By Mark Saldana
In the seventies, Jennifer Lee met Richard Pryor through a friend who was working for him. She would later work for the comedian and eventually began a romantic relationship with him. The two married in 1981 and had a loving, but turbulent marriage due to Pryor’s wild lifestyle and drug abuse. Jennifer and Richard divorced in 1982, but would rekindle their romance decades later and remarry in 2001.
I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with Jennifer Lee Pryor at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Ms. Pryor attended the festival to support a new documentary that truthfully reveals the life of Richard Pryor, but also honors and celebrates the accomplishments of his career. The film is titled I Am Richard Pryor and it will air on cable and satellite’s Paramount Network on March 15.
Mark Saldana: Who came up with the idea of making this documentary?
Jennifer Lee Pryor: Network productions contacted me and I was just thrilled by the way they presented their ideas in a way that didn’t avoid the salacious scandals, but presents in a way that grabs onto the arc of his life and talent and the evolution of his artistry. With that approach, I was very impressed and wanted to get onboard. I have been involved in some projects that, no matter how hard you fight, they always gravitated towards the dark stuff. (In this film) they didn’t avoid it, but they put it in a good context. It doesn’t eclipse Richard’s talent and the evolution of that talent.
Mark: Do you think Richard would be pleased with the film?
Jennifer: I think he would be very pleased with it. I wrote a memoir years ago and his response to it was, “The bitch told the truth!” So he honored the truth. He would love it, no matter what–the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Mark: As an interracial couple in the late seventies and early eighties, did you encounter any ugly racist reactions to your relationship?
Jennifer: You know, we really didn’t. I think at the time, I was really in awe of that. But the truth of the matter is that Hollywood is an isolated place. We were surrounded by people who were sophisticated in that area and I didn’t feel judged at all. I think sometimes the difference would erupt in Richard when he was going through something. Maybe he was offended by someone at some studio and he would sort of lash out at white people. (Laughs) He would call me, “White honky bitch.” It was an endearment, though. I actually have a license plate that says, “White honky bitch.”
Mark: Richard’s comedy has such a huge influence on both comedy and hip hop. Firstly, were there any comedians he admired? Secondly, who did he admire in the world of rap?
Jennifer: Richard was influenced by Lenny Bruce, Moms Mabley, and really edgy, out there people. Redd Foxx is another. He loved all comics, though. He loved Bob Newhart. That was actually the first album he ever stole. We would go to The Comedy Store and he would appreciate every comic because he knew how difficult the art form is. (Regarding Rap and Hip Hop) I think he loved some of the more serious ones–Jay Z, Ice Cube, NWA, not the run-of-the-mill riff raff. The hardcore people who were really going for it and making a statement.
Mark: What is something very few people know about Richard?
Jennifer: His vulnerability gets lost. I think only his fans can really see it in his work. What people also don’t know about Richard is his generosity. He gave enormously to those he wanted to support. He was incredibly generous and giving.