He was one of America's most vociferous comedy stars. Now, Richard Pryor's life has descended into tragedy. By Ariel leve.
"The relationship was so intense, so volatile, so fantastic, so dark and so light and so everything." Jennifer Lee Pryor is describing her romance, the first time around, with the American comedian Richard Pryor. "There were a couple of episodes where, if I'd said, 'Oh, Richard, go to hell' or 'F*** you,' I'd be dead. I know it. I was almost killed when he was high.
"On our wedding night he threw a glass at me," she smiles. "It was a crazy relationship. That's what it was." They were together for five years before they married in 1981, then she left him six months later after being hit once too often. They were on honeymoon, on a boat in the Caribbean, when she looked in the mirror, saw her mother, and knew she was repeating a pattern of violence familiar from childhood. She left. She was done. Only she wasn't.
"I used to say that Richard got married to end his relationships, and I think he did the same thing with me, except that he found out something that I already knew. He couldn't get rid of me in his head and his heart."
Jennifer Lee Pryor holds nothing back. She has no edit button, nor does she want one. She is galvanised by audacity; both her own and what used to be her husband's. Perhaps because Richard, who is now 64, is too frail to speak out, she has picked up the slack.
Whether it's because she has nothing to lose or, as she puts it, nothing to hide, in Hollywood, honesty is always a risk. Then again, she can afford to let rip. Who's going to silence her? She is only a target for those who still have something at stake or feel protective of Pryor but are not in control of his care, and that's mainly Pryor's ex-wives, children and lawyers. But she is a determined woman. And she is not going to sanitise his life, or her own. "Richard was always very clear: walk it like you talk it. And you can't whitewash this kind of thing. You can whitewash Ray Charles's life - which is what the movie did - but you can't do it to Richard's life."
Richard Pryor was born in December 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, and was raised in a brothel by his grandmother. He survived his violent childhood, a heart attack at 37, being addicted to cocaine, setting himself on fire and spending six weeks in hospital with third-degree burns over 50% of his body in 1980. In 1986 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an incurable degenerative disease that affects motor skills and balance, and five years later he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. His journey and Jennifer's have been dangerous and damaged on an epic scale. It's amazing he's still here. Even more amazing is that Jennifer, now 49, is still here with him.
What made her return? We are on the sofa in the cheerful sitting room of Pryor's home in Encino, an up-market neighbourhood known as "the Valley" in Los Angeles. The modest ranch-style house was purchased in 1995, a year after Jennifer agreed to move back to California from New York to take care of him and throw a cordon around the comic genius whose catch phrase over the years had become: "I ain't dead yet, motherf***er!"
Suddenly her eyes widen. She hears a sound in the driveway, the faint hum of a motorised wheelchair as it climbs the ramp to the front door. "You're gonna meet him," she says, her shoulders raised up in giddy, girlish anticipation. Today is Thursday, movie day, and her husband has just returned from the cinema. Normally, she would accompany him with his nurse, but today, because of the interview, she stayed behind. "He's my life," she whispers gently as she gets up to greet him.
Pryor is in a red tracksuit; Jennifer leans over, speaking to him brightly, without a trace of self-consciousness. "We've been talking all day about you, Richard - don't you love that? Aren't you happy? I'm telling her all the stories - the good, the bad and the ugly." His appearance may be frail but it is still Richard Pryor. He's still in there. It's hard to tell how much he is taking in, but Jennifer and his carers react as if he has expressed recognition. His communication is limited.
A blink of an eye, a nod or a flash of a smile, easily overlooked by an outsider, is something they spot to determine emotion. As he is taken back to his room, Jennifer beams. "He was happy to meet you. Did you see the smile? I saw it. He loves the attention. It's essential for him."
Attention is something Pryor has craved all his life and received from his searing, uninhibited and heart-wrenching ability to tell harsh stories and make us laugh. Does he know where he fits into the pantheon of comedy? Jennifer wonders if he ever did. "Well, even when he was well he never really knew how great he was. His arrogant self knew he was the best, but he always felt there was something smarmy and bullshit about Hollywood."
Perhaps it's because what spurred Pryor on was the anger, and as he became more successful, the rage was diffused. In his later routines he touched on how it freaked him out when white people came up to him and said how much they loved him. When the enemy loves you, how funny can you be? So who knows what he's come to terms with now. Either way, Jennifer's mission includes diligently policing the intellectual property of his life.
"Richard doesn't like people stealing from him - what he enjoys is people who run with the ball. Like Chris Rock. That's inspiring. But there are a lot of people out there who rip Richard off, and when that happens, send me in."
Her role in his life is all-consuming. On top of co-ordinating all of his medical attention, she is in charge of licensing clips and photos, developing new projects, a new anthology; she sues to get material back, there is a Directors Guild Association tribute that she is organising, and a biopic in the works.
It's hard not to see Pryor in every comic. As the comedian Chris Rock said when he began to do stand-up, "He maxed it out." Obviously, Pryor is no longer able to write material, but Jennifer believes he is still thinking of it. "His mind is sharp," she says. "But his life experience now is that of an observer. He's really not participating in that world any more. I think he feels he was this meteor - and he did it - and he watches now and enjoys."
She says Richard is the same person he always was, even though his therapist thinks he's found more acceptance and peace. "Well, he's had to sit and wrestle with his f***ing demons. No cocaine, no cigarettes, no pussy, no alcohol - nothing."
Pryor suffers from what's called primary progressive MS, and is cared for by round-the-clock nurses. He is not getting any better, but the illness, Jennifer firmly states, is all about maintenance and good care. His schedule is non-negotiable. There is physiotherapy once a week. On Thursdays he goes out to the cinema. He wakes up at 8.30am and uses the medical equipment, which is cutting-edge technology. He's got to be moved, every two hours, when he's in bed. He exercises one hour a day, then has a massage, then watches television and DVDs and has the newspaper read to him. At 4.30pm he goes back to his room and listens to comedy CDs. There is a nap. And another physiotherapy massage.
The one area she asks to be off the record is the intricacies of his medical treatment. She says it is about preserving his dignity. "I don't want to lie about his condition - I want to be honest. We have bad periods but we keep bouncing back." She is not cloistering him. "If Richard wants to go out, I don't give a f*** how the public reacts. If he wants to go to the movies, let's go."
Pryor is not communicating verbally with consistency any more, although Jennifer says he still speaks when he feels like it. "One day I said to him, 'You know, Richard, I love you more and more every day. What do you think of that?' And he said, 'I think you're crazy.' So we know his sense of humour is intact. He's still a piece of work, let me tell you. He's still a piece of work.
"People say yeah, but he beat you up and he did all these things, and yeah, that's right, [but] you gotta find a place where you're healed with all these things and move forward."
Like everything in the Richard Pryor orbit, Jennifer's presence - then and now - is a story. And the question of why she has returned is not easily answered.
A brief tour reveals Pryor's bedroom infused with the intense smell of disinfectant. There is an official hospital bed and air mattress, and Jennifer proudly points out that, with MS, one of the most common problems is bedsores, but Richard hasn't had one in years. Other than medical equipment, the main feature of the room is a giant television. Across from Richard's room there is a room for the nurse, and through a third door, a small office that Jennifer uses occasionally when she's not at her own house a few minutes down the street.
In the office is a video screen that shows several different surveillance angles. There are six cameras on, and she can log on at any time of night from her home, to check to make sure everything is okay. "It gives me peace of mind," she says, shutting the door. She says that being in complete control of her husband's life is both a blessing and a curse. "I thought long and hard about coming back. I thought, if we're going to do this, we have to come up with a plan. I came out to California several times and talked to him about it first."
She leads the way back to the sitting room.
"When I came back in 1994, maids were selling furniture out of the garage. Accountants and business managers were running amok. He was in bed, not eating, on an IV. And there was a gourmet cook. Everyone was eating amazing food but Richard. Legal bills were unbelievable - you gotta be Eddie Murphy to have these kind of legal bills. $60,000 a month. For what? Things were out of control."
She speaks with the conviction of someone who not only knows precisely how to get things done, but is fearless when it comes to doing what's necessary.
"He was in a rental down the street from Michael Jackson, a marble monstrosity with endless bedrooms that all the help were at times occupying; girlfriends, hangers-on would also crash there. He was paying an absurd rent for space he didn't need. When he asked me to come back into his life, it was with the express request to help him rid himself of these wastes and of certain people who were 'bleeding' him."
Her first order of business was to buy him this home. It is smaller and accommodates his needs, his carers and his dogs, and when they purchased it, the expenses were cut in half. She has never lived with him, and rents her own house a few minutes away. Living with Richard, she says, was always out of the question simply because "There's no room!" In addition, she says: "My home is my office and it is grand central... five dogs... phones, faxes... computers... Richard enjoys peace in his home and it is his sanctuary."
This separation, seemingly odd for a married couple, was a practical decision made 11 years ago, long before they remarried. Finding a new home for Pryor was one thing, but relations with his ex-wives and children have proved more contentious. "Richard's parenting used to be done through cheques. And that doesn't happen any more. When the cheques stopped being written... there was a lot of resentment."
The resentment goes both ways. It must be hard for Pryor's ex-wives and children to accept that Jennifer is making all the decisions. It must be difficult for her, too, as the person in control, to please everyone. There are seven children in total. The two youngest, Kelsey and Franklin, now teenagers, are visiting next month, and Rain and Elizabeth, in their thirties, see their father as often as possible. Jennifer says that although he sees them, he is not close to them.
There's anger and resentment there. Where does it go? "I take it to heart - take it to therapy. I fight, I'm a fighter. The main thing is, I deal with it. Whatever has to be done. If somebody has to be sued, we call the lawyer. I take care of it."
Jennifer talks of having turned a corner with the latest "attack". "They [the children] wanted to be able to come to the house whenever they wanted, and they can't do that. There's a structure here. So then they started saying that I'm isolating Richard from them. And started making accusations. And these are kids that never did anything for the past 10 years. All of a sudden, Richard's star is on the rise again... they're saying all these ugly things."
There is the suggestion of opportunism, but that is secondary, because really it's about access. Understandably, Richard's daughter Rain is fiercely protective of her father, and she and Elizabeth are aligned when it comes to being at odds with Jennifer. They firmly believe she is going against their father's wishes and that he would like to see them more frequently.
"Even now, when he can barely communicate," Rain says, "he indicates he wants to see his children more often. We are not allowed. We have been cut out from his life. We have been told we can only visit maybe one time per month, and this is against our father's desire."
They both indicate that they are worried about speaking on record about "Ms Lee" because they are afraid of the repercussions and the power she has to isolate their father from them.
Jennifer Lee met Richard Pryor in 1977. Jennifer, who was brought up in Cropseyville, upstate New York, had been working in Texas singing in country-and-western clubs, and was living in Los Angeles - a glamorous, struggling actress, partying with movie stars and musicians. One day, her friend Lucy suggested she help her with decorating Richard's house.
"I was the sub-commandant and she was the commandant. Lucy and Richard were lovers at the time and they'd been up all night doing coke - I'd been doing it too - and Richard asked her for a blow job and she said no and he pulled a gun on her. So she came to the guest room where I was sleeping and said, 'He pulled a gun on me, we have to go,' and I didn't go, and she never forgave me." She says she knew by then that she was in love with him, and was determined to help him and fix him.
In his memoir, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, he writes about meeting Jennifer: "I felt elevated around Jenny. In this well-bred, college-educated beauty, I thought I might have found somebody who could love me so hard and passionately that I'd finally be able to love myself."
They were heading for disaster, but not right away. In spite of the long hours spent sitting in his office having profound conversations, becoming closer and more enamoured, Pryor married someone else while she was still working for him. Even though, the night before the wedding, he kissed Jennifer in the upstairs bathroom. They cut it short when the doorbell rang and it was his bride-to-be.
When asked: "Did you feel...?" Jennifer jumps in. "Guilty? Never. Because I knew I loved this motherf***er and I didn't care. I also knew that the marriage wasn't going to last - and it didn't.
"I was always a very, very lonely person. I dated Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. I was a beautiful model and I had that life. And it was empty, empty, empty. I slept around; I did whatever I wanted to do - you can't do that these days - but basically, it was really sad. Then I met Richard and it was like... somebody got me. For the first time in my f***ing life, somebody got me. And then we tried to destroy it."
Wounded people have a way of finding each other. Their love in those years was an addiction. But before the addiction got bad they had joyful, positive times. Jennifer points out her favourite photograph, taken in 1978, of her and Richard sitting by the pool. She sits on the edge of his lounger, leaning her cheek against his leg. She would always be chasing the "first high of love".
In the beginning she trusted him. "I bathed in the warmth of the love. I saw how women threw themselves at him and how he adored it - not all the time, but sometimes. Other times, he was so "with me" and protective that when he wasn't, I couldn't understand it! I would get insecure - quickly - which didn't help. But when he or I would go into those places that fuelled the whole jealousy thing, it could be deadly... and the first time he cheated, it broke my heart... but I learnt quickly how to move the goalposts of love further and further back."
By 1980, Pryor was seriously addicted to cocaine. Jennifer had been with him at the house just before the fire. "He told me he was going to do something. I didn't know what it was, but he told me, 'You better get out, bitch, or it's gonna happen to you too.' "I had moved out by then because the crack pipe had moved in. Twenty minutes later, I got the call. He had done it."
In a drug psychosis, Pryor poured cognac over his body and torched himself. Jennifer shakes her head. "To have that commitment to self-destruct... I just didn't get it. I was so in love with him and when we were apart - which was a lot - I'd have a hard time breathing. But that's being addicted to someone."
It wasn't just being addicted to Richard, it was being addicted to drama. "There was never anything I couldn't give up," she says, "except Richard." There are people who won't understand. But in spite of the fame and their wealth, Jennifer acknowledges, it is a classic case of cyclical abuse.
"It's a cliché. I was just like the woman in a trailer park - well, I happened to wear a Rolex watch and Armani - but I was the same woman. It took me a long time to see. I was convinced that I loved him so much and that he loved me..."
Why did she get caught in it? "Well, that's the $64,000 question. I don't think there are any easy answers. I grew up in a violent household and saw my father hitting my mother. Richard saw it in the whorehouse."
She refused to accept that things were seriously wrong. "I kept trying to fix him, me, all of it, which was not an easy task. I was not able to walk away. Until, of course, it all went south and trust was shredded in smithereens."
This was when the crack pipe moved in. At first she tried it, but hated it and stopped. "It was not my drug. It was like someone took a hammer and clunked you."
There was a nihilistic side to Richard which she wasn't seeing. She got it after the fire. "Yeah, I guess! I mean, if a f***ing fire isn't a wake-up call, what the hell is?"
"But," she sighs, "there were a lot of wake-up calls. I remember when I stopped doing everything and I went to Tucson to be with him during Stir Crazy, and I saw what kind of shape he was in, and it scared the hell out of me. He left me in a trailer with the Hell's Angels and there were guns everywhere and I was like, what parallel universe am I in? This is not okay. You know, I look back at it and I laugh at some of it and cry for some of it."
She was hopelessly obsessed, but eventually got tired of being beaten up, tired of the drama. "Being with Richard one week was like 15 years. Everything was so fast and furious."
After the divorce she moved to New York. It was the early 1980s and she was in her thirties. She travelled, spent her divorce money, dealt with the suicide of her younger brother, wrote some articles for magazines and focused on writing her memoir, Tarnished Angel. The book begins with her first memory of seeing her mother looking in the mirror with a bloody nose.
"I went out with other men, but nobody stuck like Richard. It was healthy to connect with other people - it just wasn't on the same level. Not really love. I appreciated them, learnt from them, enjoyed good times, good sex, good meals, but nothing ever felt like the real thing."
In 1986 she was in Paris when she got a call from Richard saying: "Can you come? I'm missing you so much." "I was like, yes! I was still so besotted. And I flew from Paris to LA."
"But, um, you know. He was with another, having babies with her. I was sad. I thought we'd be together and walk off into the sunset." She says she never wanted to have children with Richard and was relieved that she had an ectopic pregnancy. "I'm really glad that nature chose that, because I was madly in love at the time and I would have had that child, and I think that the world doesn't need any more screwed-up children. And somehow that child would have been screwed up. Because I didn't have my head screwed on then." Now, she has seven dogs.
In 1992 her book was published. True to her nature, she spared nobody, refusing to protect the anonymity of the men in her adulterous liaisons. Why should she protect their identity, she asked herself. "They were in my movie too! When Tarnished Angel came out, everyone said, 'How can you do that to Richard?' But Richard loved the book! You know what he said? 'The bitch told the truth.'"
In 1994, Jennifer returned to Richard for good. People may question her motives, but even after they were divorced, they always stayed in each other's lives. She sees, and always has seen, the genius in him, and this is what has kept her going. There is only one Richard Pryor.
"I saw him in New York. The MS was getting bad. He was still walking, but badly. And he said, 'You know, my life is falling apart and I really need some help, and I want you to come back,' and I said, 'Whoa, what you're asking me is huge. I have a life now.' But I flew out to LA a few times, and we'd sit and talk about how it would work. How we have to attack this - stop the haemorrhaging of money - rehab him physically - and turn lemons into lemonade. It took a long time."
When she first came back, things between them were not romantic. For the first couple of years, she was dating somebody else. In 1995 she moved Richard into the Encino house.
"There was a lot of debris to pick up," she says. "I had to sue people for rights that were stolen, outlawed material. It was just... I've gone to business school for the last 11 years. I never thought I would learn so much."
The romantic love arose from a different place this time. There was an understanding of needing each other for support, not destruction. And because she says: "We can't not be together. He's my family. You know. I don't want him to feel responsible. That game's over - blaming and guilt, that's over."
They remarried in 2001. She doesn't have boyfriends or lovers any more. The limitations sexually are addressed with levity. "Well, I have sense memory - and it is kind of a relief, I have to say. And it doesn't mean I'm not sexual. I lived there so much of my life - it's kind of freeing. And you get a lot of work done!"
But then, for a moment, a sadness creeps in. It is striking because it's the first sign of it, and it's as if the warrior has just loosened the armour.
"We just don't go there, because there is such an inability. To even attempt anything would be devastating. We decided a while back that this is an area that's not good. Best left alone." She pinches the bridge of her nose and shuts her eyes.
She reflects on his disease, the sadness of it and the damage they caused each other when they were together. "We were very lucky to have the opportunity to resurrect the good. And that doesn't happen all the time. It's a gift. I think I'm very lucky. But it's painful. It is. I come in here as the cheerleader every day. And I don't let him see it. I am so protective about him going to a sad place. I think that Richard has to deal every day with me bounding in here full of energy and life, and going out there and fighting our battles, and I think that's a lot for him to deal with."
There are days when he has terrible sadness and those are the days when she worries the most. She gets scared when she sees that. His depression is the enemy. "I want him to fight. To stay here. And when people get depressed, it's easy to let go. I try like hell not to let him get to that place. To make him laugh."
She gets up, strides across the sitting room for a tissue. "I'm sorry. I don't do this," she says, referring to her tears. "I do have meltdowns but usually in the privacy of my home or in therapy. There's a lot to do, so I have to be strong. I don't ever let him see me sad. I think Richard has enough sadness. He always did.
"When I came back into Richard's life he kept apologising to me about the violence - and cheating on me and other things. And finally one day I said to him, 'Stop it. It's over. We're done with the apologies.' So, does Richard sit here every day and think about his life? I'm sure, but I don't take him there. We don't go there. Where we live is in a place of gratitude. We are very grateful Richard's still alive and we don't sit and talk about 'what if'."
There are many gradations of love; there is no way to calibrate it, and it changes. She needs him as much as he needs her. It's no wonder she's still there, after all.