“If someone tells you there’s a cure for addiction, they’re lying. This shit stays with you. Forever.”
Richard Pryor never said these exact words, but his 1986 interview with Barbara Walters painted this sentiment with the brush Michelangelo once used. Anyone who knows me is well aware Pryor was an individual I’ve always gravitated towards. His candidness – both on and off stage – endeared me to him in the same manner Tupac did. They were open books, straight shooters and honest to a fault more often than not.
Twenty-seven years ago was an interesting time for Pryor. His reign atop comedy’s Mount Olympus had passed, giving way to a young superstar by the name of Eddie Murphy. His battles with alcohol and hard drugs had come to define his legacy nearly as much as the comedic routines he flawlessly delivered to mask those same demons.
Maybe more than any personality at the time, Walters seemed to bring out the darkest, most humble side of Pryor. He openly discussed how the perception of him having AIDS affected his psyche tremendously following drastic weight loss. Pryor showed no hesitation when admitting his days chasing highs – which never came – led to the physical abuse of women in his life, repeatedly. The clip’s most powerful moment, however, arises when Walters presses the icon about lying in regards to his drug usage and how freebasing led to his egregious suicide attempt in 1980.
The honesty was emotional. It was intellectual. It was maddening. For myself, more than any other description, it was poignant. Here, one of the most popular and successful entertainers to walk the planet was openly admitting the fame and fortune he broke barriers to achieve served as catalysts for the pitfalls he so publicly and famously embraced.
Perhaps that’s why Pryor’s comedy remains so penetrating. As funny as it was and still is, knowing a great majority of his material reasonated from pain ignites a heightened sense of appreciation – sort of like watching Michael Jordan succumb to tears following his first championship or DMX’s emotional prayers at his concerts.
I never got the opportunity to catch Pryor in his glory years. Hell, Harlem Nights wasn’t on my radar until the late ’90s. Yet, not knowing and coming to respect Pryor’s place in pop culture until long after his time in the public eye had passed was a gift. Richard’s life – much like any of ours – was created by the experiences he went through and the people he met. The “what if” surrounding his career and what he could have eclipsed had it not been for the hurdles he inevitably placed in front of himself are as depressing as they are awesome; as is the case with Len Bias, John Belushi and Tim Hardin.
Unlike those four, Pryor, somehow, lived. And maybe that’s what I’ve come to appreciate most about him. He never ran. He never downplayed the struggles he encountered. He took all the bad in his life, and simultaneously made people feel good about theirs.
Even if – like in 1986 with Barbara Walters – he wasn’t telling jokes all the time.