Hollywood never came to terms with Richard Pryor, nor he with it. Rising from stand-up’s chitlin circuit, he ultimately found a massive but compromised fame that both enriched his coffers and stymied his talents. Pryor’s best films — the concert specials, mostly — are the ones with the least front-office interference. The worst represent an emasculation of brilliant rage for which he himself must take partial blame. Below are seven Pryor moments that matter — and two that just paid the bills.
Movies He Did For Love
LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) The first evidence he could play the big-screen game. Pryor is Piano Man, Billie Holiday’s (Diana Ross) discoverer, mentor, friend, and, finally, partner in dope and disillusionment. It’s a supporting role, but Pryor’s happy weirdness bursts through soap whenever he appears.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: RICHARD PRYOR (1975) Hosting the Dec. 13, 1975, episode of NBC’s fledgling late-night show, Pryor traded samurai swipes with John Belushi and racially charged epithets with Chevy Chase, brought in Gil Scott-Heron to sing ”Johannesburg,” and delivered a scathing version of his famed wino-meets-junkie character piece.
SILVER STREAK (1976) It made him a star (good) and led to three more pairings with Gene Wilder (increasingly bad). The movie is Wilder’s show at first, but when Pryor turns up, Streak becomes something new: a salt-and-pepper buddy movie with the racial critique built right in. Which is a fancy way of saying that the scene where Pryor teaches Wilder how to ”walk black” is not only funny but a landmark in cultural honesty.
BLUE COLLAR (1978) Pryor is one of three auto-factory grunts (the other two are Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) who get in over their heads when they rob the safe at union headquarters. Starting as a realistic comedy, Paul Schrader’s directing debut very slowly turns very frightening. It’s also perhaps the only film in which Richard Pryor isn’t asked to play himself; what results is the richest acting of his career.
RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT (1979) You will rarely see a comedian with an audience so fully in the palm of his hand. Shot in Long Beach, Calif., this 80-minute stand-up performance — the best of his concert films — covers subjects as diverse as heart attacks and sex-crazed monkeys. What unites them is Pryor’s joyous, full-on energy.
RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP (1982) This postaccident concert is one part explanation to three parts expiation. It’s not as funny as Live in Concert — both Pryor and the audience are too aware of his mortality. But when he tells of the ways a freebase pipe can own a man’s soul, the laughter both hurts and heals.
JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (1986) In which Pryor had the chance to prove he could do it all — be funny, be real, be an artist — and stumbled. Everything about this semiautobiographical comedy-drama comes from deep in the man’s heart, but it’s that sincerity that keeps Jo Jo earthbound.