Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Richard Pryor's Narrative Films (1971-1973)

[This article contains material that wasn't included in "Richard Pryor in Hollywood."]

You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat (1971)

Lady Sings the Blues (1972) 

 Lady Sings the Blue depicted the life of jazz singer Billie Holiday. 

The executive producer of the film was Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Record Corporation.  Gordy saw this project as a way to make his most popular singer, Diana Ross, into a film star.  He was determined to control every aspect of the film.  He fought with Paramount president Frank Yablans.  He fought with the director, Sidney Furie.  In the end, he paid back the $2 million that Paramount had invested in the film to have complete authority over the final cut.

Ross talked to musicians who had worked with Holiday.  She said, "Everybody seemed to remember a different lady."  So, the actress had to decide on her own how she should play the role.

Furie opposed the casting of Billy Dee Williams as the leading man.  J. Randy Taraborrelli wrote in Diana Ross: A Biography:
Even though his had been the worst audition of the bunch who wanted the role, Berry something between him and Diana that he knew was magical. When Diana saw the footage of her work with Billy, she agreed. She sank down in her seat and told [producer] Jay Weston, "I just got chills. I'm in love."
Williams said, "The first time a man of my hue had ever been a real romantic character on the screen was in Lady Sings the Blues.  I invented that character. The way I am now is in many ways that same character.  Much of what I've done since then has been based on that particular look, that particular persona."

Williams had much praise for Gordy.  He said, "I never saw such attention to detail, to research, [to] planning as Berry put into that film.

The actor expressed great affection and admiration for Ross.  He said:
You know, it is absolutely amazing what that Diana Ross can do as an actress. Here is a girl who's a top singer and on-stage entertainer who has never done anything dramatic. I've never met her before we started the film. I ran into her in the hall and she said, "Hey, you must be Billy Dee." We just stood and looked at each other for a while and already the communication started.  It never stopped, not for one scene and not for one moment off stage.
Joyce Haber of The Los Angeles Times wrote:
Billy's so handsome that, watching him, I recalled Diana Ross's response to my remark that he's good looking: "Yes," she laughed, "and it's a shame that he knows it."

Gordy, who had once dated Ross, was uncomfortable having Ross perform love scenes with Williams.  Williams said:
I think there was only one scene in the whole film where Diana and I really kissed, and Berry made it very tough on us.  It sounds silly in retrospect, but he really did not want the kiss to take place.  We'd get to that place in rehearsal, and he'd stop it. Again, and he'd stop it.  He was saying he wanted the real kiss to take place on camera, but we knew that he just didn't want us to make out more than once. Diana was beyond frustrated. "Jesus Christ, Berry," she said, "it's only a kiss." I have to tell you, I truly believe that he had never seen her kiss another man before in his life, and he did not want to see it. So, I thought that was kind of sweet. And kind of weird, too. In the end, we did kiss, obviously. Diana has the best mouth in show business, and kissing her was. . . well, magical. And I was only acting. So, after that kiss, I was, like, okay - I get it - if this was my woman, no way would I want her kissing another man.
Williams often used the word "magic" in describing Ross.  He said:
Let me tell you about Diana.  You know how they usually have cast parties when the film is done, usually on the set and there's lots of brass around.  Diana would have any of that. She insisted that everyone concerned with the picture, no matter what their job was, should come to a big party at her own home.  It was a great, friendly, warm party.

When we first started, the grips and prop man and gaffers were practically saying "ho hum" to the whole thing. After a few scenes were shot you could feel the magic Diana projected in everyone around.

The Mack (1973)

Italian Poster

Some Call It Loving (1973)

Pryor's character in the surreal Some Call It Loving comes a sad end.

Hit! (1973) 

"Richard Pryor in Hollywood" can be purchased at Amazon.

Reference sources

"Billy Dee Williams thinks he's romantic," The Daily News-Journal (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), May 18, 1985, p. 13. 

Joyce Haber, "All Eyes on Mitzi at Tropicana Gig," The Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1973, p. 83.

Kurt Lassen, "Billy Credits Success To Others," Nashua Telegraph (Nashua, New Hampshire), November 11, 1972, p. 16.

Jerry Parker, "She wasn't sure about acting," Tucson Daily Citizen, March 3, 1973,  p 15.

J. Randy Taraborrelli, Diana Ross: A Biography, New York: Citadel Press, May 1, 2007.

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