New Braunfels Herald Zeitung (Newspaper) - August 3, 1995, New Braunfels, Texas
Herald-Zeitung O Thursday, August 3,1995 O 7Pryor battling neurological disease, learning about life
By Lee Grant Copiey News Service
Richard Pryor was struggling. This independent man, this brilliant performer whose insight into human relationships influenced a generation of comedians, needed help getting into a chair. His legs wouldn’t work. His arms were weak. He couldn’t balance himself.
“Neurologically, I’m all f-----
up,” he said.
Richard Pryor uses the F-word and lots of scatalogical others. But his language has always been more than that. For years he’d been up there by himself, striking at the heart of both black and white consciousness in an excruciatingly hilarious, often poignant, way.
His was a ballet of language and movement wrapped around a rich lineup of characters from his old Peoria, 111., neighborhood — hookers and drunks, drug addicts and holy-roller preachers. And he blessed each one of them with grace and dignity. A wino slurring his words in one of Pryor’s routines, notes, “I’m a veteran. I was at the battle of chateaubriand.”
This artist touched at truth, moved to a beat all his own and challenged societal views. “Some of us fly and some of us are earth-bound,” he once said, “and when they catch those of us who fly resting on a rock, they pull off our wings."
These days. Pryor, 54, seems isolated in his San Fernando Valley, Calif., home, a housekeeper nearby to help him take a few difficult steps with a walker, to assist him into bed, to guide him to the bathroom. He has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease, and it has devastated the once lithe body that pranced nimbly on stages and turned it into an emaciated one, a slightly unkempt one, a hollow one.
The modest house is on a quiet street off Ventura Boulevard's status-conscious south side, up from Jerry’s Famous Deli. Ifs different from the one in Northridge where rn 1980 he set himself afire in a cocaine-induced haze and suffered serious burns over 50 percent of his body. For one thing, ramps link the rooms so Pryor can get around in his motorized cart The Northridge home was destroyed in last year's earthquake. Pryor doesn’t grieve “Fleeing the ghosts," he said about the move.
In “Live on the Sunset Strip,” Pryor’s 1982 concert film, he would deliver this on the near self-immo-lation, “Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics because I did the IOO yard dash in 4.3"
Pryor now spends most of his hours in the bedroom watching TV. Sometimes Robin Williams comes over. Sometimes Quincy Jones. Three times a week, a personal trainer puts Pryor’s frail limbs through a workout.
And there's the book, a new autobiography called “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences” (Pantheon) written with Todd Gold of People magazine. It’s a rather disappointing work that misses the magic of hts special and complex sensibilities He did it, said Pryor, for the money.
Meanwhile, in the den, visitors wait for the man to make his way down the hallway, the creaking sound of the walker getting slowly closer. Finally, in a particularly wrenching process, he takes a seat behind a desk and lights a cigarette.
A Labrador named Emmet lies between him and the guests.
“Good morning,” Pryor said weakly. Over the years, there’s been a huge physical toll — heart attacks, quadruple bypass surgery, the fire, cocaine addiction, and now the MS.
How does he deal with it?
“I don’t know how anyone would deal with it.” The voice drops to a whisper as he calls the MS “a blessing.” “If I hadn’t gotten it," he said. “I would’ve gotten something else.
FII play with these cards. Getting mad doesn’t help. You get mad and it doesn’t make your legs work any better.”
In his book, Pryor writes, “I’ve found that my life, instead of ending because of MS, has only changed. Perhaps it was God’s way of telling me to chill, slow down, look at the trees, sniff the flowers rather than the coke, and take time for myself and see what it’s like to be a human being. See what it’s like being human.
“I lived big for a time, but never appreciated life. I never realized that people really liked me. Me, Richard Pryor, a human being.”
It has been a harrowing life for Pryor. In Peoria, he grew up around his grandmother’s cathouse running errands for the hookers. His mother plied her trade there. His was an environment of bars and pool halls, junkies and johns, most of them white. In the 1983 film, “Richard Pryor ... Here ii Now,” he noted, “I lived in a neighborhood with lots of whorehouses. And that’s where I first met white people. They’d come into the neighborhood to help the economy.”
But racial animosity was something that never stained his mind.
“I’ve lived and I’ve seen," he said. “People don’t mean harm, but we do it. We don’t have the answers, nobody has the answers, so why get mad?” In the book, he writes, “I don’t see colors. I don’t believe in prejudice. We’re all people, you know? That’s hard enough.”
Some of his best material focused on racial differences: “White folks are quiet; black folks make noise” at the dinner table, in the bedroom, at funerals, in the pulpit.
Those who know Pryor, who’ve seen his daring performances over the years, recall the rapacious man with incredible appetites for women (five wives, six marriages)
and for drugs. Now he is more humble, dependent. Jennifer Lee, 45, his fourth ex-wife, has re-entered his life and attends to his financial and health needs. “Who would want this job?” Pryor said. “I’m no day in the park. I can go ballistic.”
Lee encourages Pryor; she checrleads, she demands and she s cleared out a slew of hangers-on who were spending his money. Said Lee. “He's putting order back in his
life. And The Bank of Pryor is closed."
When she came back into Pryor's life last spring “on a salary," Lee said, “tons of money was being spent weekly. He wasn't eating. All these people were around. The party ended. Richard said to me. ‘My life is slipping out of control. I need help.’ He was clear about what he wanted and I became the assassin.”
When Pryor falls, Lee rescues
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him, but she insists he’s not helpless. “Richard is stronger than he lets on,” she said. “We talk the truth, no bull—. Are you following this, Richard? We know you’re sick. Richard is reclaiming his life. Every aspect of it.”
Pryor has six children — the oldest 33, the youngest 7 — and one grandchild. How does he want them to feel when they read the book, this story of their father’s life? “Hot damn, he made it through all that!”
On a shelf in the den is a sweet picture of Pryor and his children. What does he tell his three daughters about relationships with men; how does he talk to his sons about treating women? “I don’t tell them anything.” he said. “They know everything. Pops is old time. Don’t matter what I say.”
Pryor’s familial connections are strained. His oldest daughter, Rain, 25, an actress and comedian, is feuding with Lee over Pryor’s much-diminished estate (where once was a Rolls-Royce, there’s now a specially equipped Toyota minivan parked in the driveway). His 13-acre home in Maui with the 180-degree view of the ocean is gone. “Two of my sons I don’t get to
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speak to. But the mothers call and ask for moneys all the time.”
An underlying current in the book is Pryor’s raucous and sometimes abusive relationships with “the womens,” as he calls them. He writes, “I couldn’t control my addiction to the womens.” And he couldn’t create a lasting relationship. He’d split from them, he said, “because I could.”
He drags deeply on a cigarette. “I’m grateful I met them all. Each one brought me some insight into me.” And why did they often come back into his life? “Moneys,” he said, “and they like me, so they say.”
In the 70s and ’80s, when Pryor was at the top, the funniest man alive, as many acknowledged, there were few challengers. He was influencing black and white comedians alike, from Robin Williams to Eddie Murphy, who, as a teen-ager, used Pryor’s material verbatim to impress honchos at “Saturday Night Live.”
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