Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Richard Pryor's Narrative Films (1983-1988)

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

Superman III (1983)

Superman III stands as one of the least favorite Richard Pryor movies and one of the least favorite Superman movies.

Pryor plays a genius computer programmer who helps an evil business magnate to battle Superman.

But, after the story takes a few twists and turns, Pryor and Superman become buddies in the end.

Here's an excerpt from a Today interview that Pryor did with reporter Jim Brown to promote Superman III:
Brown: Was it everything you thought it would be doing that kind of film?

Pryor: No, no, because it was the work, it wasn't like fantasy.  The fantasy is going to see a movie like that.  But being in one is real hard work.

Brown: Do you feel pressure as an actor when you are working in a film of that scope, and by scope I mean that budget where every hour the dollar signs are clicking away.  Is there as subtle pressure on an actor to perform?

Pryor: I didn't feel that in this movie at all because it was Superman.  I was just playing a part in it.  So, I felt real relaxed about stuff like that.  I didn't feel any pressure other than the fact that I didn't work a lot when I was over in England.  Two months in a hotel not working - every day, three and four days at a time, sometimes a week.

Waiting for them to call.

Pryor: Yes, waiting for them to call me. 

Brown: But there's a pressure in that though, isn't there? 

Pryor: I've been some places, you know.  I mean you see the Palace a couple of times, you know.  There you go, well, thank you.  It's amazing you think about how they make movies.  You know, what all that goes into it.  I mean, the struggle because everybody has a vision of it and to get the vision to work and for the whole movie and the character you're playing [to work], you know.  It's a real struggle and it takes a little back-and-forth, you know. . . So, it's not a day at the beach to make a movie.  I mean, I thought it was one at one time when I first started. . . [N]ow, I just feel I'm a professional, you know.
It is now known that Pryor spent most of his free time in London ingesting large amounts of cocaine.

Jake Rossen wrote in "Superman Vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded An American Icon":
Both the Newmans [producers David and Leslie Newman] and Lester [director Richard Lester] expected the chatty Pryor to veer from his character's dialogue, but the performer largely stuck to the to the script. . .

Rossen added:
Most days, the actor was affable and agreeable to Lester's suggestions. Sometimes, however, he appeared on set moody and disgruntled. Whether the changes in attitude were attributable to drug consumption is unclear. . .

Pryor had a great fear of heights, which became a problem when a flying scene required him to be hoisted 60-feet off the ground.  Pryor became irritated with the crew while filming the scene.  At one point, he made a rude comment to a cameraman.  The cameraman went after Pryor, but other crew members held back the man before blows were traded.

Robert Vaughn was chosen to play the villain (although the producers later admitted to originally envisioning Alan Alda in the role). Vaughn, who played most of his scenes opposite Pryor, took a liking to the comedian.  He said, "Richard is the one of the most wonderful people I've ever met. . . I got to rank him along with Jason Robards for being an actor that never misses.  In every scene and every take, on every situation that you're in with him, he does something different, but it's always right.  And that's the one thing that Jason is able to do."  He added, "[Richard]'s extremely sensitive, reticent, shy, very sweet, very vulnerable.  He's totally unlike he is either in his nightclub act or even in screen performances.  There's that vulnerable quality to him which he has personally.  I think it comes across on the screen so beautifully.  I think that's what you like about him, plus the fact he's so extremely, physically funny."

Vaughn fondly recalled Robin Williams visiting the set and improvising a lengthy comedy routine with Pryor.

Pamela Stephenson, as the villainous Vaughn's henchwoman Lorelei Ambrosia, was made to wear tight outfits to accentuate her curvy figure.  She said, "[T]his rather uncomfortable bra utiliz[es] all the wonders of modern science and engineering to give bulk and lift and squeeze everything up and over."

Jim Jerome of People wrote:
The principal quality needed for Lorelei was the right kind of voice. Pamela studied American women in London modeling agencies, airports and hotels, looking and listening for the perfect dizzy-blonde diction.  She finally found a California travel agent who quit her job to help Stephenson on the set.  "She ended up a liability," says Pamela. "She had never been on a film set before and was very talkative."
Brewster's Millions (1985)

Pryor and Vonetta McGee.
Pryor plays a minor league baseball player named Monty Brewster.  His only dream in life is to attract the attention of a scout from a major league team.

Pryor is a pitcher of the Hackensack Bulls.
A bar fight gets Monty and his best friend, Spike Nolan (John Candy), thrown off his team.
Pryor shares a beer with Yana Nirvana and John Candy just before he gets into a fight with Nirvana's boyfriend.
Before he has time to react to the loss of his job, Monty is approached with amazing news: he is the sole heir to a great uncle's $300 million fortune.  But unusual conditions are attached to the will.  Monty must liquidate $30 million in 30 days without violating specific spending restrictions that his great uncle outlined in the will.   The most difficult restriction prevents him from telling anyone the reason that he is on his mad spending spree.  Monty is offered a $1 million escape clause, but he is quick to turn it down.  He accepts the challenge with great enthusiasm.

Pryor and Stephen Collins
Monty calls his former coach to let him know that he plans to hire his team, the Hackensack Bulls, to play against the New York Yankees.

He has further ideas on how to spend his money.  He campaigns to become the mayor of New York City, which allows him to spend a vast sum of money on campaign advertising.  He invests money in a crazy scheme to motorize icebergs to transport ice water to drought-ridden areas of the Middle East. 

Pryor meets with a wacky inventor (Archie Hahn) about making money off icebergs.
Monty is predictably exhausted at the end of the 30 days.

The story comes from a 1902 novel, which went on to be adapted into a number of films.  A 1921 film version starred Roscoe Arbuckle as Monty Brewster. 

Martin Knelman, author of "Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy," wrote of Candy's performance in Brewster's Millions: "Candy had proved adept at playing the hero's funny sidekick in Splash, and here he fares better than Pryor, bringing a bit of bouncing euphoria to the strained proceedings." 

Director Walter Hill said, "John Candy was a genuine person and a hell of a guy, and that's unusual.  A lot of big movie stars aren't such likeable people."  Candy was on the Pritikin diet during the film's production, but he broke from the strict constraints of the diet when he went out to a bar with Hill to celebrate the end of filming.  After Candy died from a heart attack a few years later, Hill regretted that he didn't do anything to discourage his friend from abandoning his diet.

Candy told Gene Siskel, "It was a very ambitious film; it`s been done (many times) before. It did OK, but not what everybody was expecting. I wonder if the problem is that the story just doesn't have the same meaning today it once had.  I don`t know if people are really into the rags-to-riches story anymore.  You throw $30 million in front of somebody`s face and say, `Here`s how we're spending it`; I just don`t know whether that works."
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986)

Jo Jo Dancer was criticized by many (from The New York Times critic Vincent Canby to Pryor's ex-wife Jennifer Lee) for not being an honest account of the comedian's life.  The biggest lie of the film is Pryor's depiction of his mean and violent grandmother as, in Canby's words, "a great, sweet earth mother"

Pryor claimed that Jo Jo Dancer, a shy stand-up comedian who becomes a drug-addicted Hollywood star, is based on him but it really isn't him.  Even Pryor, himself, didn't believe this.  Jo Jo has his first stand-up gig at a strip club.  

Jo Jo falls in love with a dancer, Dawn (Barbara Williams), but he catches her cheating on him and breaks up with her.

He falls in love with another woman, Michelle (Debbie Allen), but he is upset that she refuses to commit to him as her only lover.  When one of her other boyfriends buys her a car, he becomes enraged and sends the car crashing over a cliff.

Critical Condition (1987) 

Pryor escapes the mental ward at a hospital by pretending to be a doctor during a city-wide blackout.

Pryor is consulted by real doctors (Bob Dishy and Bob Saget) about a crisis situation in the emergency room.

Critical Condition is Pryor's most underrated film.  The characters are believable and sympathetic.  The situations are funny.

Moving (1988) 

A family moves.  That's the plot, really.  People know that moving mostly involves taking belongings and stuffing them into boxes.  Then, you have to hire men to put the boxes into a truck and drive them to your new home.  Is that funny?  Is that a story?

And what's with Pryor's strange beard?

Oh, wait, I found three guys who like the beard.


They say that they are willing to make Pryor an honorary member of their warrior clan.

Pryor turns into a warrior for the film's climax, but he is an extremely timid family man for most of the film's running time.  This is not the way that Pryor's fans want to see the comedian.

Here are a few more stills from the film.


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

Reference sources

Jim Jerome, "Being Bad Is Wicked Fun for Superman's Seducer," People (July 25, 1983).

Jake Rossen, Superman Vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded An American Icon.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press (2008), p. 139.

Gene Siskel, "Sour Movies Keep Candy Just Short Of Sweet Success," Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1986.

Robert Vaughn "Superman III" Interview, Today, June 15, 1983.

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