Richard Pryor was arguably the single most influential performer of the second half of the twentieth century, and certainly the most successful black actor/comedian ever. Controversial and somewhat enigmatic during his life, Pryor’s performances opened up a whole new world of possibilities, merging fantasy with angry reality in a way that wasn’t just new—it was theretofore unthinkable. Now, this groundbreaking and revelatory work brings him to life again both as a man and as an artist, providing an in-depth appreciation of his talent and his lasting influence, as well as an insightful examination of the world he lived in and the myriad influences that shaped both his persona and his art.
“Addictively readable . . . Someday, when fewer people know Richard Pryor’s name, Furious Cool will be the best defense against the worst sort of forgetting—the kind that involves who we are now, who we loved once, and why.” —Esquire
“A sleek, highly literate biography that places the comic in the pop-cultural context of his times.” —Bloomberg News
“Richard Pryor was the most free black man of the twentieth century. He also was a comic genius. This book gives the definitive reasons why he was so free and so sublime.” —Dr. Cornel West
“David Henry and Joe Henry have brought Richard Pryor back to pulsating life, affirming both his humanity and his immortality as a comic—and tragic—genius . . . Furious Cool is a fabulous history, alive with fascinating characters.” —The Huffington Post
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About the Author
David Henry is a screenwriter, and his brother Joe Henry is a songwriter/singer as well as a music producer. Furious Cool is their first book. They are also at work on a screenplay based on Pryor’s life and career.
Read an Excerpt
A NATIVE SON OF WISTFUL VISTA
That whispery, strangulated voice belongs to an emaciated and prematurely frail Richard Pryor doing a dead-on impersonation of the demonic spirit from The Amityville Horror. He was in a good mood, playfully dismissing the questions put to him by Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano backstage at Washington, D.C.'s Constitution Hall on New Year's Eve 1992 midway through a comeback tour that would prove to be his last.
Once upon a time a lanky and loose-limbed Richard had bounded onto the stage with acrobatic grace, shape-shifting himself into all manner of people and things: pious preachers, rum-soaked raconteurs, white guys on acid, drunken brawlers, drooling junkies, angry black militants, bullet-punctured automobile tires, an infant at the moment of birth, a deer alerted by the sounds of hunters crunching leaves in the forest, copulating monkeys, police dogs, an especially potent strain of a Vietnamese venereal disease — even his own heart as it threatened to kill him, forcing him down on one knee to beg for his life. But on this night he made his way across the stage in cautious, shuffling steps, flanked by an alert pair of handlers, one on each arm. Universally hailed as the greatest stand-up of all time, he performed this final tour sitting down.
More than thirty-seven hundred people paid $37.50 apiece to see what reviewers of earlier stops on the tour had warned would be a brief, disjointed performance. During his show at Detroit's State Theatre, he had struggled to read from cue cards fanned out on the floor in front of him while a onetime fiancée in the audience fought back tears. Kicking off the tour in San Francisco months earlier, he had trembled visibly and slurred his words. And when he segued into his most famous character, the street-wizened Mudbone, he barely needed to alter his voice. After a mere twenty minutes, he had to be assisted off the stage to prolonged applause. People were just happy to see him, to thank him. That was all. But on this particular night in D.C., he showed more of his old self, lasting a full forty-five minutes. He seemed stronger, funnier, as he confronted the ravaging effects of multiple sclerosis head-on. "I got some shit here that fucks with me real bad. This is a thing, like, God said to me, 'Slooow down.' Well, fuck, I was going that fast?"
Onstage, the man was fearless, prepared to reveal anything. During his show at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, California, a woman in the audience called out, "Does that shit mess with your sex life?" and he ran with it.
It's something when your dick be hard, then look at you and laugh and go away and go, "Aw, fuck it." And it looks like my dick gets scared to death when it sees some pussy. My dick gets hard sometimes, like I get ready to play and masturbate, and my dick will look at me like, "Come on, Rich ..." It's a bitch when your dick get hard and there's nothing you can do but say, "I can remember ..." And I have it in my hand. I know I've got it! And the dick be waiting for me to stroke it so it can die. You guys are laughing but I'm telling you this shit fuck with your johnson!
There's something that happens to your bladder. I can be out on Sunset talking with eight or nine womens and I start pissin'. That shit be running down my boots ... I say, "Damn, baby ..." She say, "It's alright." How come people always say it's alright when it ain't them? And you have piss trailing a mile and a half.
After the D.C. show, Richard's face lit up when an assistant introduced Luciano to him backstage.
"Really? You're from the Star?"
Up close, he seemed smaller than he had on stage. His fifty-one-yearold body scarred by third-degree burns and ravaged by the early onset of multiple sclerosis, his rheumy eyes magnified by oversized glasses that dwarfed his shrunken but still-iconic face. The star seemed genuinely awed that a writer from his hometown paper would come all this way to see his show.
Within moments, though, a swarm of hangers-on invaded the room and he was back on again, performing for the benefit of the room, cracking one-liners in answer to Luciano's questions, killing any chance for a genuine exchange between the two.
Asked about his health, Richard deadpanned, "I'm gonna die one day."
"Do you feel happy?"
"I'm here," he said, "so I'm all right."
And so on.
That final question Luciano put to him was this: "Do you have any message for the folks back in Peoria?"
Richard answered in his horror-movie rasp: "Get out!"
That was it. Get out.
* * *
"My home's in Peoria," he told a sparse crowd at the hungry i in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood in 1966. "Whatever you think of when you hear the name, that's what it's like."
Usually, people applaud when an entertainer mentions his hometown. If it's Brooklyn, the crowd goes wild. But Peoria? "Last night," he told them, "somebody threw up."
Peoria. That famously average embodiment of Middle American values, three-time winner of the National Civic League's All-America City Award. Peoria has long been a demographer's dream, a city-sized applause meter reliably registering what the great unwashed will embrace or believe, what they will buy and what they won't. As the largest city on the Illinois River, it was a major stop for musicians and vaudeville troupes traveling between Chicago and St. Louis. In the days of vaudeville the old saw was that if an act went over in Peoria, it would play anywhere. Hence, "Will it play in Peoria?" became a catchphrase of the uniquely American theatrical phenomenon that evolved out of blackface minstrelsy, medicine shows, olio, and dime museums and provided a livelihood for itinerant jugglers, plate spinners, ventriloquists, crooners, baggy-pant comics, acrobats, barbershop quartets, hoochie-coochie dancers, human oddities, and animal acts for nearly a century, roughly from the mid-1800s through the 1930s when radio stole America's heart away and held it hostage in front rooms and parlors. Unlike vaudeville itself, the phrase has endured on Madison Avenue and in political campaigns.
Peoria prided itself in being seen as a model city, a coded phrase that meant, "We have our Negroes under control," Richard would often say. Yet things were decidedly more lax on North Washington Street where Richard spent his childhood. Hookers, winos, gamblers, musicians, politicians, and street-corner men populated both Pop's Pool Hall, owned by his grandfather, and the brothels run by his grandmother. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Peoria was awash in gambling halls, speakeasies, whorehouses, and corruption, a haven for gangsters and bootleggers. Known as Roaring Peoria, it was "a wide-open river town in the old meaning of the word," says retired police chief Allen Andrews.
* * *
In a 1977 New York Times profile headlined "Richard Pryor, King of the Scene Stealers," author Joyce Maynard wrote, "Pryor has been given to saying that he was raised in a brothel, which is evidently not the case."
Maynard gave no reason for doubting the stories Richard told of his upbringing, but she wasn't the only one. Perhaps the idea that a red-light district could prosper openly in America's model city during the wholesome Eisenhower era simply beggared belief. Yet a federal report issued in the early 1950s cataloged 132 brothels operating in and around Peoria's "Aiken Alley" alone.
Aiken Alley was not an alley at all but the popular name given to a notorious stretch of Aiken Avenue that ran west from Briss Collins's tavern at the corner of Franklin and Jefferson, down to where it intersected with Reed Street.
Whorehouses such as the ones Richard's grandmother ran weren't just outlets for illicit sex; they were part of the fabric that held African American neighborhoods together. Playwright and performance artist Jovelyn Richards learned the lore of brothels from one of those prostitutes who went by the name of Satin Doll, immortalized in song by Duke Ellington.
The madam and the other ladies took care of the community around them, of the families of the women whose men didn't have steady work ... The madam would pay the grocery store to deliver eggs and milk to families, and loved the fact they didn't know where these were coming from, that they could make up their own stories about how the box of groceries or the coal got to be on the front porch.
As a child of the fifties, Richard felt a mind-messing disconnect between his own surroundings and life as depicted on TV shows such as The Life of Riley and Father Knows Best. "On television people talked about having happy lives," he wrote in Pryor Convictions, "but in the world in which I grew up, happiness was a moment rather than a state of being. ... It never stayed long enough for you to get to know it good. Just a taste here and there. A kiss, a sniff, a stroke, a snort."
The gleaming postwar automobiles, big as boats, favored by the city's upper crust, would likely have drawn attention in a neighborhood like Richard's had they not been such a commonplace sight parked along the curb. Onstage, years later, Richard would recall playing in his front yard when some untouchable white man would "drive up and say, 'Hello, little boy, is your mother home? I want a blow job.'
"That," said Richard, "was our mayor."
The joke was barely an exaggeration. Mayor Edward Nelson "Dearie" Woodruff, who served eleven terms as Peoria's mayor over the course of nineteen elections spanning forty-two years, presided over a brazen administration that imposed a strict schedule of "fines" for various illegalities, including, but not limited to, gambling and prostitution. The mayor famously defended the city's thriving brothel trade by saying, "You can make prostitution illegal, but you can't make it unpopular." One December, when the city council authorized a crackdown on the red-light district, the mayor objected on moral grounds, arguing that it would be "unchristian" to shutter the brothels so close to Christmas.
To give Peoria its due, let it be said that Abraham Lincoln publicly denounced slavery for the first time in a speech delivered there in 1854. The first African American ever to vote in the United States cast his ballot in Peoria on April 4, 1870. The original mold strain for penicillin was discovered in Peoria. And, in 1945, early civil rights activist Rev. C. T. Vivian joined forces with Barton Hunter, a white minister at West Bluff Christian Church, in leading a nonviolent direct-action campaign to integrate Bishop's Cafeteria on Main Street. Vivian and Hunter organized their efforts a full decade before Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery bus boycott following Rosa Parks's refusal to comply with a Jim Crow law that required her to give up her seat to a white man. That she did so on Richard Pryor's fifteenth birthday hardly seems worth noting, but there it is. As John Cage said: "Everything we come across is to the point."
Peoria is also the city where Paul Robeson was banned from performing a concert just two days after the House Committee on Un-American Activities cited him a Communist Party sympathizer, where a fourteen-year-old Charles Manson served his first jail time for robbing a grocery store, and where Richard Pryor's 1993 comeback tour abruptly fizzled out for lack of ticket sales.
Buoyed by big turnouts elsewhere along the tour and by the outpouring of affection from his audiences, Richard agreed to an additional string of midwestern dates. Among them was a June 11 show at the Peoria Civic Center, marking what would be his first hometown performance in nearly twenty years. But, then, just three days before the date, Richard abruptly canceled the show, along with the remainder of his tour. Clearly stung by reports of sluggish tickets sales (civic center spokeswoman Amy Blain declined to say how many of the twenty-five-dollar seats had been sold), Richard's spokespeople offered up the hastily concocted excuse that he needed time to prepare for an upcoming television appearance. Transparently false because his next TV role didn't come until 1995 when he received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of a multiple sclerosis patient on an episode of the CBS hospital drama Chicago Hope.
* * *
Peoria has yet to make peace with Richard, his street-level profanity, his frank sexuality, his fury, or his wanton drug use. Even today, the town barely acknowledges him.
In October 2001, while Richard languished in deteriorating health in his Encino, California, home, confined to a wheelchair where he spent his days watching a DVD of The Silence of the Lambs on repeat play, the Peoria City Council begrudgingly voted 6–5 in favor of renaming a seven-block stretch of a nondescript residential street Richard Pryor Place. In 2011, more than a half decade after Richard's death, when Phil Luciano wrote a column suggesting that the city choose a more fitting site to commemorate its most famous son — the city's new arts center, perhaps, or a major thoroughfare — his readers responded thus:
I have a perfect suggestion: Match a memorial with his mind and his mouth. In other words, find a nice sewer somewhere and name it after him. — Wally
He was just like any other foul-mouthed comedian. Some of his stuff was funny, most wasn't. There was absolutely nothing special about him. So he came from Peoria, who the hell cares? At the end of the day he's just another semi funny, dead drug user. — AM
I'd hate to plan the Pryor exhibit in the new museum. Exactly how does one "honor" this man and still keep the exhibit rated "G"? Elementary schools will make up the majority of attendees. Do you leave out the facts that he was raised in a whorehouse, that he made profanity funny and that he often joked about his illegal drug abuse? — Anne
To the reader Anne, Luciano replied: "Leave that out? Why? Pryor didn't glorify hookers, drugs or abuse — he put a spotlight on it. Maybe that's why many Peorians never liked Pryor: They didn't like what he made them see."
"I get this kind of crap every time I write about Pryor," says Luciano, a transplanted Chicagoan. "People always say, 'Why don't you ever write about Fibber McGee?' I say, 'Because nobody gives a fuck about Fibber McGee.'"
Fibber McGee, children, was a character created by Peoria native Jim Jordan who costarred with his wife and Peoria high school sweetheart Marian Driscoll in the radio sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly which aired on NBC from 1935 to 1959. One of the longest-running and most successful radio shows of its time, it depicted the foibles of daily life in the fictional midwestern town of Wistful Vista.
Peoria was also home to feminist author Betty Friedan, musician Dan Fogelberg, comedian Sam Kinison, and, most happily for our purposes, Charles Correll, the cocreator of Amos 'N Andy.
When Correll and his vaudeville partner, Freeman Gosden, were offered the opportunity to create a radio series on WGN in Chicago in 1928, it seemed natural, Correll said, that they should continue to perform in the same black dialect they had developed on vaudeville stages in the South. "We might just as well have done Irish or Jewish dialect," he said, "but we knew that of Negroes." Besides, Correll maintained, he and Gosden were laughing with blacks, not at them.
Regardless of who may have been laughing at or along with whom, the fifteen-minute broadcasts of Amos 'N Andy drew huge audiences at 7:00 p.m. every week night for fifteen years from 1928 until 1943 when it switched over to a half-hour weekly format. It was said, with claims of only slight exaggeration, that one could take an after-dinner stroll through almost any American town and not miss a single line of the show as it wafted from the open windows and front porches of an estimated forty million homes.
When CBS proposed a TV version of the show, the network, in a television first, cast African American actors for all the roles. Chief among them were Alvin Childress as Amos, Spencer Williams as Andy, Ernestine Wade as Sapphire, and Tim Moore as George "Kingfish" Stevens — veteran vaudeville comics all. However tempting it may have been for Correll and Gosden to play the principal roles themselves, their business sense prevailed. The television era, they knew, would not tolerate white actors in blackface.
Despite drawing huge audiences, the TV incarnation of Amos 'N Andy survived only two seasons. CBS programmers later acknowledged their miscalculation in airing the series premiere during the 1951 national convention of the NAACP, a coincidence that prompted the group, in a fervor of reform, to pass a resolution condemning the show's depiction of African Americans — or "colored people," as the NAACP preferred — and filed for a court injunction that would have forced CBS to stop the show. (It's worth noting that the NAACP's national office had declined to endorse a similar protest launched by the Pittsburgh Courier against the radio show in 1931.)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Furious Cool"
Copyright © 2013 David Henry and Joe Henry.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: The Fear of Black Laughter,
A Native Son of Wistful Vista,
"There's a Bad Muthafucka Comin' Your Way",
Backing Up While Swimming,
"Ain't That Many of Us to Go Around",
"Give Me Some Milk or Else Go Home",
A Way Out of Here Other Than That Door,
Monday, December 22, 1969,
There's a Riot Goin' On,
The Word Made Flesh,
A Screaming Comes across the Sky,
"Nigger, Come Out of That Black Skin and Be Black, Nigger",
"Let It Stay Heavy if Not Hard",
"I See That Man in My Mind and Go with Him",
"There's a Person Here That's Possessed",
"Let's Get Him before Somebody Else Does",
"You Hollywood Faggots Can Kiss My Rich Happy Black Ass",
"Does It Look Like I'm Smiling to You, Motherfucker?",
"When You Get off That Stage, There's a Loneliness That Comes over You",
"My Mind's Thinking About Shit I Don't Want to Be Thinkin' About",
"The Part of Me That Wanted to Die Did",
Is Comedy Stand-Up Poetry?,
"I Guess That's a Smile. I Hope That's His Face",
"I'm Finding It Hard Imitating Richard Pryor",
The Last Temptation of Richard,
Epilogue: Going to Meet the Man,
About the Authors,
What People are Saying About This
“Richard Pryor was chain lightning to everything around him. He shocked the world through with human electricity. He blew all our comfortable balance to hell. And Furious Cool captures it brilliantly . . . Part memoir, part biography, part poem, part history, part ballad, it manages to sing a wakesong for an incredible American.”
“Richard Pryor lives again in the pages of Furious Cool by David and Joe Henry. With heart and grace and witnessing, they show us how and why this comic and tragic genius changed the culture of this country when he could not change himself. You may be meeting or rediscovering Pryor, but he’s likely to change you, too.”