HIGH POINT, N.C. — Richard Pryor has come apart. Out of cocaine and out of solutions, he reaches for the bottle of Bacardi 151 Rum on the bedroom dresser and douses himself with liquor. Then he flicks his lighter and ignites himself into a human fireball.
This harrowing scene occurs near the end of Pryor's new semi-autobiographical film, "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling," and Pryor now admits that on June 9, 1980, he was ready to take his own life. "It was a horror, an absolute horror. I think I got enough of it on the screen, but it was worse than that."
Richard Pryor, your life is calling, and it's not a pretty picture. In "Jo Jo" (opening Friday), which marks his directing debut, the 45-year-old comedian-actor offers the audience a Pryor's-eye view of his circuitous route to the top. It is equal parts confession and explanation, a soul-purging expedition that may strike some viewers as a $20-million therapy session. "This is a movie I had to do," Pryor said earnestly. "I felt that once I got it past me, it would free me to do other work."
The story of the rise and fall and rise again of a stand-up comic, "Jo Jo Dancer" is hardly a comedy. Early on, we see Pryor on his knees frantically combing the carpet for one more pebble of cocaine to smoke. We see him as a child peering through a keyhole in the Peoria brothel in which he grew up, sneaking a look at his mother at work. And we see him charred and delirious, lying on a hospital gurney floating in and out of consciousness.
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
BLUE NOTES: Richard Pryor was credited with a best supporting Oscar for his role in "Lady Sings the Blues" in David T. Friendly's article April 27, but Pryor was not so nominated.
It would be pointless to suggest that Jo Jo Dancer isn't Richard Pryor, and even Pryor himself admitted that the movie ended up being a closer parallel to the events of his own life than he had planned. "It's close, real close," he said.
For two hours on a Sunday, while on location here making "Critical Condition," Pryor talked. Surrounded by his only current vices--cartons of Marlboro cigarettes and 12-pack boxes of Trident spearmint gum--Pryor discussed with apparent candor the bouts with the drugs that nearly took his life, the demons that crushed his self-confidence and the new personality he claims has emerged after three years of sobriety.
This was a vastly different Pryor from the angry, acid-tongued, jive-talking man that we have all come to know. He was reserved, and so quiet that at times he'd answer questions in a barely audible whisper. He was open, to the point where he acknowledged that he had continued to free-base cocaine even after the free-basing accident that nearly killed him.
As an interview subject, Pryor has always been unpredictable. At times, he has been moody and unresponsive--or sensitive and forthcoming. On this occasion, Pryor was a mixture of both. He was willing to talk in great detail about the painful hurdles in battling back to sobriety. But on some subjects, such as the failed potential of his own company or the status of blacks in Hollywood, he was eager to get off the subject quickly.
He looks different too. His mustache is full, his hair more stylishly cut in looser curls. He wore a beige silk shirt over a plain white T-shirt and casual slacks. He appeared healthy, with no visible scars from the accident.
If there is a consistent theme running through "Jo Jo," if indeed it is his life, it's a sad one. We learn that for most of his life, despite the enormous success he has achieved in his art, Pryor has been riddled with doubt, frustration and pain. "I always believed in something, that's what kept me going all through life," he said. "There have to be better ways and better days and I think if I work on these things in myself, it will make things better."
It was an intensely introspective Richard Pryor that decided to make "Jo Jo," which is the most personal--and perhaps commercially riskiest--kind of film making one can imagine for a person with his star power. Several years ago, Pryor suggested the idea to then-Columbia Pictures Chairman Guy McElwaine, who quickly responded with a resounding yes. But it was first planned as a "bust-out comedy," Pryor said. "I tried to do that but then you start writing and it starts going in another direction. It started getting a lot more serious."
"Jo Jo," which was originally scheduled for release last Christmas, cost about $20 million to make, according to one Columbia insider. Toward the end of filming, Pryor started to have problems with structuring the movie and called upon old friend Thom Mount (former president of production at Universal Pictures) to help him finish it up. Mount refused to elaborate on his role in the cutting room. "I'm very proud of Richard's work on this film," he said. "I don't know of a major star in this business who would take the chances Richard has. It was a brave movie to make."