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.”