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Through The Fire

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In a memorable scene from his new movie smash, Bustin’ Loose, Richard Pryor is walking down the road, a skinny little Everyman mumbling toughly in the dark. Silently, a band of hooded Ku Klux Klanners files in behind him. Dread awareness dawns. But then, slowly, Richard’s sometimes desperately crazed courage subdues his panic. He manages to change the threat into a bantering jaunt. And once more, Richard Pryor’s wit turns ghoulishness into irresistible foolishness. That, clearly, is something Pryor has been doing most of his life. At the watershed age of 40, having beaten slim odds that he would survive a freak accident in which he became a human torch, Pryor is now in truth what before he always seemed: a man who has been through the fire. “It took me all this time to find out it was okay to be me,” a now drug-free Pryor exults. “If anybody was born again, I was.”

Still, Pryor worried that because of the scars on his face, neck, chest and hands, “Someone would go ‘aye, eek!’ ” Instead, the once self-described “street nigger,” whose comic genius perhaps only he ever doubted, has become almost single-handedly Hollywood’s black film industry. Stir Crazy, his pigeons-in-prison flick with co-star Gene Wilder, has taken in more than $100 million in a phenomenal seven-month run. It now is one of the top 10 grossers in Hollywood history. A recent CBS airing of Pryor’s 1976 Silver Streak drew one of the larger TV audiences this year. And Bustin’ Loose is now running even with Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons, collecting some $20 million in its first few weeks.

Most of Bustin’ Loose had been filmed before his accident, and Pryor’s 5’10” frame had lost 20 of its customary 150 pounds. To match earlier shots, he had to wear padding to conceal the difference and turtlenecks to hide some scars. He now is working frantically with co-star Margot (Lois Lane) Kidder to finish his next movie, Some Kind of Hero, before the threatened directors’ strike next month. In one scene that called for Kidder to screech up in a car to rescue Pryor from a seedy downtown hotel, Richard cracked up everyone by leaping out of the shadows in an inflated Superman suit. “I find it wonderful working with him,” praises Margot. “He is an extraordinarily serious and dramatic actor and a warm and special person. I love him very much.”

Richard may also be loving Richard—finally. After so many self-destructive years, Pryor is into personal renewal. He was buoyed by some 25,000 get-well letters after his accident. (“If it takes me 20 years, I’m going to answer every one,” he has promised.) In a bizarre way, the torment of the flames also helped. They seem to have cauterized the self-lacerations that Pryor once tried to ease with a daily fifth of booze and a heavy cocaine habit. “In the hospital I said, ‘I want to live. I’m going to get out of here.’ Now I see people doing drugs and I get sad,” says Pryor, determined to straighten up for good this time. “Those gaps you fill with drugs aren’t helping.”

His own housecleaning means ridding himself of high-life influences. Apart from presenting an Oscar and joking through one Tonight show gig, he has made few public appearances and done no carousing since returning to work in February. To escape, he has created a tightly guarded new retreat on five fenced acres in Hawaii. “Please let people know this is my last interview,” he says. “That’s why I’ve moved to Hawaii. It’s hard for people just to drop in. Just about all I have is my life, my Hawaiian place and my privacy. And I’m going to keep it that way. I feel at peace there.”

If he is all business in L.A., in Hawaii he’s all wholesomeness. He begins each day there with a health drink of fresh fruit, protein powder, yogurt and eggs. He has taken up jogging, offers visitors unfiltered apple juice and often hits the sack at 9:30 p.m. But, stung by thousands of disappointed letters after the National Enquirer front-paged a story that he had been using cocaine in the hospital, there still is some unfinished business in Pryor’s new paradise. He has followed Carol Burnett’s lead with a $10 million-plus lawsuit against the tabloid. Last winter he sued his former business manager, Atlanta attorney David Franklin, for alleged mismanagement of hundreds of thousands of dollars and says he is about to file a slander suit against him as well.

The slander charges stem from conflicting reports about the causes of Pryor’s near-fatal accident. Pryor blames Franklin for spreading stories that he was burned in an explosion while freebasing cocaine. In an interview with Ebony magazine, Pryor admitted that he had been freebasing for three days before the accident but says he had run out of cocaine. He had switched to drinking 151-proof rum, he claimed, and the liquor caught fire when he tried to light a cigarette with a butane lighter. Other reports may surface in court.

In the meantime, the scars that stretch to the tips of his ears leave absolutely no doubt about the horror of June 9, 1980. During Pryor’s six weeks at L.A.’s Sherman Oaks Community Hospital Burn Center, he suffered indescribable pain. His upper body was covered with third-degree burns. The dead tissue had to be scraped away and skin grafted from his thighs. “I was almost gone,” says Pryor. “There was nothing left but the raw nerves. I didn’t call my mama or the bank or any producer. I called God.”

He credits actor pals like ex-footballer Jim Brown and Stan (Roots II) Shaw with helping to pull him through. Shaw recalls that at the most trying times in the hospital, Pryor improvised advice from the Deity: “Richard, this fire is too much. I’m going to relieve you for now. I’ll call you later.” Shaw spent 13 hours some days with his friend and is outraged by the reports that Pryor got immediately back on cocaine. “This man was struggling to breathe!” he says. “The first day Richard got up, he pushed his IV pole in front of him and walked by himself. He was so childlike and helpless. He tried to make a joke but he was hurting. He could hardly talk.” Later Stan led him in an exercise program of stretching and lifting weights to increase the flexibility of limbs and torso constricted by scar tissue. “He had incredible determination,” Stan reports. “He’d tell me: ‘I’m gonna whip it.’ The word ‘brave’ can’t describe what he was. He’s much stronger, wiser. I am so proud of him. There’s no self-destruction in him now.”

There was once—and he’s made no secret of it. He has often said that his mother worked in the Peoria brothel run by his grandmother. At 18 Pryor joined the Army, and by the early 1960s he had started his climb in clubs, feeling insecure and unaccepted all along the way. “I wanted to be John Wayne. I didn’t know he hated my guts,” he has said. His relationships with women were equally volatile. According to writer friend Paul Mooney, Richard has a “big appetite for the ladies,” though he’s been unable to sustain a relationship through at least three failed marriages. Part of the reason was his rage, which burst forth in his streetwise, often scatological humor and sometimes in violence. It’s not surprising he thought drugs would help.

Shaw reports that Pryor now gets high only as the pilot of his own single-engine Grumman. When Richard took the controls to fly from Oahu to Maui, a shaky Stan gulped: “Wait a minute, I’m scared.” He was relieved to find that Richard could fly expertly. On Maui, they fished off a pier with Richard wearing a straw hat to protect himself from the sun and toured the island on mopeds and in Richard’s Jeep. “Richard’s a Hawaiian now,” says Stan. “They’ve adopted him. Hawaii is home.”

Though they’re divorced, he occasionally sees ex-wife Deboragh (they split after Richard reportedly blasted a Buick with a pistol New Year’s Day 1978). His romance with songwriter Jennifer Lee is over, and Pryor is mainly soloing in Hawaii. His housekeeper-cook keeps things running smoothly, and Richard’s four children—Renée, 24, Richard, 19, Elizabeth, 14, and Rain, 11—pop over for reunions.

Despite the good times, some tensions remain. “I gotta do something for the money they pay me,” Pryor frets. “I want to make people think. But I get afraid too. I mean, people are still mad at Jane Fonda. I don’t want anybody hurting me because they’re mad at something else.” He is plunging ahead at an almost breakneck pace. After he wraps Some Kind of Hero (about a Vietnam vet trying to adjust), a Stir Crazy sequel is scheduled to begin later this year. Then he’ll film a remake of a French comedy, The Toy, tentatively co-starring Jackie Gleason, and sometime next year may start a long-planned film biography of jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker. Meanwhile Richard will continue struggling with his own adjustment. Much still angers him. “I’m amazed that we live in a country where we have to vote for ERA and civil rights,” he says. “I’m amazed that an actor is the best-qualified person we have to run the country.”

Pryor’s rage eases a bit amid the idyllic surroundings of his one-bedroom Maui home with its command of the coastline. “I haven’t met anyone here who’s strange,” he says. “There’s no wickedness. I went to a festival once and watched them dance. It was so pure and innocent. And they brought children. I like that. When I first saw this place again, I cried. I thanked God for letting me live to see it.” Then, flashing that irrepressible Pryor grin, he adds: “You might mildew to death here, but nothin’ else is going to happen to you.”