by Nellie Killian
This month we've been looking back on the best films of Richard Pryor in our series A Pryor Engagement, and we've been privileged to have some special guests (including Richard Pryor, Jr. and critic Armond White) speak to audiences about his lasting legacy in film and comedy. In this interview Pryor’s widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, shares some of her fond memories about their relationship and his career.
How did you and Richard meet? You mentioned that it was while he was working on Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, had you seen him perform live before?
I had just returned from Texas (August 1977) where I had been singing with a friend in clubs around the Austin area. I was broke and needed work. My friend Lucy Saroyan (William’s daughter) was seeing Richard as well as being employed by him as a “creative consultant.” Richard had recently purchased a home in Northridge, California that needed decorating. I met him and was hired to work in collaboration with Lucy decorating this house.
I fell in love the minute I met him… no joke. I worked for him for six months before we began actually dating. During that time, he married and divorced Deborah. We began dating in January of 1978. And that’s when he began work on Richard Pryor: Live In Concert. I fell in love again when I saw him on stage. I worked with him on that, going to the Comedy Store every night, taking notes and honing it and when he had an act, we shot it; it’s my favorite stand-up concert and is the film that allowed him to crossover to white audiences. In Live In Concert, Richard was strong and vulnerable and brilliant and in love while turning all the pain and struggle into comedy, which was his genius.
Did he change his performance style at all when he was playing for a camera?
Richard always performed without a net; he was always looking inside himself for the material and always seemed remarkably able not to notice the camera, which speaks to his comfort level onstage. He was always willing to expose his demons and angels, even when they danced together.
Pryor cut his own path in the entertainment industry. Who were his comedy idols? Were there any favorites among the younger comedians that came up under his influence?
He adored Lenny Bruce, and he made me sit down and listen to his Green Album. “If we are involved, you have to know and appreciate this man.” He also appreciated Bob Newhart, Red Skelton, Redd Foxx, and Moms Mabley.
When we went to the Comedy Store in later years, he always appreciated the younger comics coming up. Even when they bombed, he understood the courage it demanded, always empathizing with the struggle.
As Richard became more famous and audiences began to know his style (and even some of his jokes), how did his stand-up change? Did he miss the intimacy of performing in smaller rooms? Or performing for people that might be more surprised by his act?
Fame and money always have an effect on people and Richard knew it. That’s why he loved going back to the “or”… the “original room” at the Comedy Store. When he was ill, he still wanted to be onstage, which I found both tragic and heroic. He no longer stalked the stage like a predator stalking his prey. Some people had trouble with that. I recall Damon Wayans saying, “I can’t go see him perform because it makes me so sad.” These comments always pissed me off because it was Richard’s desire and his true DNA as a comic that drove him to perform and he had the courage to do it even when he was ill and never cared what anyone said. I loved him for that.
Pryor is best known for his stand-up specials; were there any acting roles that he was especially fond of? Do you have a favorite?
Richard loved the parts that demanded him to stretch as an actor: Lady Sings the Blues, Blue Collar, and Some Kind of Hero… he appreciated those big bucks that came along with films like Stir Crazy, but he knew full well they were formulaic comedy.
I loved him in Blue Collar. You can watch his dedication as well as his struggle. Paul Schrader has some good stories about what went on during the shoot.