Hollywood never came to terms with Richard Pryor, nor he with it. Rising from stand-up's chitlin circuit, he ultimately found a massive but compromised fame that both enriched his coffers and stymied his talents. Pryor's best films the concert specials, mostly are the ones with the least front-office interference. The worst represent an emasculation of brilliant rage for which he himself must take partial blame. Below are seven Pryor moments that matter and two that just paid the bills.
Movies He Did For Love
LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) The first evidence he could play the big-screen game. Pryor is Piano Man, Billie Holiday's (Diana Ross) discoverer, mentor, friend, and, finally, partner in dope and disillusionment. It's a supporting role, but Pryor's happy weirdness bursts through soap whenever he appears.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: RICHARD PRYOR (1975) Hosting the Dec. 13, 1975, episode of NBC's fledgling late-night show, Pryor traded samurai swipes with John Belushi and racially charged epithets with Chevy Chase, brought in Gil Scott-Heron to sing ''Johannesburg,'' and delivered a scathing version of his famed wino-meets-junkie character piece.
SILVER STREAK (1976) It made him a star (good) and led to three more pairings with Gene Wilder (increasingly bad). The movie is Wilder's show at first, but when Pryor turns up, Streak becomes something new: a salt-and-pepper buddy movie with the racial critique built right in. Which is a fancy way of saying that the scene where Pryor teaches Wilder how to ''walk black'' is not only funny but a landmark in cultural honesty.
BLUE COLLAR (1978) Pryor is one of three auto-factory grunts (the other two are Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) who get in over their heads when they rob the safe at union headquarters. Starting as a realistic comedy, Paul Schrader's directing debut very slowly turns very frightening. It's also perhaps the only film in which Richard Pryor isn't asked to play himself; what results is the richest acting of his career.
RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT (1979) You will rarely see a comedian with an audience so fully in the palm of his hand. Shot in Long Beach, Calif., this 80-minute stand-up performance the best of his concert films covers subjects as diverse as heart attacks and sex-crazed monkeys. What unites them is Pryor's joyous, full-on energy.
RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP (1982) This postaccident concert is one part explanation to three parts expiation. It's not as funny as Live in Concert both Pryor and the audience are too aware of his mortality. But when he tells of the ways a freebase pipe can own a man's soul, the laughter both hurts and heals.
JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (1986) In which Pryor had the chance to prove he could do it all be funny, be real, be an artist and stumbled. Everything about this semiautobiographical comedy-drama comes from deep in the man's heart, but it's that sincerity that keeps Jo Joearthbound.