June 5, 2004
HER MARRIAGE WAS CHARACTERISED BY cocaine-fuelled violence. Her husband beat her with fists and bottles and tried to strangle her. It lasted a matter of months. Yet 20 years later she married him again. By this time he had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for 15 years and was in need of constant medical attention.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to ask Jennifer Lee Pryor, two times wife and sometime manager of legendary comedian Richard Pryor, if she is blessed with unusual tolerance. "I donít know if Iím tolerant as much as brave," she laughs. "Obviously, Iíve had my own growth to deal with and journey to go on. People talk to me about forgiveness, but itís less about forgiveness than... I worked on myself in therapy and all that stuff is left by the wayside. Just the love is left."
Jennifer is not the first woman to have married Richard Pryor twice. That honour fell to Flynn BeLaine who survived two bouts with him, first from 1986 to 1987 and again from 1990 to 1991. Both women came after Patricia Price (1960-1961), Shelly Bonus (1967-1969) and Deboragh McGuire (1977-1979). If that sounds excessive, just remember that Jennifer and Richard first hit it off the day before his marriage to Deboragh. His weakness for women was much like his weakness for drugs.
So when Jennifer was rummaging round their house recently and came across a little box containing all his old wedding rings, didnít she feel just a wee bit jealous? "That was just the funniest thing: this whole box full of rings," she says. "Itís better than the bitches being here. Every woman has feelings of jealousy and you learn how to deal with it. Richardís children have all got issues - thereís six different mothers - but I try to be as adult as I can with everybody."
You get the impression thereís a lot of therapy going on at the Pryorsí California home. For Richard, itís a question of attending to his debilitating illness and the bouts of depression that are only to be expected in this once most physical of comedians. For Jennifer, a freewheeling child of the sex and drug-fuelled 1970s, there is more than the odd issue to work out.
"During the í70s everyone was partying, but people started to get addicted and started dying," says Jennifer, whose brother committed suicide in 1983 after a night of cocaine use. "I donít think addiction is a good thing and I certainly regret what happened to Richard, getting involved in freebase and not being able to do it in a recreational way. I was always able to stop. There was a dark period when Richard discovered freebase and I quit everything. Richard was not able to do that. He was a true addict and that was a very bad period. I moved out and he had to do what he had to do."
It doesnít take a psychiatrist to regard Richardís comedy routines as a soul-baring form of therapy in themselves. This was a man who was brought up in a brothel run by his grandmother. He was the son of a prostitute whoíd deserted him by the time he was ten. His childhood was blighted by sexual abuse: raped by a neighbour at the age of six and molested by a Catholic priest, not to mention what he must have seen his mother get up to. Now 63, he has survived years of drug addiction, three heart attacks, a number of spells behind bars and a near-death experience, when he soaked himself in cognac and set fire to himself while freebasing cocaine.
"Given his history, Richard should have been in prison," says Jennifer, thinking of his racial, sexual and economic depravations. "Thatís what that kind of environment produces. He had a lot of strikes against him and itís a tribute to his genius that he got on stage and turned it into magic."
Three things hit you about Richard Pryor Live in Concert, a gig from 1978 released for the first time on DVD this week. One is the good-natured way he delivers his material. His tone is never bitter, his manner always inclusive. "That amazes me," says Jennifer. "Thereís truth in the material, but no bitterness. Thatís why the message could reach so many people and cross so many boundaries, white, black, whoever. It contained truth, wisdom, pain and humour and everything that is real."
The second is the way his act holds up today. Give or take the odd 1970s American reference, the style and content of the set show no sign of dating and yet it comes from a period well before the British alternative comedy boom when such politically driven, iconoclastic humour became de rigueur. "Heís still relevant," agrees Jennifer. "Itís uncanny."
The third thing you notice is just how good he is. His relentless quest to expose the truth, combined with a gift for mimicry and a mesmerising physical presence, made him a consummate observational comedian who really seemed - and still seems - to matter. "His truth was his survival," says Jennifer. "If he didnít get up on stage and tell the truth, he would probably die. It was like oxygen for him. It came from his anger - about what he saw and what he lived through, and what was done to him. He was mistreated and grew up with a lot of anger and somehow the truth set him free."
Richard was fully aware of his talents. "What Iím saying might be profane, but itís also profound," he once said, a remark that would have been conceited coming from anyone else. His fans are more effusive still. "Richard Pryor is the truth machine," says Quincy Jones. "He has taken black street humour to its highest universal level."
Denis Leary, no stranger to foul-mouthed hilarity himself, has also declared himself a disciple: "Pryor peels back the last layer of his battle-scarred skin to reveal the wretched demons that make him the true king of comedy and the rest of us are just pretenders to the throne."
For all the turbulence of his private life (including the time he fired his Magnum into a Mercedes in a bid to stop one of his wives escaping), his stage act was infused with a political liberalism. "Two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humour," he once said. "I am proud that I have been able to use humour to lessen peopleís hatred."
It is this side of the man - the dog-loving vegetarian so committed to the cause of animal rights that he refuses to take multiple sclerosis medication if it has been tested on animals - that has brought Jennifer back despite everything that has gone on between them. "If youíre asking me whether his transcendence appealed to me - yes, absolutely," she says. "We had the opportunity to fall madly in love and, of course, screw it up.
"Itís amazing that we got back together and it just shows you that if what you have in the core is solid, true and made of tough stuff, then the detritus of the past, the bad times, the hurt and the pain, falls by the wayside. It never goes away, but it canít compete with that solid gold stuff."
ē The DVD Richard Pryor Live in Concert is out this week; the film will
be screened during the Edinburgh Festival when the Richard Pryor Ethnic
Comedy Award will be launched.
Copyright © 2004, The Scotsman