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COVER STORY : Still Livin' Large : He was the brightest comet in comedy--until he crashed to earth, crushed by problems and illness. But Richard Pryor's humor still touches many hearts.

July 02, 1995|Lynell George | Lynell George is a staff writer for The Times' Life & Style section.

An image that once made for a clever billboard now serves better as metaphor: the epitome of livin' large.

Flaming-red tux, sans tie, Richard Pryor--like some caffeinated, animated Macy's dirigible towering over Sunset Boulevard--dodges the crush of traffic. Clutching his Goliath foot, he howls in pain as some befuddled motorist has taken a roll over a toe or two.

Some 13 years after the release of "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip," the bigger-than-life story continues. It's Richard Pryor Rises Again--Part XI . . . or is it Part XII . . . ?

Just a few blocks down the Sunset Strip from where that billboard once stood, a necklace of a line, doubled-up Disneyland fashion, winds around the Comedy Store's perimeter. Above it, broad script letters announce the afternoon's event: "Richard Pryor signs Pryor Convictions"--the comedian's latest stab at a sense-making of his chaotic life.

In the dry steam heat on this windy Saturday, some have set up camp in the shade hours ago. Armed with disposable cameras, they wait--eyes not straying too far from the sloped driveway leading to the VIP stage door. Comedians with 8-by-10s, actors with resumes, old girlfriends with snapshots and memories.

Anticipation alone has men built like linebackers worried about stuttering in his presence. "If I were Catholic," says longtime fan Byron Bonner, his three copies of Pryor's book protected in a plastic bag, "this would be like meeting the Pope."

Like a game of charades, bits and pieces of old Pryor routines float up: a flash of a trademark scowl here; there, imitations of wise and wizened Mudbone unscrewing a bottle of Night Train, jaw working, telling his version of the truth.

But it's Pryor's edgy and eloquent confrontations on the subject of race that propped him head and shoulders above other stand-ups. His act--blunt, blue and threatening to some--tackled what up until then no comic quite had the courage to.

"I credit Richard with saving my life," says comedian Dominic Anthony, snapping into main-room action. "I was ready to commit suicide until I heard [the album] 'That Nigger's Crazy.' It talked about where I was from. If he could do it where he came from, I could do it from where I came from. He was . . . " Anthony pauses, considering the words, " real real."

When "he" arrives, it isn't exactly the Pope-mobile. Nor is it a sleek stretch limo of the high-on-the-hog, fast-lane days. But no matter. A teal van hums past the waiting throng. Rolling to a stop, the door slides open in a whisper. After a pause, out rolls Pryor on a motorized scooter, baseball cap and glasses slightly obscuring his face, trademark conspiratorial grin--lit like neon.

Up shoot the hoots, the woofs, the applause of a couple of hundred fans--men, women, children, all ages, colors, expectations. The welcome lasts well after he disappears into the dark hole of the club.

"He changed the face of comedy forever," says Anthony, craning his neck, gauging how long it will take until the line will snake inside. "It wasn't just a blue act but a truthful act."

*

In his new book, "Pryor Convictions--And Other Life Sentences," Richard Pryor is once again finding his voice, trying to tell the truth.

It isn't the first time. And it has never been easy.

Miles Davis once told him: "Listen to the music inside your head, Rich. Play with your heart." This was in the mid-'60s, just about the time that Pryor was doing--and copping to it--his version of Bill Cosby.

But something shook his psyche after a breakdown under the spotlight at Las Vegas' Aladdin Hotel in 1967.

"For the first time in my life, I had a sense of Richard Pryor the person," he writes. "I understood myself. I knew what I stood for . . . knew what I had to do . . . I had to go back and tell the truth.

"People can't always handle it. . . . But I knew that if you tell the truth, it's going to be funny."

Ultimately, Pryor took up one of the most treacherous endeavors: telling the truth about race in America--and telling it to America's face.

That task--giving center-stage shape and voice to long-silenced black men and women living on the margins, articulating the range of joys and the shades of frustration--was far larger than the slight young man who chose to undertake it.

Lies, tall tales and the shadings in between assume a prominent place in the history of African American humor. And Pryor's most famous creation, Mudbone, the grizzled back-porch raconteur, is, according to author Mel Watkins, "one of the most eloquent and popular purveyors of the tall tale or big lie in modern comedy."

*

A master of creating worlds much larger than the small stages he once stood upon, Pryor, 54, is currently sorting through the taller tales of his own creation, mining for the center of his story, where routines end and life begins--amending some details, rethinking others.

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