By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Hers is a life lived bumping around the margins of fame. Rain Pryor didn't get the Nicole Richie-esque existence filled with endless shopping and carefully cultivated fabulousness enjoyed by other children of the stars. Sure, her dad had fame and money, lots of both. He was, after all, Richard Pryor.
But a lot of the time, she says, the money went to the hookers hanging out at his house -- "Daddy, the whores need to be paid"-- and not to paying child support to his many ex-wives raising kids far from the Hollywood Hills. So hers was a childhood of abundance and of lack, of private jets and welfare checks, of elaborate vacations in Hawaii and a gig selling hot dogs on the beach when she was 13.
Now an actress, comic and singer, Rain Pryor, 37, has spent her life navigating tricky terrain. She is the daughter of an exceedingly complicated African American icon who famously set himself on fire, and an equally complicated blond, blue-eyed Jewish woman who fervently believed that she was black. In a new autobiography, Pryor writes of lighting candles for Shabbat with one set of grandparents and also listening attentively to her great-grandmother, a onetime bordello owner, breaking down racial realities as she shuffled a tarot deck: "You black, Rainy. The world's gonna see Rain as a [black person] no matter what her mother is."
Somehow, over the years, she managed to shake off the craziness and the pain, to integrate her dual identities -- finding an outlet and mining a few laughs from it all in her new memoir, "Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss With Richard Pryor."
"You're either going to go down the path of self-destructiveness," Pryor says today, chic in black high-heeled boots and a cape, her riotous ringlets flatironed into submission, "or you're not. . . . Success is the best revenge; it's the ultimate ha-ha. Statistically, I should be strung out . . . but you won't see me in a hospital anytime soon."
You will, however, see her strolling through the streets of Baltimore. She moved to Charm City two months ago, driving cross-country in her Toyota Prius, ostensibly to be closer to friends, but also to flee the city of her birth, Los Angeles, which was getting on her last nerve. Too much history, she says.
She'd never left home, save for a brief stint in New York when she was a baby, when her mom pursued a dancing career and her neighbor Miles Davis sometimes babysat, playing his horn until Rain drifted off to sleep. In L.A. she also left behind a home and a husband, separating after four years of marriage.
In Baltimore, where she has a spacious one-bedroom apartment, folks recognize her -- she's a dead ringer for her dad -- but somehow it never feels intrusive, Pryor says. For now, Baltimore feels right.
It has been an intense year: Her father died of complications from MS on Dec. 10, 2005, just as she was beginning to write her memoir (co-authored with Cathy Crimmins). Tensions ran high with Jennifer Lee, her father's fourth and seventh and final wife. In May, Rain Pryor's half sister Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor sued Lee in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charging Lee with elder abuse and fraud. Rain Pryor has not joined the suit but says she supports it. (Lee has denied the allegations.)
Grief sucked her in. "My dad had passed away and I was in such a fog," says Pryor. "The good memories brought pain. I wanted to call and go, 'Oh, remember -- ?' and read him parts of the book. That's what's most difficult." The memoir serves as a billet-doux, or love letter, to her father.
From the beginning there was nothing conventional about her life. Rain's mother, Shelley Bonis, was married to Richard Pryor for about two years before they divorced. The book describes her mother as a jive-talking dancer with a fondness for wearing Afro wigs -- it was the '60s -- and quoting Malcolm X. (It was her politically conscious mother, Pryor claims, who nudged Richard, then a mild-mannered, Cosbyesque comic, into exploring racially charged topics in his act.)
Pryor says she and her mother aren't speaking at the moment -- although Bonis previously helped her by supplying information for the book. (Bonis did not return a call requesting comment.)
Her father's drug habits sparked violence and tumult in the home. When Rain was 6 months old, Richard Pryor split. According to the book, Bonis's extended family encouraged her to put the child up for adoption, but she kept her baby tight. And in time, her family welcomed Rain into their lives, providing much-needed stability.
When she was 4, her mother introduced Rain to her father. The book recounts that he took one look at her and said, "Ain't denying this one's mine!" That night, during a sleepover at Pryor's home, she wandered into her father's bedroom. She'd heard noises and she was afraid. She saw her father on top of a blond woman and ran out of the room.
This is one of her indelible, earliest childhood memories: Her father followed after her, and, as he gently tucked her in, gave her an profanity-ridden dissertation on the facts of life. She went home and told her mother: "People make funny noises and then babies come. . . . He was making noises. I was worried. But he said I didn't need to worry. He was [expletive] and having fun!"
With Richard Pryor for a father, there wasn't too much that his children were sheltered from. But she recalls that love never got short shrift during their sporadic times together. "So yeah," Pryor writes, "he was misogynistic, mercurial, unpredictable and violent. But he was also my daddy, and sometimes, when he held me close, I looked into his big sad eyes and I knew he loved me. And that's the part I want to remember."
Then, too, there was a sprawling, ready-made family of half brothers and half sisters. The comedian was married seven times to five different women and had six children (or possibly seven; there seems to be some dispute). At times, thanks to different mothers and adults with different agendas, the children were kept apart, told that so-and-so just wanted a relationship with their father for the money.
Despite the drama, sibling bonds formed. "She's my little sister and I've always looked up to her," Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor says from her home in suburban Los Angeles. "She has never been afraid to speak her truth, even when she was small."
Elizabeth has her own indelible memories: Once, their father and his wife took the children to Paris. The couple began fighting in the bathroom. Richard's kids sat on the other side of the door shaking in fear, Elizabeth recalls, while screaming ensued about "the children."
"Rain said, 'What about the children? The children are right out here -- what do you mean about the children!' " Elizabeth recalls, laughing. "She was 6 years old. There was this boldness that she had."
That boldness carried her through ballet classes and singing lessons and onto the stage. Rain had early success on the TV series "Head of the Class," playing the rapping tomboy T.J. Jones from 1989 to 1991. After that, the acting gigs were fewer, interspersed with unemployment and days working a stop sign on a construction crew or manning a psychic hotline. There was time spent walking the Twelve Steps. At one point, she decided, to hell with showbiz, and got her training as a certified drug counselor.
Finally, in her mid-30s, her one-woman show, "Fried Chicken and Latkes," got noticed. Critics waxed enthusiastic about her "comic ingenuity" and "powerful singing voice," and director Carl Reiner declared, "There's not a thing about her that doesn't work." The NAACP gave her an acting award. But she says she still couldn't get past casting directors who thought she wasn't black enough or white enough or Jewish enough or pretty enough or ugly enough to do whatever it was that they needed her to do. Today, she acts as her own agent, booking herself around the world for her one-woman show and performing as a jazz singer. "I was very successful as a young adult," she says, having breakfast on a pit stop in Washington to promote her book. "I can sit around and wait for someone to put me in a box. Or I can create something and say, 'This is what I do.' "
Her hopes include bringing her book to the big screen: She's persuaded the comic Mike Epps ("The Honeymooners," "Something New") to play her father, and is now in talks with a director.
"Rain is an artist," says Epps, who became friends with Richard after he fell ill. "I think her dad passed on a lot of that to all of his kids. Sometimes she can be talking, I'll look up and she'll say or do something that I've seen him do on TV and I'll be like, 'Wow.' There's an old saying, 'The apple don't fall far from the tree.' And that would be the case with Rain and Richard."
Rain told her father before he died that she was writing a book, and he encouraged her to tell the truth. So she filled it up with "a lot of laughter and a lot of tears," she says. "And then there's this man who's my dad."