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Pryor’s Inferno

After an explosion at home sends him to the hospital with serious injuries, the great comic examines his tragic life

Richord Pryor

Richard Pryor in 1980.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A year ago it seemed like such a tidy package, a comprehensive, all-inclusive life-insurance policy — the Pryor plan for happiness and survival. Richard Pryor had been through one of his roughest periods. He’d collapsed with some kind of heart malfunction in Peoria, his hometown. Two months later, after a stormy New Year’s Eve, his fourth wife, Deboragh McGuire, left him after he fired his magnum into her empty Buick. He was arrested, convicted of a misdemeanor and placed on probation. All in all, a nasty business.

Then, with the skill and insight that have established him as one of the greatest comic innovators of our time, Pryor picked up these ugly bits and pieces, this raw material, and whipped them into art, a film called Richard Pryor Live in Concert. In the process, he purged himself of a lot of demons and apparently made peace with himself. “I just am happier than I’ve ever been,” he told Rolling Stone. And he seemed to be saying that anyone, if he looked at his troubles with humor and honesty, could do the same.

Yes, a neat little policy, but I guess I didn’t read the fine print — the clause that says it doesn’t necessarily apply to Richard Pryor. And now the poor guy was fighting a daily battle for his life in the burn center of Sherman Oaks Community Hospital in Los Angeles.

I know that doesn’t sound generous, but that’s the way I felt when I first heard of the explosion. Of course, it was undoubtedly an accident and he shouldn’t be blamed for it. We will probably never know for sure how it happened, whether it was ether or a cigarette lighter or a butane torch, whether he was “free-basing” or not (though from police reports after the accident, it sounds like he may well have been).

A few weeks before the accident, Richard had walked off the set during the shooting of Stir Crazy, a film directed by Sidney Poitier. There had been a series of disturbing incidents, culminating when some cameraman apparently dropped a piece of watermelon at his feet. Richard didn’t return for a couple of days. Not that big a deal, really, but I’d come to expect, rightly or wrongly, that when one thing went wrong with Richard, probably several things were going wrong. The man is no stranger to roller coasters. So I felt angry at the news of the accident — angry that this beautiful and fragile genius had been courting the edge again, and angry at the fine print.

Sure enough, some people close to Pryor said that the explosion had, in fact, been preceded by another rough year. Shortly after the release of Live in Concert, Richard visited Kenya with his new girlfriend, actress Jennifer Lee. He was intrigued by this all-black country in which blackness was not an issue, and the trip, according to one friend, moved him profoundly. Whether it affected his subsequent behavior is anybody’s guess, but when he returned, things apparently began falling apart. He became depressed, erratic, volatile. At some point, he and Jennifer broke up. More and more, those close to him feared he was turning his attention to two old friends, cocaine and alcohol. Most of all, he seemed painfully entrapped by his own guilt, a guilt fed not just by his immediate weaknesses, but by a much more serious and perplexing offense — the crime of being Richard Pryor.

It was the guilt that most touched L.A. police officer Zielinski the night he watched this scorched human being confess to God and plead for mercy. Some cops felt that Pryor got what he deserved, and Richard almost seemed to agree with them. Stripped of his pride, and his skin, he told Zielinski, “This is the way the Lord is paying me back.”

Pryor’s high-powered, hard-nosed attorney and manager, David Franklin, said much the same thing: “The karma culminated on that night.”

I like Franklin. He’s a bouncy, roly-poly, moon-faced guy with twinkling eyes and a devilish good nature. On the other hand, I figured, from his masterful wheelings and dealings for clients like Pryor, Roberta Flack, Peabo Bryson, Cicely Tyson, Andrew Young and Julian Bond, that you might not want to meet him alone in a dark board room.

Franklin is based in Atlanta and has represented Pryor for five years. On Monday night, June 9th, he returned home from a concert tour by Flack and Bryson and immediately noticed something weird about his house. Maeotha Rivers, his children’s nursemaid, had purchased and installed a bunch of smoke detectors. It turned out she had a dream Sunday night in which Franklin suffered third-degree burns over fifty percent of his body. “It’s all right,” he had said in the dream, “I’m alive.” The dream had frightened Maeotha, but Franklin shrugged it off and went to bed. At two a.m., he was awakened by a phone call from concert promoter Quentin Perry. Apparently Maeotha had gotten the characters mixed up in her dream; Richard Pryor was in critical condition.

Tuesday morning, Franklin took the first L.A. flight out of Atlanta. He had his work cut out for him. Already the national press was freaking out over Pryor’s alleged free-basing — a process that, for all they knew, was invented by Richard. Most of the stories were ludicrous, of course, filled with phrases like “drug burns” and “cocaine explosion.” But Franklin was worried because Richard was still on probation from the car-shooting incident; the police wouldn’t need much criminal evidence to cause more problems for Pryor. Even before Franklin landed in L.A., a team of Los Angeles firemen, narcs and policemen, armed with a shotgun and a “verbal warrant,” broke into Pryor’s Northridge mansion. Presumably, the narcs were looking for any evidence that could lead to Pryor’s prosecution on drug charges — on the outside chance the guy might live. (One officer at the Van Nuys division justified the raid by saying, “There might have been a factory up there.”) All the police found were some frightened housekeepers. They immediately closed the case.

Nonetheless, Franklin felt he should let the cops know he was in town, and by Wednesday, he had organized a press conference and news story based on the fact that the police did find rum and broken glass at Pryor’s house. Richard, he told reporters, had a glass of rum in one hand, a cigarette lighter in the other and a cigarette in his mouth. He leaned over and — boom! — something exploded. No one bought the rum line for a minute, but, curiously, the issue was never raised at future press conferences.

With that out of the way, Franklin and I sat down late Friday night in the sumptuous living room of his second house, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, and discussed Richard Pryor.

“Richard is a supremely gifted and talented person,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “who does not believe he should be. Know what I mean? He does not believe he should be, and that, I think, is the root cause of a lot of his problems.

“He’s obviously had several relationships with women that have turned out badly because, I believe, he does not believe that a ‘good’ woman, quote unquote, whatever that means, will put up with him. That’s what he wants, but he’s scared to seek that.

“He’s a person of supreme intelligence — you can see that by his material, by his insights. But because he formally has only a ninth-grade education, he believes he’s not bright.”

And these misgivings, Franklin indicated, are magnified because Richard is a visibly successful member of an oppressed race.

“I mean, Richard is the greatest comedian in this country, in terms of modern comedians, black or white, name ’em all. They know it and he knows it. And yet — it’s a guilt thing. He does not believe that he should have so much, and so he will try to give it away, to reject it. He will constantly try to prove to people who he should cut loose from — the vultures, the hangers-on-that he’s one of them. And he’s not. And the only thing they can do is bring him down.”

What we seemed to be getting at was a pattern of self-destructiveness. Still, weren’t many of Richard’s actions, I asked Franklin, justifiably precipitated by the shit around him?

“I have found,” he said, “that generally when Richard has ‘gone off’ — some big thing prominently reported in the news or at some type of social setting where there’re people and they say, ‘Oh my God, he’s crazy, he’s gone off‘ — on ninety percent of those occasions, there was cause for him to go off. But as I told Richard, what he has to watch is where he takes it.”

How far, I asked, can Richard take it, though? And how many chances does he get to find out? Will the cycle be unbroken, despite the flames of that Monday night?

“If this doesn’t do it,” he said, “if this doesn’t do it…” Franklin leaned forward and whispered, “will anything do it?”

One quiet day some time ago, Richard dropped by the house of his old buddy, actor and former halfback Jim Brown. The two walked out on Brown’s hillside veranda overlooking Los Angeles and sat down. Sat down and said nothing — for quite a while. Then Jim started laughing and Richard started laughing, and Richard said, “I didn’t have nothin’ to talk about. I just wanted to, you know, sit.”

That’s the sort of friends they are and have been for more than fifteen years, and that’s the sort of friendship they both seem to need. Jim calls it unconditional love, and ever since Richard entered the hospital, Jim had been heaping it on him: standing guard at his bed night and day, dealing with the press and the doctors, supporting and sometimes prodding Richard in the exhausting and agonizing work of recovery, seeing to it that his few rare moments of peace were not intruded upon by well-meaning friends and fans.

On Monday, June 16th, the day before Pryor was scheduled for his first surgery in preparation for skin grafting, Brown took an hour off to discuss the man he had come to know “on a higher level.” The two have a lot in common. Both come from broken homes, both know the transitory illusions of celebrity and, more important, both are black. The difference between them is that Richard is a little more fragile.

“Being a black man in America and being a brilliant man is a very difficult combination,” said Brown. “What is normal for one person in this society is not normal for another. So one of the things for a brilliant black man in this society is, how do you make excuses to yourself for accepting the condition. But we seem to pass off the discrimination, racism and the psychological effect it can have on certain people — ‘Well, yeah, but now let’s get down to the serious stuff…. He, uh, shot at a car.’ Well, shit.”

Brown is well aware of the media’s portrait of Pryor as a gifted but erratic — and sometimes violent — comic. “They made it look like he’d done something wrong when he had the heart attack,” he said, and then emphasized that he’d only known Richard to be a man of sensitivity, gentleness and complete honesty. “We came together on a level where we both understand what we suffer from, and what we’re both looking for — to be able to be free, to have free expression, not to be a hypocrite just to get along in society. Because to get along in society and be in fourth place from the WASP, you’ve got to make a lot of moves that aren’t correct under the eyes of God, or under the eyes of nature, or under truth.

“In other words, you are good when you accept the bullshit. You are bad when you reject the bullshit. Richard has a tremendous ability to reject bullshit. Now, along with what I’m saying is always the individual weaknesses of all of us. So, if you combine all of these things, then you have a start in looking at Richard Pryor.”

His childhood is another thing to consider, Jim observed. “Those of us who are from broken homes, we always want an expression of love without condition. And if you grow up where you don’t have that unqualified love around you, then you must fortify yourself; if you don’t, then you’re not gonna survive. So a Richard Pryor will have to prove himself in the professional world, because that’s satisfying in a great way, but it doesn’t satisfy the basic needs.”

After everything I’d heard, I wondered if Richard loved himself. “Well, you get broken down, man,” said Jim. “At birth, you come into insecurities in your family. You come into a hypocritical society — they praise the chumps and kill the true heroes. They killed Malcolm, they killed Paul Robeson, they killed Nat Turner, and they make heroes out of cats that don’t do shit. Now, what about liking yourself? I mean, you don’t come into that shit brilliant and fortified; you come into it fragile. And every day you’re fighting your way out of that shit to get to some level of truth. Warriors have a difficult time. And, basically, Richard is a warrior who was never shaped properly.”

Earlier, Jim had described Richard’s fight to recover as “the battle of his life,” and many people seemed to see it as more than just a physical one. If Richard lived, I asked Jim, did he think the experience would be a turning point?

“I think this is gonna show Richard that he has a lot of strength, that he has a lot of fans who are truly interested in him. He’s gonna find out he has some friends. But when he gets back outside, I don’t think it’s gonna make one bit of difference unless this whole process is fortified by key people in his life. And as much attention and interest as they give him while he’s on his back, they’ll have to make that a continuing thing. Those of us who care about him will really have to take some time out and assert ourselves in dealing with him. But if we drop away and leave him out there alone, I don’t think this will make up for all the things that have gone before.” 

The Plastic Surgicenter of Sherman Oaks is a knockout, a kind of minihospital with handsomely designed consulting, operating and recovery rooms and the latest equipment. It’s owned and operated by the Grossman brothers, Richard and Jack. Both are plastic surgeons and burn specialists, and they’re as good-looking as you can get without medical help. Part of the Sherman Oaks Medical Arts Center, the Surgicenter is right across Van Nuys Boulevard from the burn center at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital, which the Grossmans run. Actually, it’s right across from the Sherman Oaks Medical Pavilion, which is next to the hospital, which is next to the Sherman Oaks Medical Plaza. Southern California holds many miracles, and this block in Sherman Oaks is but another one — a shopping mall for the ailing.

On Friday morning, June 20th, Jack Grossman, the younger brother, took me on a tour of the Surgicenter, which seemed a bit odd since I hadn’t asked to see it. What I had asked for was some comment from him on a disturbing report from the night before. According to a hospital source whom I considered informed and highly reliable, doctors no longer expected Richard Pryor to live. Specifically, I was told that Dr. Richard Grossman on Thursday morning had advised various members of the hospital staff that Pryor would probably live no more than two or three days to a week.

“Absolutely not true, absolutely not true, absolutely not true,” Jack emphasized, smiling calmly and looking directly at me with light blue eyes.

And that Pryor’s kidneys were irreparably damaged by alcohol and drugs.

“Absolutely not true.”

And that a kidney specialist had been called in Thursday afternoon.

“Absolutely true,” said Jack. “Some kidney functions are being investigated because of an abnormality that existed before he was burned, but there is absolutely no basis for any story that drug abuse or alcohol have done anything to the kidneys.”

I was stunned. Jack’s words seemed such a contradiction of what I’d heard the day before. “Here,” he said cheerfully, “come take a walk with me.”

We left the hospital, got in Jack’s small sports car, drove to a parking lot under the Medical Arts Center and walked up to Jack’s office in the Surgicenter. In the process, we went over a few more of my misgivings. Why, if Richard had a kidney “abnormality,” was he given a beer Wednesday morning, as reported to the press?

“It was just a few sips of beer to savor the taste,” said Jack. “Two sips of Coors — that’s his favorite. It was a great psychological boost for him, like giving candy to a baby. There’s a lot more good than any possible harm in a little treat like that.” Jack chuckled. “Come on, David, we’re not going to do anything to hurt Richard.”

I’d heard that Richard’s first skin-grafting operation, originally scheduled for that day, had been postponed until at least Monday. When did they decide that, I asked. “That decision was made Wednesday,” he said. “We just felt that his wounds were not ready to receive any grafts.” Other than that, he added, Richard was coming along according to plan; he was in good spirits and really plugging. He was even visiting other patients in the burn ward to help them in their pain.

I asked Jack more about the report I’d heard the previous night. But he still dismissed it. “I told Richard that he’s getting stronger every day, and I told him he’s gonna live. And I don’t bullshit my patients.”

I pressed him about the kidney condition. If an abnormality existed before the explosion, why wasn’t the kidney specialist called in until ten days later?

“Because of the way it looked.”

“That’s what I meant, how did it look? What specifically was wrong?”

“That’s not important,” he said, but now he wasn’t smiling. “Dave, don’t get into the patient’s chart. There was a very slight change, but don’t get into the chart. It’s nobody’s business.”

At that point we were interrupted by a phone call from Gary Swaye, the young, blond hospital administrator who frequently was called upon to address the press. Jack conferred with him on how to handle the press release for that day, using words like “still critical” and “good spirits.”

“And Gary,” said Jack, “someone’s been bandying it about that Richard’s dying. I don’t care who it is, I want it stopped. Mention the rumors to the press. Some have Richard in good shape, some have him real bad. Emphasize the rumors and tell them they’re all absolutely untrue. There’s no change.”

Last year, from a better time and place, Richard Pryor told me, “I’m getting a lot deeper about stuff. A lot more sensitive about things. And still funny, too. Like you need pain to be funny, you know what I mean?”

Converting raw pain into raw humor is, of course, one of Richard’s special gifts. And many people I met at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital were confident that one day we would hear from him all the details of his ordeal, and we’d be able to look back and laugh. Deboragh Pryor, his ex-wife, said flatly, “This is his next album.” But officer Zielinski, who saw him in the most vulnerable state of his agony, didn’t think that likely. “It was too real,” he said.

So far, his hospital stay, despite the care of Jim Brown, despite the visits of his family and friends and Marlon Brando, despite the phone call from Ted Kennedy, despite the thousands of cards and letters and telegrams and flowers, has been under the most extreme pain, which, according to all reports, he has suffered bravely. This will continue for two months, and if and when he is released, he must return for more months of physical therapy and, finally, cosmetic surgery. If there’s something funny about all that, it’ll take someone like Richard to see it.

And if he dies the press will still bring up his stormy past, because that is their job. And his fans will still remember him as a genius who always loved and was faithful to his talent and never failed to share it with them. And one nurse at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital will recall until the day she dies that afternoon at the burn unit’s whirlpool bath when a naked, wounded man with sexy, thin legs turned to her and yelled, “Get away from me you mother-fucking bitch!” And how, as she gasped and reeled back against the wall, she saw this quiet, crazy smile creep across the face of Richard Pryor.

In This Article: Coverwall, Richard Pryor

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