For a second there, when Richard Pryor woke up yesterday in his Watergate Hotel suite, it was all so beautiful - those curving yellow walls and the French Provincial furniture and the blue sky so airless and perfect . . .
"It was like acid," Pryor says, easing onto the living room couch as if at least five bones are broken. "Acid, You ever . . .? Right. A flashback, isn't that what they call it? Like '65. Then it started scaring the s- out of me." He ventures a shy little wide-eyed smile, his eyebrows lifting slow as a cat arching its back.
Pryor has just made one of his patented peekaboo choirboy entrances from the bedroom, and the air is gracefully thick with apologies for being late, despite counter-protests that he's deservedly tired. He's one of the harder-working men in show-business: He has two movies, "The Wiz." and "California Suite," due out this fall; he fought a might battle with NBC censors over his aborted TV series last fall; he writes (credits in "Blazing Saddles," and two Lily Tomlin TV specials); he acts ("Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars," "Lady Sings the Blues," "Greased Lighting," "Car Wash"); and now he's doing six shows in four nights at the Kennedy Center.
What's more, he's being none of the madman he's famous for in both performance and recordings, as in the Grammy-winning record, "That Niger's Crazy."
In fact, you think of that scorching roar of scatological and racial invective on his records, material that dredges up all our worst fears and leaves us cringing with laughter - and then you look at him on the couch, squeezing his hands between his knees, you realize that Richard Pryor is actually kind of cute. He's the sort of son whose mother might think to her dying day that he had a chance of being a preacher, once.
"My grandmother, back in Peoria, she had arthritis and she used to go to all these tent revivals," Pryor says. "She took me once, to get the preacher to take the devil out of me. It was king of embarrassing, in front of all those people, you know.
"He prayed over me, and says for that devil to come out! And I'm thinking, I didn't feel anything, I couldn't see it. Maybe . . . it's still in there. And if you have one, you should keep it with you. It makes you experiment, makes you a sailor, a land sailor, a sailor of hearts."
Keep in mind that Pryor is a man "of many levels, many layers," as he says, feeling for just the right tone. The courts, he says, are still mulling his January arrest for allegedly shooting a Bulck that belonged to two female friends of his wife, trem ramming it with his Mercedes. There have been a couple of short stays in jail, and he only lasted 14 months in the Army.He told a gay-rights benefit audience at the Hollywood Bowl to "kiss my happy, rich, black a-" (Organiser Lily Tomlin later said, "When you hire Richard, you get Richard.")
But which Richard? The one sitting here on the couch, humble and uneasy as a father outside a delivery room, makes it hard to believe that he grew up in his grandmother's wherehouse, and once get attacked by the wrong half of a man-and-bear act in a Canadian nightclub.
"It's nervewracking," Pryor explains. "I haven't toured for [WORD ILLEGIBLE] years, and I like to do new material. People ask me to do Mudbone and all, but it wouldn't be fair - I have to grow."
(Mudbone, one of his most popular characters, is an ancient black who used "to dip snuff and sit in front of the store and spit, that was his job," as Pryor describes him on "Was it Something I said," Mudbone tells tales of outsmarting whitey in the old days, down South, and talks with classic American folk-tale ingenuousness about, say, the Chinese, who "eat with sticks, it's the truth. And they never spill a thing. Nigger with a knife and fork, he'll drop three, four pound."
Anyhow, no more Mudbone, no more Mis Rudolph, no more wine and the juskie to fall back on. Stranger yet, Pryor has been drawing crowds that are at least half white, he says. "It makes me feel odd, a little odd."
But just now, he is informed that Washington is three-quarters black, so he shouldn't feel too odd tonight at the Kennedy Center. He responds with mimicry no white could do anything but laugh at, the exact sound of Mr. Bright Young White, "yes, three-quarters, more or less 75 percent, as it were."
Actually, Pryor attributes his substantial white following to the fact that "the American people have been so offended by their gods - Nixon, the FBI. It's harder for the right wingers," And here comes that back of the nose accent again: "The American dollar isn't worth byt 27 cents. What the f-?"
And, finally, on this odd, acidy, nerveracked day. "I'm scared to death. I'm always scared to death when I go on. I'm on the line."
He looks scared, too. But then he always looks scared. It's not - as anyone knows who has seen him or heard him - the old feets-do-yo'-stuff king of scared, but another kind of scared that he wears around the eyes, eyes that tense into a stare that focus very, very hard about three inches inside your head.
"I wasn't tough as a kid, no," he says. "I hungs around with a lot of tough guys, but you see, I wasn't afraid like they were afraid. I wasn't afraid to be afraid. You follow me? You say it's like my nerve endings are on top of my skin. Right. That's my tools, my temper. I wouldn't want to cover it up, to protect myself because then I'd lose something.
"And I'm not afraid. Back between '65 and '68, I had a metamorphosis, I found out who I wanted to be. You have one, If you're lucky. And who I wanted to be was the same guy who used to rap on the street corner back on North Washington Boulevard in Peoria."
At 12, Pryor made his first stage appearance in a Carver Community Center production of "Rumpelstiltskin." After dropping out of school, then the Army, Pryor started performing in clubs in towns like Dayton and Windsor, Ontarion. By the middle '60s, he was big time, hitting Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, and Las Vegas, and, along the way, collecting four children and an uncertain number of wives.
Then, in 1968, Pryor abandoned a style which owed a lot to Bill Cosby, and plunged into the street-wise, street-filthy, cut-to-the-marrow style that aimed to get everything straight between him and his audiences, a combination of Lenny Bruce, encounter groups, and doing the dozens (or joanin, as some say in Washington). Tr for ad 8
The catalyst, though, has been Pryor's strangely naked personal that lets him get away with it all. He is, anthropologists might say, the archetypal trickster figure, like the coyote of Indian legends, his function being to remind us how frail our civilized defenses are against all that chaos out there.
The chaos, of course, is of our own making, sizzling with ironies. One Pryor character, a shoeshine man, can reminisce about Depression bankers bailing out of windows and marvel: "You know, white folks just can't live without money." Then again, pryor worries, on "Was It Something I said," that we'll have a "shortage of white people." He explains that whites have abandoned sex for yoga, then segues into the raunchiest possible exegesis of black sexuality, exploiting every stereotype whites might have.
And he manages to satirize both a black down-and-outer and the establishment when he [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a young junkie tell an officious bureaucrat who has just read his police record: "I know I am a criminal. Why don't you tell me something I don't know - like where I'm going to find a job."
But how does he stay naked when the whole world is covering him with applause, reviews, interviews and fan letters?
"It's hard," he says, his face going into its slow, thoughtful tumult again. "I can't talk in interviews anymore. I used to be able to talk stuff, you know, stuff stuff" - and he illustrates by leaning back in the pose of authority at ease - "but interviews are things that let you get a big ego . . . something about it . . . a bit counterfeit.
"I mean, I'm selling this great big home. It's ridiculous . . . when somebody tells you you have to make $1 million next year just to break even. Well, you gotta maintain, not go for the okeydoke . . ."
The trick, here, might be to avoid becoming what he always thought stars were, back in the movies in Peoria. As he says on one record: "I always wondered if stars went to the bathroom. I figured they'd get somebody else to do it for them."
"(Yesterday, Sammy Davis Jr. came on the muscular dystrophy telethon to inform Jerry Lewis that Pryor had pledged $100,000.)
Sometimes, in fact, Pryor worries that he has lost that core self (or maybe it was never there to start with), all those anxieties we'd like to think that success makes us immune from.
"I worry that it's not there," he says. "So I get out on that stage and find out that it is." And then a solemn, superstitious look sweeps over his face. He says one world with that sly, shy, smile:
"Or . . ."