did you set yourself on fire?
RP: Consciously I just wanted to f— myself up.
JR: But not die?
RP: No. That was the furthest thing from my mind. My God, I didn’t know that fire could f— you up so. I could have died.
JL: You almost did, Honey. I remember Richard’s telling me that he didn’t know any other way out of the drug hell he was in.
RP: Oh, yeah. That part, too… I was scared of where I was and what was happening to me. The drugs and the whiskey… ‘Cause I could drink a whole quart of cognac and not get f—– up. It scared me.
JR: Ever regret getting involved with drugs, that your life would not have been so tumultuous if you hadn’t?
RP: If I regretted it, I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t want to look back.
JL: Richard’s a difficult interview… Don’t listen to his bull—-. Go for the truth… I was married to this man. I know every part of him. (to Richard) Okay, Honey, Dear, Sweetheart, Puddin’nin’ Pie? She just wants a good interview. (Jenny leaves for an appointment.)
JR: How long did it take to write this book?
RP: Jenny! A long time. I’d tell [co-author Todd Gold] something, he’d go away and write it and then come back and ask the same question again.
JR: What strength are you drawing on now?
RP: I don’t have MS as bad as some people. It’s like God just gave me a taste… oh it’s bad, but it’s not the end-all. It’s the beginning.
JR: Of what?
RP: That, we’ll find out.
JR: Are you feeling stronger?
RP: I think so. Maria comes three times a week to work with me. And I can walk. We go out by the pool and walk around the pool. She’s a tough taskmaster, bless her heart.
JR: Do you think that your MS is related to the kind of life you led, particularly your drug use?
RP: That’s what the doctor said. That some of the tissue around the muscle got eaten away.
JR: From drugs?
RP: Yeah. But they don’t know. They are guessing—at my expense. I might add.
JR: What was your reaction when they said it might have been drugs?
RP: I just looked at them like I’m looking at you. I said I don’t know anything medical. It holds no interest for me, really.
JR: Still smoke?
JR: Still drink martinis?
RP: Yes. I drink a ‘toony’ now and then ‘Cause I’m an alcoholic, a practicing alcoholic.
JR: But you have it under control?
RP: No. I don’t know any of us that do.
JR: Do you get drunk?
RP: I try. I really do.
JR: And it doesn’t work?
RP: Not yet.
JR: Do you feel you have a bit more peace of mind these days?
RP: My family’s gone. You laugh! But you don’t know what that means. There’s nobody here telling me what to do. And there’s no fear. There’s nobody asking for money.
JR: “Family” refers to—
RP: My mother, my father, my step-mother, aunts and uncles and grandmother. They’re out of here. They shuffled off to Buffalo, as the guy said.
JR: You have peace of mind because you don’t feel conflicted any longer?
RP: Right, and they don’t get to harp on Jenny or [another ex-wife] Shelley. They are not choosing my life for me.
JR: They tried to?
RP: I think they did. I bought my grandmother a home in Peoria, but she really liked to live in that old house on Fourth Street. When I’d visit Peoria, she’d move back to the new house just to show off. I didn’t know that then, but I do now.
JR: Are you more at peace with yourself now, like yourself more?
RP: Oh, I adore me sometimes. I really do. Like if I have some “moneys.” I like me then most of all.
JR: In your book, you discuss going to the Betty Ford Center. What led you up to that?
RP: I was really in trouble with (sniffs) coke. It was something to do, so I went. I was home in Northridge and I said, I got these two weeks, I’m gonna go to Betty Ford.
JR: Seems like a calm decision considering the rest of your life.
RP: Well, Betty Ford is a different place… I like the “womens” there.
JR: Go out with any afterwards?
JR: In a relationship?
RP: Oh, we tried, but [another ex-wife] Flynn came back and caught me with one. She went berserk, ballistic, as they say, and she took my money and gave it to this lady. She said, “You’ve got to give her something, Richard.” I said, “Yeah, but you don’t give her no $200,000.” She did.
JR: Like paying her off to get her out?
RP: Yeah, I think that’s the way to put it.
JR: She never came back?
JR: How do you feel about that?
JR: You didn’t like to be faithful to one woman?
RP: It seems not.
RP: I don’t know.
JR: In the book, you reveal you were raped at age six.
RP: Yeah, when the guy put his d— in my mouth. It was embarrassing and I felt humiliated, afraid, lost and coward “Cause in my dreams I bite it off.”
JR: Still have those dreams?