LOS ANGELES - When Richard Pryor was asked when he first started to hit it big in a career that now finds him one of the hottest and most sought after talents in movies, television and records, he thought for a moment and then said wistfully: "It was with Gloria in Detroit. That was the turning point of my life."
It was that kind of an encounter. The interview was supposed to have taken place the previous day at Pryor's office at Universal Studios, where he has signed to do four feature films over the next several years. But word came by phone that Pryor did not want to come up, he wanted me to come down.
I found him sitting in a gray Porsche, in which he offered to drive me back to my hotel. During the first few minutes of the ride, he seemed to be sizing me up, not saying much, and only relaxing when I told that I also came from Peoria.
Now that is the kind of conversational ice breaker that you can use only sparingly as you cruise over the Hollywood Hills, but it helped with Pryor.
At the hotel, Pryoer suggested we meet again the next morning at the three-acre spread he recently bought in the San Fernando Valley. "Bring your tennis gear," he said, flashing that same demonic smile that jumps out at your from the cover of his hit record titled "The Nigger's Crazy." "I'm gonna whip your a -."
That's exactly what he did. One set was all I could manage and he took it 6-4 lobbing me to exhaustion in a high wind. It was your typical weekday morning in the valley. Just two old boys from Peoria playing on a private tennis courts, surrounded by a small grove of orange trees.
Upstairs in his study - the only room that seemed fully decorated in his new home - we talked about Peoria, and the street where he lived. It was called North Washington Street and it wasn't exactly what you would have found on an old Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post.
North Washington Street was noted for its string of whorehouses in those days, and they began right after my uncle's produce house on North Washington. There were three establishments catering to the white trade, then a cross street, and the next block was filled with establishments catering to the black clientele.
It was a pretty lively street. I used to stand in the summer on the big Diamond T truck that my uncle owned, helping to load orders of lettuce, cantaloupes, and homegrown beefsteak tomatoes for stores and restaurants in Peoria, and watch all the activities going on next door. The ladies would smile at me from the windows and occasionally when they came outside, would talk. I never did find out, before being packed off a military academy downstate, if indeed, they had hearts of gold.
Pryor told me that his parents owned one of the houses on the block. He wasn't at all reluctant to talk about growing up in it.
"When I was a child, that was what a lot of families did. It was an adventure, It was two worlds. The world of peeking through the keyhole and looking over transoms, watching things when I didn't exactly know what they were. You had to be an adult - you had to be very careful about what you said because the police might take you away at any moment.
"But then you got to be a child. Once we built a raft out of my parent's fence. We were going down to the river. My grandmother was in this bag window that the girls used to tap on, and she saw us walking off with her backyard fence.
"I didn't make it. My grandmother came out of the house and beat my butt all across Washington Street and back into the house."
Pryor spent a year in high school, then went off with the Army to France and Germany. "I was a plumber. But I tell everybody tat I was a paratrooper."
I asked him how he got to be a plumber. "I went to school for it," he said. "I took an IQ test. They looked at it and said, this nigger's too dumb. Let's send him to plumbing school."
After 18 months in the Army, where Pryor found racism even worse than he had imagined as a civilian, he returned home to Peoria and got married. Although he lived with his wife only briefly, there a 15-year-old son from that marriage whom he speaks of with obviously pride.
Pryor started performing at Collins Corner on a North Washington Street. The owner, Bris Collins, who in my childhood was reputed to be the most powerful back man in Peoria, gave him a job and paid him what Pryor thought was a handsome sum - $72 a week.
It was then the early '60s, and Pryor remembers how much influenced he was by Dick Gregory, who was the first black comedian to be making it big in white night clubs and on television by making humorous capitals out of racism.
Pryor says that he was pretty bad as a comedian at first. But he recalled one routine with particular fondness, a takeoff on Edward R. Murrow and "Person to Person." "That was my big one. Murrow visited this black man down South. Come into my house, Mr. Murrow. This is my taable. This is my chair. Your've seen my table and you've seen my chair. This is the wall paper, this is the table, this is my chair. And that went on, back and forth for about five minutes. That was my big one."
Pryor left Peoria sometime in the middle '60s. The way he tells it, his father kicked him out of the house.
"I was going to be a pimp," he explained. "And my father took my whore from me. He told me that I didn't need her, that I really didn't understand her. And I didn't understand her. This woman gave me money and told me to beat her. So she hit me and I started fighting - for my life. I had no ideas what she was talking about. I went beserk. I didn't know there was any romantic connotation to physical violence."
He headed for East St. Louis, Ill. with an act of female impersonators, half of whom where women. After a brief infatuation with a flame dancer at the Faust Club, Pryor set out on the Grand Tour then open to young black comedians - Buffalo, Youngstown, Windsor and Toronto.
He wasn't too big a hit in Windsor across the river from Detroit. "I worked in a hillbilly bar. Now that is an experience. I was singing and doing impressions of people they didn't care about. Jimmy Cagney. They didn't give a damn. They wanted to see the big-chested singer. I mean, I would get comments like: Get the - off. Simple, subtle."
In Toronto, he stayed at a hotel much favored by wrestlers. "They were huge, big fags. I couldn't believe it. I mean, you'd see them brutally murdering each other in Saturday night wrestling matches. And then you'd see them back at the hotel, kissing and holding hands. It was bizarre."
There was more to unsettle Pryor in Toronto. There was an act at the same club where he was playing that featured a bear that drunk beer and wrestled with the customers. "That was the main act of the club" said Pryor. "I went on before the bear."
"One night, the bear got drunk and he got a little bit carried away with the wrestling. He went after me. You know - a bear's a bear. You can't out-wrestle a bear, especially a bear that's had a few. And then the bear would get gentle, and stroke you and sit on you."
After Toronto, Pryoer said, he really went downhill, winding up in Pittsburgh where he was jailed for 35 days on assault and battery charges brought against him by a woman, "Me and this little Senorita had this misunderstanding. It was a valid charge. I really assaulted her and I really battered her."
In the Pittsburgh jail, Pryor's cellmate turned out to be an old boy friend of an aunt back in Peoria. The older man wrote the aunt about Pryor - he said he was too proud to write home from help - and she sent money which he used to go to New York when the Pittsburgh police released him. "I begged them to let me stay," Pryor recalled." It was 14 degrees below zero outside."
In New York, Pryor started to work some of the small clubs with other aspiring comedians coming along at the time - George Carlin and David Steinberg. The pay was usually $5 a night, $10 on Saturdays. Then he started moving up . . . appearances on television on Broadway Today, a summer replacement, then Ed Sullivan and most importantly, Merv Griffin as often as he liked. Pryor said that he was really given his big opportunity by Griffin.
But then, another change: Bill Cosby told him "You can't go on doing Redd Foxx material all your life."
So he decided to become his own agent, and started running his own life - and has done pretty well, artistically and financially, ever since.
He has had best-selling records like "That Nigger's Crazy" and "Biccentennial Nigger," and Emmy award for a Lily Tomlin special that he wrote, good notices in movies like "Lady Sings the Blues," "Bingo Long," "Car Wash" and the recent release "Silver Streak.""
He has just finished "Which Way Is Up" for Universal, an adaptation of Lina Wertmuller's "The Seduction of Mimi." It is a satirical comedy about migrant workers in a small California town. Pryor plays three characters in the film. In the fall, he goes to Detroit to make "Blue Collar Journal." He would not say whether he will try to find magic again with Gloria.
There are also some television specials for Pryor on NBC. He originally had wanted to do a sketch in the first one where he would play a wino sitting on a park bench, talking to Gerald Ford about the problems of the unemployed.
But he has discarded that idea in favor of the wino passing a phone booth and deciding to call Jimmy Carter. "Get me Carter. Now, listen, this is Tip-Toe Johnson, that's who it is. Say old man, what's going on with this Russian situation. What kind of missiles have we got? Where they at? And what this deficit mean?"
I had sought out Richard Pryor with a mind full of information from other people - that he was a genius, but a bit flakey, that he was hostile to whites, and all the usual verbal graffiti that fills the air of Hollywood when this town confronts someone who takes one the cliches and totems and taboos and confounds everyone by beating them at their own game.
That is what Pryor has done, and it wasn't even close.
After the first set on his tennis court, the score was 6-4. And he treated them all just like he treated me - making it clear, in his own way, who really learned the most by living in the right block on North Washington Street in Peoria.