Lily Tomlin remembers Richard Pryor
Dec. 1, 1940 – Dec. 10, 2005
I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Richard Pryor, on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late ’60s, performing a fairy tale about a ”Primpce” and a ”Primpcess.” I was mesmerized by his heartbreaking wit, full of hurt and truth. Even then, his expression of personal experiences was unique — blending chaos and compassion, vulnerability and bravado, attitude and insight.
I immediately wanted more than anything to work with Richard. So in 1973, I developed a set especially for him, hoping he’d see that I was a ”white girl with soul.” Soon, Richard started talking about us working together, and he performed on my first two television specials that same year. How lucky I was to work with him.
I was with Richard when Berry Gordy called to rave over his Oscar-quality performance in Lady Sings the Blues. Richard hung up and became that 6-year-old Primpce from the Sullivan show — shy, hopeful, and suddenly terrified, as if he had pulled off something he’d never expected. That moment showed me the secret of Richard’s humor — the juxtaposition of his relentless, take-no-prisoners imagination with the poignancy of his poetic interpretation. He constantly tested the boundaries and seldom experienced internal limits on his expression. All external limits had long been lost on him.
The last time I saw Richard, I was in the audience at the Santa Barbara film festival honoring him for his work. For almost two hours, I watched the greatest pioneering comic artist of the last three generations at the top of his genius — this gifted, raging, soaring, plummeting, deeply human man with the tender boy inside. I wept and I laughed — inspired, moved, and grateful to have been present when this revelation, Richard Pryor, was so actively in our lives — and in our faces. (Pryor died of a heart attack in Los Angeles.)