Richard Pryor sat beside Johnny Carson last month and told 15 million viewers about Eddie Murphy, the young comic who's been called "the new Richard Pryor." "I'm gonna kill him," Pryor said.
Pryor and Murphy are the hottest tickets of a hot movie summer. Critics have called Pryor the hero who saved Superman III
. They have said the same for Murphy in Trading Places
The two had never met—except once, briefly and by chance, on a plane out of Atlanta last year. It thrilled Eddie. "Rich was like my idol when I was a kid," he says. "Did you ever make one of those big smiles you smile so hard you feel like blood gonna come outa your face? I was smiling. I tried to be cool, but it was Richard...Richard!" Eddie introduced his girlfriend and "Richard got real smooth on her. He said to her, 'Maybe you could come up and have dinner tonight.' I said, 'Hey!' " Then Richard fell asleep.
They wanted to meet again and get to know each other, so both agreed to their first dual interview at Richard's home in L.A. The chemistry between them was sometimes magical, sometimes explosive. Eddie, 22, aped his idol, Richard, 42. If Richard was cool, Eddie was cooler; if Richard was warm, so was Eddie. They could be downright abusive, acting like bratty kids showing off their four-letter words. But they also became fast friends. By the end of three days, they'd decided to make a movie together.
Pryor: "I don't care how it sounds, I like Eddie a lot. Eddie's good inside. His s—-is natural, it's real. I'm hard to get inside. But I wouldn't mind getting to know Eddie and sharing some real stuff, friendship. I don't think I could pick a better person than Eddie."
Murphy: "You can do a follow-up, say Richard and I are living together."
When Eddie arrived at Richard's sprawling San Fernando Valley home (built by the chewing-gum Wrigleys), Richard took him on a tour, showing off his guest house, his gym, his pictures with greater and lesser celebs (Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson). Eddie picked up one of Richard's five Grammys. "This should have my name on it," he said half joking, half jealous. His first album, Eddie Murphy, won nothing but money.
Then they went off cruising in Richard's black VW Rabbit (leaving the yellow Rolls behind). They shopped for shirts and shoes, got haircuts and ate lunch nearby. Patrons did quadruple takes—recognizing one star, then the other. "I love seeing people tug at him," Richard says. They're forever talking business, Richard giving advice to his disciple: "You really don't have nobody standing in your way.... You're going to be a star."
Pryor: "Finally Eddie said, 'You know, you sound like Yoda.' "
Murphy: "Sometimes when I'm onstage I can hear Richard's voice in the back saying, 'Use the Force, Eddie.' "
That night they went to L.A.'s Comedy Store, where Richard has been trying out some new material. It was the first time Eddie had seen him live. "I'm sitting there with my mouth gaped open," Eddie said later. "The audience is going crazy." Then: "He gave me the mike and walked away.... I was petrified." But Richard proclaimed: "You were funny. You were real funny." The evening touched Richard. "I sat down on the stage there, watching him," he said. "I see me when I see him."
The two of them had become tight, a team. They performed for each other offstage as well, going two-on-one with a photographer when he suggested that they wear white tuxes and red bow ties for some fun pictures. "We're not the Hines Brothers," Eddie protested. "We cool." That was the refrain during two days of shooting—"We cool." The photographer asked them to ham it up a little and both balked. Richard told him they didn't want to look like "no damn clowns." Eddie said: "We don't want to look stupid.... I'm gonna punch you!" The photographer didn't know whether to take the threat seriously, but he was worried. Eddie wanted only "cool" shots—cooler, presumably, than a recent Rolling Stone
cover that showed Eddie with his finger up his nose. After much bickering over the pictures to be taken, Richard finally told the photographer: "You can go f—-yourself. Get out of my house." He told him he was "history."
A pattern had developed. Eddie was following Richard's lead—just as he'd done with his comedy.
Murphy: "My roots are back inside his stuff, his style."
Pryor: "It goes back to whoever the first comic was who paved the way for the second. Dick Gregory paved the way for Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby paved the way for Richard Pryor. Eddie is paving the way for somebody else.... If we're making a contribution like that and just being ourselves, it don't get much better."
The road Richard paved was a lot rougher than Eddie's. Young Eddie came into the big time fast, on the Long Island Expressway. He was raised, a cocky kid, in the New York suburb of Roosevelt. "I used to come home with report cards when I was 15 with zeroes on them and 50s and 60s. My mother would say, 'What's wrong with you?' I'd say, 'I'm going to be famous, Ma.' " He was right. At 15, he started performing in local clubs; at 19, he was live on Saturday Night. Since then he's made two movies (48 Hrs.
and Trading Places
) and one album (a second, a live concert LP, will be out this fall), and he has a one-man special on HBO
later this year. He lives the bachelor life now, planning to move soon to Alpine, N.J., down the road from buddies Stevie Wonder and Joe Piscopo of SNL
. It's been an easy ride. "Nothing's been happening so fast I couldn't deal with it," Eddie explains.
Richard has said that he was raised in his grandmother's brothel in Peoria. He was a show-off kid who left school at 14, worked, went into the Army, then started performing in New York bars. With material that was tame compared to today's—soft as Twinkies—he made it to Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan. But that wasn't the real Richard. In 1970 he realized that and walked off a Vegas stage, hiding out for two years in Berkeley. He came back mean, angry. The Force was with him now, the dark side. By 1982 Richard had gone through at least four wives and had four kids (now 13 to 26). He went through enough drugs to empty Rexall. But he was a success, with around 30 movies and 20 albums. He had become the biggest black superstar.
Murphy: "A very militant black woman said to me, 'How come no serious black actors get the same kind of deals you get or Richard Pryor gets? How come it's always a comedy?' I said because America is still a racist society."
Pryor: "It's sad, listening to Eddie talk about that. It's real important in America, color, class. It's a real messed-up nation. Eddie and I can go to the top, but we can't carry nobody with us. Can't reach back."
Richard recalls being snubbed by a New York cabbie when he tried to get a ride with buddy Jim Brown (the president of his new Richard Pryor production company). "I watched him stand out there and I got hurt," Richard says. "I was just on the Today show and they were telling me how wonderful I was and I walk out into the reality of America and I can't get a cab."
That, Richard concedes, is a relatively "little thing." There are bigger ones. Eddie complains that serious black actors like Billy Dee Williams or Howard Rollins don't get the good parts that white actors get. "They've got a new white actor, a new hot rod every month," he says. "One month it's Travolta, one month it's Tom Selleck." Eddie and Richard are hot rods, they say, because they're funny.
Murphy: "Comedy's universal. Like a white man and a white woman can see one of Richard's films or 48 Hrs...."
Pryor: "It's not threatening."
Murphy: "Yeah, and they can just laugh. A white guy don't have to sit there and worry about his woman seeing me and going 'ooh-ahh.' "
The scripts Eddie and Richard are offered are too often written by whites. "They'll come to you with this stuff, dialogue like 'Hey, jive turkey,' " Eddie says. Or: " 'Like, you can play this irate black man.' I'm going, 'Hey, you have a script?' 'No, that's it, you're angry with society and you beat up a Mafia person and you're friends with Drew Barrymore
.' It's like they had to throw in a white person there."
In most of their movies, Richard and Eddie have co-starred with whites—Christopher Reeve in Richard's latest, Superman III
, and Dan Aykroyd in Eddie's Trading Places
. Reeve has said that Richard was not "deeply involved" in their movie. Pryor says that Reeve "takes it serious," but he adds, "I liked working with Chris." Eddie describes Aykroyd as "robotic the way he handles people: 'Ah, yes, good to meet you.' Very straightforward, very clean-cut, very polite, real nice guy."
Now Richard and Eddie are planning their movie. Eddie says that "out of respect," he would never have asked Richard to do it—"but when he said that it would be nice for us to work, I jumped at it." Eddie had two ideas; the first didn't fly. "Rich was like, 'Yeah, well, I won't be in that. Better call Shecky Greene.' " But Richard called the second one "brilliant, perfect." Both have their own multimillion-dollar, multipicture studio deals. They won't say what their joint idea is, but it could be a way for these two black superstars to finally make it on their own.
Richard has been looking back at his past lately. In Live on the Sunset Strip, he said that all blacks should try to go to Africa—as he has done (to Zimbabwe). It inspired him, seeing a whole nation of blacks, a majority. But, as he told Eddie, it also troubled him when even in Africa he found a preoccupation with color, with the various shades of black. They called him colored. "I said, 'Wait a minute! That was in the '60s.'... Boy, this s—- is deep."
Pryor: "In Zimbabwe I said, 'Excuse me, which tribe do you think I might be from? Maybe you see something in my features that tells you where my ancestors come from?' And this African looks at me for a while and finally he says, 'Italian.' "
Half a joke.
In Sunset Strip Richard forswore the word "nigger." It used to be his verbal version of a raised fist. Now he finds it offensive. He's also changed the way he talks about drugs, ever since 1980, when he burned half his body while freebasing. That changed the man, made him mellower, quieter, straight for good.
Before that happened, straight Eddie and drugged Richard could never have become friends.
Pryor: "I'd say, 'Want some drugs? No? See ya.' "
Murphy: "If I'd met you five years ago, would that be it?"
Pryor: "Yeah, I'd have been gone. Getting drugs, that's all I knew. The pain, good old pain. It's real strange being straight now I mean real straight."
Murphy: "My friends do drugs. It's bulls—-, though. It's not real friendship. It's just the smoke."
Pryor: "You can't have a relationship with anything but drugs when you're on dope. That's a hell of an existence. It's real hard when you stop because old habits are hard to die. But after a while, man, you start noticing there's a real whole world and there are a lot of people who don't do drugs. And I admire those people—like Eddie. He's young and he ain't into that. That's different. I'm learning from him."
Eddie asks Richard about his kids, and he confesses: "They tell me, 'Dad, when you did drugs, you were so dumb.' "
Richard may say that he has things to learn from Eddie, but Eddie's learning more. As much as they try to act like peers, it's still clear that Eddie is the apprentice. "It was real nice to meet him and really dig him as a person outside of all that idol s—-," Eddie says. "It's like it turned into respect." Eddie is younger; he has less experience, less pain.
Murphy: "I asked Rich could he run yesterday. He looked a little insulted. I said, 'Can you fight?' He said, 'I'm goin' to whip your young ass.' "
Pryor: "I felt like Henry Fonda in Golden Pond
Richard is taking it easier now. He enjoys escaping to his Hawaiian hideaway, doing nothing but fishing. Eddie called him there once: "I said, 'What-cha doin', man?' He said, 'I'm here and I'm fishing with some old Hawaiians.' I said, 'Rich, come and have fun!' and he said, 'No, I wake up and I sleep on the beach and we fish. They don't know who I am.' I was like, 'What?' I don't see myself fishing with no Hawaiians." Now that Eddie's a star, he knows the need to escape. "I understand why you go there now," he says.
As the two of them cruised around L.A., they talked about success.
Pryor: "We were talking about why."
Murphy: "Why me? Just look around. See that guy over there, he's probably wondering 'Why me?' too."
Pryor: "We're just fortunate, and all we can do is enjoy it. Because you can't analyze it. It'll drive you crazy, the asking why."
- Lois Armstrong.