5 Times Richard Pryor Was the Goat of Wild Celebrity Stories
But editing with Pryor wasn’t a barrel of laughs. Spheeris rode a Moviola in Pryor’s house, 12 hours of days spent trying to salvage a story. It probably didn’t help that Pryor threw ideas into his bathrobe, receiving creative inspiration from Courvoisier and cocaine.
Things finally escalated when Pryor’s wife, Shelley, shouted that she was fed up with his film and was fed up with him not paying attention to his wife and child. In response, Pryor attacked the editing machine, shredding every bit of the 2,000 feet of film. Spheeris was speechless – months of work shattered.
This should have been the end of Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales, but a $50,000 (!) loan from Bill Cosby helped Spheeris piece the film back together. Once Spheeris had a working impression, Pryor screened her for Cosby. His reaction ?
“Hey, this shit is weird.”
The film never saw the light of day.
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He found a way to make blackface work
Richard Pryor’s breakthrough on-screen role was as Gene Wilder’s partner in silver series, a much better movie once Pryor rewrote all of his lines. He also re-imagined what would have been a hugely problematic scene, one in which Wilder tries to escape a sticky situation – in blackface.
In the original version, a white dude walks into a bathroom to find Wilder’s character, George, in his blackface camouflage. With a bit of formulaic parrying, George convincingly pulls off his black man charade.
Pryor hated the scene and went to Wilder’s hotel room with a better idea. In the new version, a black man walks into the bathroom and isn’t fooled for a moment. Instead, he advises: “You could be in big trouble, mate, but for God’s sake, learn to keep time.”
During filming, Pryor continued to rewrite. When George applies shoe polish to his face, Pryor’s character Grover was supposed to say “Instant Bronze!” Instead, George was now hesitant to apply the dark tones. Grover’s new line: “What? Are you afraid it won’t go away?
In the edited scene, Wilder pauses halfway through his makeup job, a white man looking at himself in the mirror and, for a moment, imagining what it would be like to lose his whiteness. Pryor biographer Scott Saul argues the rewrite made blackface a perfect disguise for George precisely because white people preferred not to look too closely at the world around them. Pryor turned a white screenwriter’s clumsy attempt at comedy into a hard-hitting look at the complexity of race in America.
Richard came up with another pointed gag that was unfortunately cut from the film. At one point, George cried that Grover had given him the wrong shade of shoe polish. Pryor knows it won’t matter: “All the police are looking for is to see if you have color, any color.”
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