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Pryors Keeping It All in the Family With 'Hope' : Television: Father and daughter are making their first performance together on the medical drama. For the comedian, it's a case of art imitating life as he plays a man living with MS.

November 20, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The statuesque woman helps lift and carry her frail father from his wheelchair to the hospital room's vinyl armchair. As the woman, now behind her father, gently places her hands on his slender shoulders, her eyes swell with tears and his discomfort is obvious.

It's the set of the CBS hospital drama "Chicago Hope"--but they're not acting. Not yet, anyway. Richard and Rain Pryor, father and daughter, anxiously wait for rehearsal to begin for their first performance together.

Pryor hasn't acted in front of cameras since his difficult 1991 outing in "Another You" with Gene Wilder. Diagnosed with debilitating multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1986, Pryor found it increasingly difficult to maintain the frenzied pace of his work and eventually stopped performing for a time.

Now Pryor returns to TV. On tonight's "Chicago Hope," he plays Joe Springer, a man stricken with MS. Springer and his daughter, Annie (Rain), pay a visit to renowned neurosurgeon Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin) in hopes that he can help Joe use his legs again.

It is, most obviously, a case of art imitating life.

By the end of the day, a tired Pryor labors through a long bit of dialogue. "It's more difficult" when he's fatigued, he confirms a week later at his Encino home. "I was freakin'." But Rain being there helped, he says, slowly lighting a cigarette.

Pryor smiles. In the comfort of his home, seated in his wheelchair, surrounded by awards and photographs, cozy in a fleecy sweat suit, he's more articulate, relaxed, even bold. He's ready to talk about embarking on yet another evolution to his remarkable career: working with MS.

For the last few months, Pryor has spent two evenings a week working at the Comedy Store, doing 20- to 40-minute long sets.

After a long period of being bedridden, Pryor now walks on and off the Comedy Store stage. And the climax of the "Chicago Hope" episode dramatizes his experiences with using his legs more, and his return to social life.

Kevin Arkadie, who wrote tonight's program, said the idea of using Pryor in an episode came to him after seeing the comedian on a TV magazine show. The profile of his idol felt like a retrospective: "It seemed like a goodby . I could still see the fire, the determination. He still had a career ahead of him."

Arkadie, who wanted an emotionally upbeat story, incorporated daughter Rain, Pryor's only performing offspring, into the episode.

For Rain, 26, an actress and singer who is working on an album of music she describes as "Annie Lennox swallowed Etta James," filming "Chicago Hope" early this month was a mixed bag. While tonight's TV appearance may portray the very best of their relationship, her father left when she was 6 months old and she saw him only sporadically throughout her childhood.

On the set, preparing to tackle the one scene her father was able to shoot each day, Rain said, "I'm very honored, very grateful. To me, it's like no one can take away this moment."

But it was also a moment when the actress felt confronted by her father's disease--"the whole sense of my dad having to overcome his fear of walking and the fear of just putting himself out there."

She cried when she read the script, she said, and "even in rehearsals, I just get teary 'cause it's so real. . . . Now I can't have denial about it. He really does have it. I watch him struggle and work through it and it's pretty powerful."

Pryor said that working with Rain--now on stage in New York in the musical "Sisterella"--"was very professional, and, every now and then, I got to be her dad and she was my daughter some, so inspiring it was."

He is further inspired by the work, even though it isn't easy. "You know, I don't walk so good, so it makes it extra hard," and early morning calls are taxing. But he plans to continue his comedy gigs and starts work on a David Lynch film next month. He'll also collaborate again with Todd Goldman on a sequel to his autobiography, "Pryor Convictions."

Pryor said he's most grateful for "bein' alive. I don't care about the MS. It was a gift: 'I know you tried to [expletive] up your life, but take this.' God has strange ways of doin' this stuff."

* "Chicago Hope" airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

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