When Richard Pryor came to New Orleans in August 1983 to record his comedy special Here and Now at the Saenger Theatre, he stayed in the New Orleans Hilton where my wife Pat, as administrative assistant to the hotel’s general manager, handled all VIP guest details. Pat’s working contact with Pryor was with his agent and show producer David Banks, but Pat and I both got to meet Richard as he prepared for two tapings of his final official stand-up comedy show.
The 1983 stage performances were a comeback to show business after a horrendous event in 1980 when Richard had set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. He had third-degree burns over more than half his body, and survival itself was in the balance.
Although Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian exhibited a profane irreverent style that was unsuitable for children, our three teenaged daughters knew him well from his hit movies: Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980) both with Gene Wilder. The fact that Richard had won several Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Recording and television Emmys for Best Writing in Comedy for specials starring Lily Tomlin (1973) may have been lost on our young girls, but in the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Pryor was one of the most recognized entertainers in the world.
Richard Pryor’s comedic legacy for bringing highly charged racial and social issues into sharp perspective paved the way for comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and opened a venue for the general public to address their prejudices.
In my brief encounters with Richard Pryor in Pat’s office, he seemed both gentle and humble, although he obviously felt the pressure of the scheduled performances. He was still refining his material for the show when David Banks asked Pat to type the head notes for Richard’s individual sketches onto index cards. The cards would be placed on an on-stage stool where Richard could refer to them as the show progressed. The show was performed on two separate days at the Saenger and then edited for the broadcast and DVD versions. Pat and I were given prime seats for the first show, and if you see the show recording, you may notice Richard deftly referring to Pat’s index cards as he moves from one subject area to another.
One day while Richard was in the hotel, I was walking through the Hilton lobby with our three daughters trailing behind when we crossed paths with the star and his lady. We then stopped to greet each other. I had recommended some New Orleans restaurants to Richard, and we had some brief words on that subject before he moved on. There had been no opportunity to formally introduce the girls, but suddenly they were pulling at my shirt.
“Dad, that was Richard Pryor!” one of them exclaimed. “He acted like he knew you!”
In 1998, Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. It is the highest award a nation can bestow on a humorist. Considering his abusive childhood and his struggle for racial equality, Richard Pryor’s triumphs are profoundly important in articulating the American experience. I’m glad to salute Richard Pryor by this remembrance.