You might not think of Richard Pryor, groundbreaking comic, hit-making actor, and blistering social critic as a romantic, but his widow begs to differ. “The first birthday we celebrated together, he had a scavenger hunt for me,” recalls Jennifer Pryor, who married Richard twice and was with him when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2005. “He had hidden gifts all over the house: a beautiful gold satin nightgown with a robe, jewelry. I’d never had someone love me like that. Richard saw me! And he expressed that in all kinds of ways.”
Searingly funny, Richard had been shaped by his childhood — born to a prostitute, he was raised by his tough grandmother who ran the brothel where he lived. He came of age in the 1960s performing alongside Bob Dylan, Redd Foxx, and Woody Allen.
Richard and Jennifer.
A serious drug addict who “liked chaos,” says Jennifer, 68, he fathered six kids with five different women, and married seven times. Despite his bravado, says Jennifer, “he was so vulnerable, and that was hard for him.” His films, from Silver Streak to The Toy, secured his fame, but he never found peace.
“He had a genius mind,” she says. “It rebelled against what society tells you to do. He had anger, and [comedy] was the way he would navigate it. He would tell the truth about what he saw. That was his genius.”
Jennifer met Richard in 1977 when she was hired to help decorate his house. With her, “I felt elevated,” he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences. “I thought I might’ve found somebody who could love me so hard… that I’d finally be able to love myself.” But their love was a battlefield. “He would start a fight with me and I’d say, ‘You’re looking for material,'” says Jennifer, an actress who also had affairs with Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty. Their fights exploded into violence.
Richard in The Toy.
“I moved out when the [crack] pipe moved in,” she says. To cope with his pain, Richard relied on drugs, which nearly destroyed him: In 1980 he set himself on fire while in a drug-induced psychosis. “It was hard to watch him and be with him,” says Jennifer.
Though they divorced in 1982 after just a year of marriage, “I never stopped loving him,” she insists. “We kept getting back together.”
The fire, and Richard’s diagnosis with MS in 1986, changed him. He still believed, “my job… was to throw light where there had been only darkness,” he said. Jennifer returned to care for him, and she says his spirit “never diminished.” That’s one reason she’s reissuing his memoir and will publish his diaries in October.
“I had one job, and that was to take care of Richard and his legacy,” she said at an event for the memoir at Book Soup in West Hollywood. “We have to remind people about Richard. His beauty and his truth was that he pulled the covers off of everybody. He made the Earth better.”
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