Richard Pryor looks back—with regrets

LAST APRIL, WEAKENED BY HEART DISEASE and despondent over his crippling multiple sclerosis, Richard Pryor rode his "mobie," an electric mobile cart, into his bathroom and began ramming it against the toilet. BANG! BAAMMM! CRASH!

The burst of anger should have been expected. After all, the daring 50-year-old comedian and movie star (Stir Crazy, Bustin' Loose) had always been a reckless type, a man who knew how to survive, if not thrive on, chaos. He sired seven children by six different women, married and divorced seven times, endured more than a decade of alcohol and drug abuse and lived through a freebasing accident in 1980 in which he suffered third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body. Now, he is relegated to a life of mobies, canes, operations and physical therapy.

On this day, though, Pryor is standing—wobbly but proud—at the top of the terra-cotta tile steps of his two-story Spanish-style house in Bel Air, helped by his devoted ex-wife No. 4, Deboragh McGuire, 36. (They were married from 1977 to 1978.) Every step is an act of will for the actor, who is also recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery last June.

Despite his condition, Pryor shows a flash of his old humor. At the door of his vast bedroom, the hub of his life these days, he tells a visitor, "Come in, everybody. Take your clothes off." In a more serious vein, he admits, "I'm glad to be alive. It's like God said, 'Hey, buddy. Sorry, but I choose the time. I didn't call you. Get your ass on back there.' "

One reason for his golden mood is the CBS tribute A Party for Richard Pryor, which aired earlier this month. Orchestrated by friend and admirer Eddie Murphy, it was a rosy valentine from the likes of Burt Reynolds, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend. "If there were no Richard, I wouldn't be here," Murphy said on the show, echoing the gratitude of a generation of comics inspired by Pryor's barrier-breaking combination of physical comedy, blunt jive and sharp observations on race. "I was speechless," says Pryor of the event. "I never imagined anything like this in my life."

Nor did he imagine, after a sudden weight loss back in 1986, the disease that would inspire this TV party. Alarmed by Richard's failing vision and balance, his physician, Dr. John Perry, finally persuaded him to fly to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for tests. "I didn't know what MS was, so I didn't get panicky." Pryor says of the diagnosis. "Then I came back home and turned on the TV. They had a show on about it. They showed a woman in a wheelchair, and I went into quick denial. But you can deny all you want, and you still keep fallin' down. It eats you up."

Usually striking young adults, the disease destroys the protective sheath around nerve fibers. MS affects motor ability and balance and may also cause bladder weakness, muscle spasms, failing eyesight and depression. It is rarely fatal, but there is no way of preventing it—and no cure. Yet Perry, Pryor's physician, who had treated him with cortisone and intravenous steroids to counter the disease's degenerative effects, is optimistic. "Richard can live for a long, long time," he says.

Pryor's battle to improve his condition consumes most of his days. To combat the emotional strain, psychiatrist Thomas Ungerleider visits him regularly, while cardiovascular therapist Diane Maeda directs his upper body exercises. Finally, there is his new alcohol-free, low-fat diet, although Pryor weighs barely 130 lbs.

Pryor spends whatever free time he has working on script ideas for Indigo Productions, his film company, and although he says he's set financially, he hopes to be strong enough to make movies again. He's also realistic. "Every day," he notes, "there are things I think about doing that I know I can't." Like the struggle to climb stairs. Or to have an orgasm. "That's very frustrating," he says. "It just gets erect, and then it goes, 'Well, you like it? Bye.' "

Illness has not placed him beyond controversy either. Wife No. 5, Jennifer Lee, charges in her recent memoir, Tarnished Angel, that she was physically abused by Pryor and feared for her life during their 14-month marriage and 14-year relationship. She also says that his freebasing accident was actually a suicide attempt.

Pryor does not confirm her claims yet says of her book, "Why should I read it? I lived it." He also concedes, "I never thought I had a self-destruct mechanism working inside of me. But it's pretty obvious. I never thought I'd live this long. When I was a kid, my uncle and grandfather was bettin' I wouldn't make it to 14."

The only child of Gertrude Thomas and LeRoy Pryor, a bartender, young Richard grew up in the black ghetto of Peoria, Ill., surprising everyone with both his longevity and his success. Early on, he showed gifts of mimicry and improvisation. "This child," his community-center drama teacher, Juliette Whittaker, recalled, "loved making people laugh."

He also loved the ladies. By age 17 he'd already fathered his first daughter, Renee, now 34. His other children are Richard Jr., 30, Elizabeth, 24, Rain, 22, Stephen Michael, 7, Kelsey, 4, and franklin, 4. As for the marriages themselves, Richard claims that he can't keep any of them straight.

After an Army stint, Pryor moved to New York City from Peoria in 1962, where he joined the burgeoning group of black comics—Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory Bill Cosby—who were beginning to find recognition. By the mid-'60s he was earning a reputation for his high-intensity, character-driven monologues. "Richard is the finest performer in the world—edgy, honest, political, warm, emotional, physical," said Chevy Chase at a nontelevised Friars' Club Roast for him this past September. "He may have caught fire, but he lit up the world, and he ain't burnt out yet."

Today, Pryor casts a cool eye on his heated past. "There are people who say they have no regrets," he says. "I can't fathom that. I have done things so bad, sometimes I sit and shudder." Now he's trying to put his house in order. "MS put something in my life," he explains. "It's like; God sat me down and said, 'Take a break.' This is it. If you ain't here, you're nowhere."

MARJORIE ROSEN
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lois Armstrong.