“Years later, Dad confided that had he known how famous he would become, he would have never named me after himself. I think that what he meant was the name bore a heavy weight, one I would have to carry through life, perceived as Richard Pryor’s son and the inevitable comparison: his success, his fame, his wealth. Dad also understood that most everyone I would ever meet, or be attracted to, or fell in love with, I would never be certain if it was just me they loved or if they just wanted to bask in the second-hand aura of my dad. He also knew what I would discover eventually: that there were mean, ruthless people out there who would try to use and manipulate me to get close to him. Profound words from the world’s most famous comedian.” Richard Pryor Jr., In A Pryor Life
As a young child in Peoria, Illinois, Richard Pryor Jr. didn’t see his father very much. The older Richard Pryor was struggling to become a famous comedian– and in the beginning, the man who would eventually become a superstar was so poor he couldn’t even afford a notebook to write down his material. Later on, the younger Richard would not only develop a unique relationship with his now-famous dad, but would also face some unique struggles of his own: specifically, the hefty challenge of finding his own identity as an adult. Along the way, Richard Pryor Jr. joined the Navy, found local fame as a drag queen, was “outed” by the tabloids, explored show business, and made two trips to the altar with a woman– although only one of those trips actually ended in marriage! The openly gay 58-year old singer, actor, father, and grandfather (!) has just written a new book, co-authored with Ron Brewer, named In A Pryor Life. Revealing, provocative, and often very funny, the book has Pryor matter-of-factly sharing many colorful anecdotes from his life, not shying away from his struggles with drugs (including the story of getting high with the son of one of his father’s famous friends at age 11) and his sexual experimentation with both men and women (including the story about an improbable one-night-only “hookup” with a famous raucous comedian). Although Pryor shares some truly “heavy” experiences– such as his childhood sexual abuse– the pages of In a Pryor Life are rife with smart, often laugh-out-loud humor– even when he tells the story of making a desperate drug run in a bad neighborhood at the nadir of his habit. He gives us some priceless stories about his iconic father (One of his dad’s gifts was a black velour jumpsuit embroidered with “EVERY NIGGER IS A STAR”; Richard Jr. snipped out “the N word” before wearing it.) but also pays loving tribute to his mother, who often sadly suffered physical abuse via the hands of her choice of men. (In fact, the book is dedicated to her.) At the conclusion of his biography, we learn that Richard Jr. would eventually make his way to New York City to fulfill his true calling as a performer. Currently clean, sober, and happy, the charismatic cabaret star is working on a one-man show and a screenplay based on his book.
Richard Pryor Jr. took the time from his busy book tour to speak to me about In A Pryor Life, his pathway to personal peace and professional success, and his famous father.
JR: Hello, Richard. Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on the new book!
RP: Thank you!
JR: In your book In a Pryor Life, you speak very openly about your childhood and growing up. Your mother was clearly a wonderful woman, and you were also close with your siblings when you met them, and close with your cousins as well. There was a lot of love and happiness there. But there was also a lot of genuine horrors along the way too. What made this the right time to tell your story?
RP: I tried to write this book two other times previously. I tried to write it in the late 1990’s, and then I tried again in 2000. But there was just still so much there that I hadn’t dealt with. Once I started dealing with myself– as far as discovering the kind of person who I am, and loving who I am, and knowing that I am a strong person, and knowing that I have a lot to give to people– THEN I knew that was the time to tell my story: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
JR: The book is honest and provocative, but also very funny at the same time. I particularly love the unique way that you’ve chosen tell your story. It’s not like so many other “paint by numbers” celebrity biographies. It’s more like a series of quick anecdotes and stories from childhood and then adulthood. The situations really come to life when you tell them.
RP: Like I told my co-writer Ron Brewer, I didn’t want it to be like any other book. I didn’t want each chapter to be like 20 or 30 pages long. I wanted people to read it and take the journey with me, and enjoy the ups and downs that I went through in my life. But I also want them to get something from it as well. I think that a lot of the humor just comes from my DNA: who I am as a person. It comes from the way I tell stories. When we were recording my memories, Ron could hear the inflections and all those things in my voice. He could really tell how I was feeling during those times, and it added a new dimension to the written words– and even during the “bad” times, he was able to put a twist on it to bring some laughter to it as well. That really took the “bite” out of it, so to speak.
JR: Agreed! In the book, you quite openly tell about your own experimentation with sex and drugs through the years. Was it difficult to, for lack of a better phrase, “expose” yourself” to the reader like that?
RP: No. It was actually quite easy. There were times when I would tell Ron certain things, and he would say, “You know, that’s kind of contradictory: the way you were, versus the way you are now.” I said, “Yeah, but that’s the truth. I can’t make someone else look bad because I did something bad.”— because, it was central to the story. In these days, when a celebrity writes a book, people may feel they don’t have anything in common with them. So, I have to share all the bad things that I did and all the things that I went through during those years– especially with the drugs– so that people could identify with it. I wanted to be really raw with it.
JR: On Page 10, you wrote about how you are your dad’s namesake, and that it is a very challenging aspect sometimes. That was the passage that you read to the audience at your book release party at the Triad in New York City. Because of your name, you can get surrounded by what I call “the three S’s”– sluts, stalkers, and sycophants. A lot of opportunistic people appear. Did you ever face a situation like that– when people were taking advantage of you because of your famous genes?
RP: Yeah. One time during the mid to late 80’s, there was someone who I thought was a really good friend when I was performing as a female impersonator. He actually called some friends from Chicago to come down and take pictures of me, and then he got a hold of the tabloids– The National Enquirer, The Star, The Globe, and all of them. They came to one of my shows. This guy who I thought was a good friend actually got paid money throughout the world. So, that was an example.
JR: Damn! Not exactly a good friend. So, about the tabloids: They discovered when you were doing drag, and released the photos, and it became like a public outing, right?
RP: It was DEFINITELY a public outing. It’s not that my family didn’t know about my lifestyle. But this was really broadcast all over. It was definitely a bad situation when those pictures were published. My sisters didn’t want to go to school because they were being attacked because of who their brother was. Then, my mother received mail saying stuff like, “I thought you had two daughters. I didn’t know you had three.” It was just an awful time. My pictures were on the tabloid covers, and that was a headline story on that TV show A Current Affair. That was more of a trying time for my family– more so than it was for me. I was more concerned with what they went through than what I went through because of all that.
JR: Thankfully, the tabloids have lost a lot of their power.
RP: Yeah, social media changed a lot of that!
JR: Yep! So… in your book you write about how your father was always very supportive of you throughout your life…
JR: But he didn’t necessarily push you towards a life in front of the camera.
JR: Do you think that there might have been a reason: for example, maybe he was trying to tell you that showbiz is a rough life?
RP: My sister Rain and I actually talked about this recently. His feeling was, “If you want this, work for it and do it.” He wasn’t going to set us up with an acting gig or something like that… although I did do extra work on one of his films once. But as far as pushing me, he didn’t. He wanted us to do it on our own, and push ourselves and all those things that go with it. I’m very glad he was like that.
JR: Also, a lot of celebrities don’t even want their kids to be in show business either, because it’s a difficult career!
RP: Yeah, that’s definitely true. Rain was talking about how she’s glad that things worked out the way they did, because a lot of her friends who had everything handed to them– not having to work, not having to struggle, not having to go through things in life that everyone has to go through– are all messed up now. They are in their 40’s and 50’s and are all just a mess because of that.
JR: Wow! So, like I said before, in the book you are very open about your experience with addiction. For so many of us, it’s a constant struggle. It can’t really be “cured”; it’s a constant journey of hills and valleys. A lot of your readers will be grateful for the honesty in your book. Today, you are in a very peaceful, stable, healthy place. What was the moment in life where you finally said, “I’m getting on the right path. I’m just not going to let this happen again.”?
RP: I think that it was me wanting more for myself. You look back and examine yourself and ask yourself, “What have I done? What have I gone through? What kind of destruction have I caused? Was it my fault? Why did I do the things that I did?” Then I looked at myself and asked, “How can I be a better person? How can I feel good about myself?” I think that those are the things that started me off. I started looking at myself in a different light, and I realized that I could actually love myself. I didn’t need anyone to show me that I could be loved. I could be myself and love myself. I think that’s what set me straight in life.
JR: Do you think that just growing up had something to do with it? Was there a particular age?
RP: I think that growing up had something to do with it, but I think that a lot of it had to do with when I lost both my parents. I feel that when I lost my mother in 2002, her death gave me life. It made me grow up and make me face the things in life that maybe I didn’t want to face. When my father died, I could finally breathe and was finally free to be my own person: who I am as an individual and all the things that go with it. I think that was the catalyst.
JR: Gotcha! So, when you came to New York City and started performing, that was a bit of a change in trajectory of sorts for you. People started seeing for the first time that you are a great singer and entertainer.
RP: Yes! In your hometown, people don’t look at you in that aspect. People only look at you and know you as “Richie”. And maybe, “Oh yeah, he sings a little bit.” When I came to New York, it was like an eye-opener for me. I was like, “Yeah, maybe I really can sing. Maybe I really am a good performer.” It gave me those opportunities for people to see me, and for me to start looking at myself as a true performer.
JR: I know we all have a love/hate relationship with New York City! We love it because, well, it’s New York City… and we hate it because it’s noisy, crowded, and expensive! How has New York City been treating you since you’ve come here?
RP: I wanted to go through the journey: the ups and downs and all those things. When I first moved here, I had no place to go. I ended up staying in a theater in the Lower East Side, sleeping there after performances. I truly wanted to be a performer. I knew the sacrifices I had to make. I didn’t want a regular 9 to 5 job where I had to clock in every day. I truly wanted to just perform, and this was the place where I had the outlet to finally do that. I had lived in L.A., but the energy that New York brings to its performers is by far better than any place that I’ve ever been in my life.
JR: Agreed! So, what do you have in store for the future?
RP: What I’m trying to do now is turn In a Pryor Life into a one-man show, where I’ll portray a majority of the characters in the book. I’m also trying to advance that into a screenplay. I have a few people from different production companies who are interested in doing that.
JR: I think that would be great, because you have a lot of great stories in the book! I had to laugh when I read about how you came out to your mom, and she didn’t want you to tell your dad… and then you came out to your dad, and he didn’t want you to tell your mom! The same exact thing happened to me!
RP: Get outta here!
JR: No, it’s true! So… in the book you also write about your contentious relationship with your stepmother. I know that it’s been in the news, and your sister Rain has talked about it too. Do you think that there will ever be some kind of resolution or “halfway point” that you can reach– presuming, of course, that you want one?
RP: Never! It will never happen. She is such a narcissist. Her being won’t even allow her to give in. Her being is just about herself and how she can make herself look good. Even the things she’s doing now with my father’s name and likeness: What are you really doing with that? How are you capitalizing on that? What are you doing to keep his name going in a positive way and not in a negative light? Because, that’s what she thrives on: the negativity and all those things to get the “Woe is me” people on her side and on her bandwagon, so that she can be the “knight in shining armor” who came in and turned things around for him. That’s so far from the truth.
JR: That’s tragic– because as you said, there’s a difference between honoring someone and using their image or persona for their own name. But I think that your book definitely honors your dad! Now, another anecdote is how you were a “runaway groom”…
RP: (Laughs) That was definitely a crazy period. I don’t know what I was thinking during that time. And the fact that my friends wanted to be the “flower girls” at the wedding– that should have tipped me off in the direction I should have been going in versus what I was trying to do!
JR: (Laughs) Are you in a relationship now?
RP: No! I’m single. I haven’t been in a relationship in two years! But I’m open to it. I’m always open to everything. I never keep myself closed! But here’s the thing: I’m really shy. That part of me takes over when it comes to dealing with people. I’m the kind of person who would be up against the wall at a bar just watching people, not conversating with people. It’s just too difficult for me as “Richard”– because “Richard” is shy! When I’m on stage it’s a different story, but one on one, I am shy. It takes a lot for me to loosen up and be confident around people!
JR: Readers, take note! (Laughs) So, do you still watch your dad’s movies?
RP: I don’t watch them that much. I’ll watch them if someone posts a clip or something of that nature, but as far as sitting down and really watching his films, I don’t. It’s difficult sometimes. It’s a blessing to have those things, because I know a lot of people lose their parents and don’t have anything to look back on as far as hearing their parents’ voices. But sometimes it’s just difficult, given what I had to go through within my relationship with him, and then with having to be kept away from him and the pain that caused. It’s hard to look at them in that aspect.
JR: I understand that. But given that, for the new generation who is just learning about Richard Pryor, is there a particular film or showcase that spotlights him and his essence?
RP: There’s a standup show that he did in character called Richard Pryor Live! In Concert which was filmed in Long Beach, California. I know he won a lot of awards for it. That’s the thing that I would show– and have shown– to younger people who really didn’t understand what he was like as a comic. Of course, there are the other films like Lady Sings The Blues. Younger people like The Toy and those kinds of things. And of course, Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder. I try to show the younger people these movies, so that people can see the kind of genius that he was.
JR: Agreed! Thank you for speaking with me… and good luck with the rest of your book tour!
RP: Thank you!
In a Pryor Life by Richard Pryor Jr. with Ron Brawer is now available at bookstores everywhere in Kindle, hardcover, and paperback versions. Visit www.InAPriorLife.com to buy the book and for more information.