Richard Pryor's filmography -- We review some of the comic genius' work, from ''Silver Streak'' to ''Stir Crazy''

By Ty Burr
Updated April 30, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Richard Pryor’s filmography

Richard Pryor has appeared in 40 movies, and it’s a mark of how confounded Hollywood is by what he represents that he’s compromised in nearly all of them. His best films — the live concert specials, mostly — are the ones with the least front-office interference. The worst (The Toy, Critical Condition, too many others) represent an emasculation of brilliant rage, for which Pryor himself must take partial blame. Here are 10 highlights (all on video) from a filmography that, finally, has to be judged longer on potential than results.

Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’ (1971, Vestron) Released in 1981 (with a title that ghoulishly puns on the comedian’s 1980 fiery suicide attempt), this live set filmed at New York’s Improv is a document of a comic style’s difficult birth. Breaking out of his friendly-Cosby mode, Pryor rips off a 45-minute stream-of-consciousness blurt that’s ragged, profane, and seething with a nasty vibe. The audience doesn’t laugh much; it may be because stuff like this was completely outside of their frame of reference. C+

Lady Sings the Blues (1972, Paramount) Almost as much of a star-maker for Pryor as it was for Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams. He plays Piano Man, Billie Holiday’s discoverer, mentor, closest friend, and, finally, partner in dope and disillusionment. It’s a supporting role and Pryor’s gone for long stretches, but his happy weirdness bursts through the manufactured soap whenever he appears. B

Saturday Night Live: Richard Pryor (1975, Warner) Pryor hosted this episode of NBC’s fledging late-night show during its very first season. He clearly took charge, too, trading samurai swipes with John Belushi and word-association games with Chevy Chase, bringing in Gil-Scott Heron to sing ”Johannesburg,” and his own wife Shelley to recite a children’s poem, and delivering a scathing version of his famed wino-meets-junkie character piece. A-

Silver Streak (1976, FoxVideo) The real star-maker, despite Pryor’s misgivings. For about an hour, it’s an engaging rip-off of The Lady Vanishes, with Gene Wilder fine in the nebbishy hero role. Then Pryor shows up, and it becomes something totally new: a salt-and-pepper buddy movie with the racial critique built right into the relationship. Which is a fancy way of saying that the scene in which Pryor teaches Wilder how to ”walk black” is not only hilarious but a concise summary of post-Elvis pop culture. B+

Blue Collar (1978, MCA/Universal) In screenwriter Paul Schrader’s directing debut, Pryor is one of three auto-factory grunts (the other two are Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) who get in way over their heads when they rob the safe at union headquarters. Starting as a realistic comedy, it 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. One of the great lost ’70s movies. A

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979, Vestron) Eight years after Live and Smokin’, Pryor had mastered his art; 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 (by far 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. A+

Stir Crazy (1980, Columbia TriStar) Around here the slide begins. The second of the Wilder-Pryor pairings is able to coast on a fertile premise (Gene and Richard go to jail) and the stars’ goofy chemistry. But director Sidney Poitier seems to think frenzied improvisation can take the place of funny dialogue, and Pryor ends up playing second fiddle to Wilder. B-

Bustin’ Loose (1981, MCA/Universal) Attempting to soften his image, Pryor stars as an ex-con ferrying orphans across the country in a schoolbus. It works better than it has any right to, if only because his natural crankiness offsets the plot’s maudlin contrivances. Pryor’s immolation happened during shooting; you’ll easily be able to tell before scenes from after. B

Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982, Columbia TriStar) 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 his recounting of a trip to Africa is moving; and when he tells of the ways a ‘base pipe can own a man’s soul, the laughter both hurts and heals. B

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986, Columbia TriStar) In which Pryor has a chance to prove that he can still do it all — be funny, be real, be an artist — and blows it. Everything about this semiautobiographical comedy-drama comes from deep in his heart, but it’s exactly that sincerity that keeps Jo Jo earthbound. Throughout his career, Pryor’s insights have come from the pitiless anarchy of his comedy. What we get here is morning-after reflection tinged with self-delusion. C