Richard Pryor’s long, slow decline following the 1980 incident where he burned half his body in a freebasing accident and his willingness to take mediocre roles for a paycheck (Superman III) has obscured the brilliance of his early years.
The new biography by the Brothers Henry -- David, a screenwriter, and Joe, a singer-songwriter -- winningly captures the greatness of Pryor during his rise and heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. The Henrys don’t intend Furious Cool to be a cradle-to-grave biography but “instead to mine the soil out from which he grew and map the cultural landscape from which he emerged.”
That pretentious declaration aside, their look at his childhood in Peoria, Ill. (home to 132 brothels, the biggest one located next door to his home), his early days working the Greenwich Village comedy scene with George Carlin, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce and his early ’70s Berkeley sojourn -- where his friendship with black activists gave him a political edge -- is told in a breezy style that is fun to read but also full of smart observations. In particular, Furious Cool shows how the cultural mainstreaming of the N-word by African-American artists took root in Pryor’s act.
One of the virtues of the book is how the authors treat stand-up seriously as an art form and connect Pryor to everyone from Mark Twain to Malcolm X.
There’s a great section that details his competitive relationship with Bill Cosby, whom he mimicked and rebelled against. In 1968, Pryor decided to make a movie, his “masterpiece,” called Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, a surreal allegorical tale about a white man on trial for raping a black woman, hiring Penelope Spheeris, then a 22-year-old UCLA film student, to direct. Days before a screening for Cosby to raise money to finish it, Pryor cut the film to pieces in a fight with his wife. Spheeris scrambled to patch the movie together for Cosby, who thought it “weird,” but bought it and hid it away (either out of jealousy or to protect Pryor). It never has been seen since.
Other tidbits are sprinkled throughout -- notably that Pryor admitted to having had relationships with about ten men during his life. But this book isn’t about gossip; it’s about making the case for Pryor as the most important and gifted comedian of his generation.