This Friday night, Showtime will shine a light on the “King of Comedy,” Richard Pryor with the documentary, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. We celebrate the life of the iconic comedian by looking at his Top Ten Films.
George Lopez, Bob Newhart, Mike Epps, Richard Pryor Jr. and others recount the culture-defining influence of one of America’s most brilliant, iconic comic minds in the new Showtime documentary.
While much is known of his rise to fame from a hardscrabble, at times tortured, upbringing, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic uses never-before-seen concert footage, photos and talk show appearances to illustrate Pryor’s complex career arc in a newly desegregated America.
After a brief early stint honing a more mainstream, non-confrontational style, Pryor changed course and found his true, authentic voice. His brutal, uncanny observations (usually peppered with the “n” word as punctuation) challenged polite notions on everything from politics to race relations and dared to take on topics some would prefer left alone. In his four-decade career, through meteoric highs and tragic lows, Pryor changed the direction of comedy and paved the road for future comic agitators such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Epps and many others.
The documentary on Pryor’s life is directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired); Pryor’s widow, Jennifer Pryor is one of the executive producers.
Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic debuts at 8 p.m. Friday, May 31 on Showtime.
Check out our Ten Favorite Pryor films and performances
This hilarious film paired Gene Wilder and Pryor is one of their four films together and arguably they’re most successful. The film centers on a pair of down-on-their-luck friends who are given 125-year prison sentences after being framed for a bank robbery; while in prison they befriend other inmates and ultimately escape. Pryor, who was freebasing cocaine during the film, once quit the film when crew members eating watermelons began playing with it and playfully throwing pieces of it at each other. A piece landed at Pryor’s feet and he accused the crew of racism. He returned to the film after the crew member that threw the piece was fired. Directed by Sidney Poitier, Stir Crazy grossed $101 million, becoming the first film by a Black director to make a $100 million at the box office.
Pryor gives a solid dramatic performance in this story of three workers, Zeke (Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto), who rob their local union, find incriminating information and watch their lives slowly unravel. The film’s backstory was equally tense with constant disagreements between the three stars, who reportedly argued constantly. According to the director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Pryor punched Keitel and hit Kotto with a chair during filming. Schrader also suffered an on-set breakdown due to the artistic and personal tensions among his actors on the set.
Which Way Is Up?
Pryor is a comedic tour-de-force playing three different roles in this uproarious send-up, which spotlights his comedic range and skill. He plays a poor orange picker named Leroy Jones who gets laid off when by mistake he joins the worker’s union during one of their demonstrations. Afterwards he is forced to leave his wife and family behind which also includes Leroy’s father (also played by Pryor) to go to Los Angeles. Leroy ends up working for the same company that fired him back home. He is a manager at the company but he is now distant from his former pals. He meets and falls in love with Vanetta (Lonette McKee) who is a labor organizer which leaves him splitting time between his wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and Vanetta. When Leroy finds out that the Reverend Lenox Thomas (also played by Pryor) has got his wife pregnant while he was absent, he then make the moves on the reverend’s wife.
Lady Sings the Blues
Pryor gives one of strongest dramatic performances as Piano Man opposite Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams in this Oscar-nominated film. The film chronicles the rise and fall of legendary blues singer Billie Holiday (Ross). Her late childhood, stint as a prostitute, early tours, marriages and drug addiction are featured. For the difficult addiction scenes, Ross had an expert consultant on the set as she insisted that Pryor personally instructed her on how to behave during the scenes of drug use.
Pryor gives another solid dramatic performance in the biopic of Wendell Scott, the first black stock car racing driver to win an upper-tier NASCAR race. Scott, a taxi cab driver in post-World War II, learns his craft for car racing by transporting illegal moonshine in the backwoods of Virginia. By the mid-1960s, he was a veteran driver who had won his battles with the white racetrack owners and police officers. Pryor co-starred opposite his then-lady love, Pam Grier and co-starred with Clevon Little who took over for him in the western comedy, Blazing Saddles.
Three generations of comedians, Pryor, Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy collaborated on this showcase period film. Murphy wrote and directed this story focused on “Sugar” Ray is the owner of an illegal casino, who contend with the pressures of vicious gangster and corrupt policemen who want to see him go out of business. Murphy had long wanted to work with Pryor who he considered his greatest influence in stand-up comedy and also was the final film for co-star Foxx. This film is often thought of as a missed opportunity by Murphy who, by his own admission, felt that he didn’t dedicate enough thought or care to the directing of his debut. He was more concerned the party scene instead of his craft. While Harlem Nights was a critical failure, it was a financial success, grossing 3½ times the amount it cost to make it (worldwide).
Pryor starred opposite Max Julien in this cult classic, co-written by with Julian and director Michael Campus. In the story, Goldie returns from five years at the state pen and winds up king of the pimping game. Trouble comes in the form of two corrupt white cops and a crime lord who wants him to return to the small time. One of the film’s most memorable moments, the infamous Player’s Ball, was largely Pryor’s idea. Other parts of the story Pryor took directly from people who he knew living this lifestyle. The film’s producers were against casting Pryor in the film because of his notorious behavior, which at the time included him urinating on Shelley Winters while filming Wild in the Streets. The box-office success of The Mack helped Pryor to get work in movies again.
Pryor appeared in another cult classic, Car Wash which was based on a close-knit group of employees who one day have all manner of strange visitors coming onto their forecourt. Pryor made a memorable cameo as a preaching ‘wonder-man’ who is loved by most but loathed by one. Other story lines in the comedy included a man who looks like a thief by the way he is holding his bottle, but it is really his urine sample as he is off to the hospital. T.C’s (Franklyn Ajaye) love life takes a turn for the better and the songs keep coming. Reverend Ike was a real life preacher and inspiration for the Daddy Rich character but when he was unavailable for the film, they chose Pryor who filmed his role in two days. Pryor always felt that the filmmakers misled the public into believing that he had had a bigger part in this movie. He also admitted being high during the shoot, saying “On the set of Car Wash, I was too coked out to know any better.”
Pryor and Gene Wilder reteam for another comedy that centers on a somewhat daffy book editor on a rail trip from Los Angeles to Chicago thinks that he sees a murdered man thrown from the train. When he can find no one who will believe him, he starts doing some investigating of his own. But all that accomplishes is to get the killer after him. Pryor, always conscious of racism on film sets, took issue with the scene where Grover (Pryor) puts the shoe polish on George’s (Wilder) face to make him appear to be black was first filmed, a white man walked in and believed George was black. Pryor was uncomfortable with the scene and felt it would be funnier if a black man walked in and is not fooled at all. Pryor asked director Arthur Hiller for a re-shoot but Hiller refused. Pryor walked off the set and refused to return to filming until the scene was changed. Hiller relented and Pryor’s idea was used for the final cut.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling
In Pryor’s most personal film that closely resembled his life story, he plays Jo Jo Dancer, a popular stand-up comedian who has severely burned himself in a drug incident. As he lies unconscious in a hospital, his spiritual alter ego gets up and begins a journey of his own. He revisits his life, from growing up in a brothel as a child and struggling to beat the long odds to become a top rated comedian. However, his success brings new problems as he develops a tragic pattern of substance abuse that begins to screw up his life. All the while, Jo Jo’s spirit watches these events and attempts to convince his past self to turn off from his path of self destruction. The first and only film that Pryor directed.
While Gene Wilder and Pryor starred in four films together, this film is the one that should have been their debut but didn’t happen. Director and co-writer Mel Brooks hired Pryor to work on the script and planned on casting him in the lead as Bart. Pryor had previously penned episodes of Sanford and Son and had been shopping a script for his own politically incorrect Western comedy, The Black Stranger. But hopes of casting Pryor were dashed after he started bringing Courvoisier and cocaine to script sessions and Brooks couldn’t secure financing for the film with Pryor in the film.. Pryor’s friend, Cleavon Little got the part, though Pryor’s pungent racial humor is in evidence throughout the film. Pryor is also credited with coming up with the character, Mongo, for the film.