Berkeley professor Scott Saul plumbs a comedian's life in
'Becoming Richard Pryor'
By Lou Fancher
Frustrating, furious, funny and unforgettable, actor-comedian Richard Pryor had 65 full years of a life that stretched into a constant state of becoming.
Berkeley-based writer Scott Saul's biography, "Becoming Richard Pryor" (Harper, $27.99, 608 pages), delves into the Peoria, Illinois, native's early years, finding original material to fashion a complex, poignant profile. Unlike any funnyman of his time, Pryor, who died of a heart attack in 2005, emerges from the pages of Saul's deep investigation as an enigmatic, often incendiary entertainment figure. More than anything else, Pryor was emblematic of America's greatest ache -- racism.
A biographer should remain in the shadow of his beacon personality, and Saul, 44, an associate professor of American studies and English at UC Berkeley, knows his place. Rarely overstepping in his analysis of the jungle that was Pryor's childhood or the facts gleaned from four intense years of research that included interviews with more than 80 people, many who knew Pryor intimately, Saul rarely loses momentum in a biting but poetic narrative. If he occasionally dallies in description of his subject's extraordinary performances, his otherwise acute timing -- not unlike Pryor's -- delivers setups and punch lines effectively.
Importantly, balancing a Pryor as repository of improvisational genius, acerbic humor, rage-filled love-gone-wrong and desperate addictions with a Pryor as industry innovator, starkly outspoken performer on themes of sex and race and merger of 20th-century black power and counterculture movements, Saul lifts the tale beyond biography to finely drawn manifesto.
"I'm Jewish and white, but you can't understand America if you don't understand how it was built on slavery and the racial divisions that followed," Saul says in an interview.
Process of 'Becoming'
Working primarily at The Beanery, a coffee shop in Berkeley's Elmwood neighborhood, he spent three years writing the biography, focusing with the kind of concentration many a son of a piano teacher can likely boast.
"I grew up to the sound of people playing the theme to 'Chariots of Fire' 30 times and making mistakes," Saul says. "Background noise helps me focus."
A Mellon Foundation grant allowed him to live in Los Angeles for a summer of archival digging; he collaborated with Stanford University's Spatial History Project and UC Berkeley's D-Lab on a digital companion website, "Richard Pryor's Peoria," an online archive of the materials he unearthed while writing the biography.
Roughly half of "Becoming" focuses on the decades before Pryor catapulted into the public arena of stand-up comedy, prime-time television, best-selling comedy albums and films like "Silver Streak," "Blazing Saddles" (as screenwriter) and "Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip," his highest-grossing concert film. His upbringing in Peoria, where the shock waves from lynchings in 1893 were still rolling, was influenced both by his formidable, brothel-running grandmother, Marie, and by the fairy godmother he found in Juliette Whittaker, who ran the town's community arts center and became his first believer and mentor. Perpetually "becoming," Pryor was booted -- often self-booted -- out of more places than most: expelled in the ninth grade; kicked out of the Army; married seven times (to five women); rejected by various presenters as too fiery, profane, cocaine-addicted or otherwise offensive. Simultaneously, he was adored by millions of fans, and Saul says the "Swiss cheese" of Pryor's life -- his enormous legacy and creative skill, pockmarked with violent, haunting, personal demons -- was a fascinating trajectory to follow.
"What he's said about his life (in interviews and an autobiography) had a kernel of truth," Saul says, "With research, that kernel became profound and multidimensional." Able to enlist members of the Pryor family who'd resisted previous biographers, Saul said his position as a historian interested in how creativity sparks cultural change was nonthreatening and opened doors. "The family knew I wasn't interested in sensationalizing the story," he says.
To capture the complete contours of Pryor's career -- four decades that arguably launched generations of aspiring comedians -- Saul included what he calls overlooked aspects and "corrects" reporting he believes missed the essence of Pryor's fierce pursuit of truth. Chapter 14 illuminates seven rarely described months the comedian spent in Berkeley in 1971. Pryor called it "the freest time of my life" -- Berkeley was where he perfected his "Wino and Junkie" routine and "Attica" sketch while he was steeping in the avant-garde, revolutionary atmosphere. An epilogue details Pryor's most tumultuous episodes, from lighting himself on fire in a fit of despair after the death of his grandmother in 1978 to his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in 1986 to his death in 2005. Saul says Pryor is "the alpha and omega of modern American comedy," and the book's red, white and blue cover is an homage to a frustrating, furious, funny and unforgettable man whose elasticity and imagination stretched American history into a new shape.