May 29, 1995 12:00 PM

“People call me all the time and say, ‘Richard, I heard you were dead.’ ‘What do you think?’ I say. ‘You’re talking to me. Does that help?’ ”

HIS LIMBS ARE STICKLIKE NOW, HIS BACK curved in a permanent question mark. Sitting in a white iron chair beside the pool of his Mediterranean-style house in the San Fernando Valley, Richard Pryor, ravaged by illness, has been whittled down to a doll-like replica of his former self. But Pryor is almost feline as he stretches up to grip the walker steadied by housekeeper Mara Kenez.

“I once had this dream that I was in church,” says Pryor, 54, after hobbling inside to his electric wheelchair and lighting a cigarette with long trembling fingers. “I was kneelin’ and prayin’, and over my shoulder I hear God. He says, ‘Rich!’ And I say, ‘Yes, Lord.’ He says, ‘Look at me.’ I turn around, and there’s God nailed up on this big crucifix. He says, ‘I want you to do me a favor, Rich.’ I say, ‘Sure, Lord, what is it?’ ” Suddenly, shoulders hunched up, as if pinned, Pryor leans forward and whispers, ” ‘Get me down from here!’ ”

The take-no-prisoners wit is still there. So is the foul-mouthed irreverence and disarming innocence that made Pryor the hugely popular comic paradox of the ’70s. Fate, though, has given Pryor his own cross to bear. He has multiple sclerosis, a devastating, degenerative disease that attacks the central nervous system, robbing many of its victims of motor skills and balance, even making swallowing an ordeal. “It’s hell, man,” says Pryor with a rueful chuckle.

But it is, he believes, a hell of his own creation—payback for living on the edge. “You remember what Malcolm X said after Kennedy was shot, about the chickens coming home to roost?” he asks. “Well, ol’ Rich’s chickens came home to roost inside.”

With the help of writer Todd Gold (PEOPLE’S Los Angeles deputy bureau chief), Pryor has described those chickens in lurid detail in Pryor Convictions—and Other Life Sentences (Pantheon), the comic’s just-published autobiography. His painfully honest memoir is reminiscent of Pryor’s most scathing vintage monologues and covers much the same material: his childhood in the whorehouses and pool halls of Peoria, Ill.; his rise to fame in the mid-’60s, as a Bill Cosby clone, and then in the ’70s as a cultural icon (with some 20 comedy albums and 40 films to his credit over his career); his bouts with six wives (plus countless live-ins), not to mention his near-lifelong enslavement to the drug he calls Lady Cocaine. The go-rounds with the wives may have taken their toll. But the Lady nearly killed him.

First there was the heart attack in 1977, triggered by coke and overwork, which he commemorated two years later in the film Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Then came the freebasing calamity of 1980, which he described in 1982’s Live on the Sunset Strip. Pryor, who spent six agonizing weeks in a burn unit, led the world to believe that he caught fire accidentally while freebasing cocaine. Now he confesses that, coked out of his mind, he doused himself with a bottle of cognac and put a lighter to it.

The MS, Pryor’s latest and nastiest chicken, came home in 1986. But just now he would rather discuss the freebasing with Jennifer Lee, 45, Pryor’s fourth ex-wife—they met in 1977 and were briefly married in 1981—and current caretaker. “I didn’t want to kill myself for real,” he says to Lee, obviously lancing an old wound. “I just wanted to f—k myself up. Isn’t that right, dear?”

“You’re getting my Irish up, Richard,” says Lee. “Is that what you want?”

The freebasing is a sensitive issue, because Pryor, who was prone to beating his women while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, almost killed Lee—who was also addicted to cocaine at the time—one savage morning after in 1979. At this point, Lee storms out of the room. Whereupon Pryor confides, “She likes me.” Lee returns, a short time later, as she apparently has many times before.

“I can’t apologize no more,” says Pryor, gravely.

“No,” says Lee quietly. “I don’t want you to.”

Richard Pryor grew up in Peoria in a house of prostitution run by his grandmother Marie Carter. His father, Buck Carter, was a former Golden Gloves boxing champ, and his mother, Gertrude Pryor, a bookkeeper. Both were involved in running the bordello and other businesses, including a bar, a trucking operation and a beauty parlor.

Gertrude and Buck were violent people—Gertrude nearly castrated Buck with her fingernails during one domestic spat—and serious drinkers. Gertrude had not expected to get pregnant with Richard—nor, he was told, did she wish to. “I was a skinny little black kid,” he writes, “with big eyes that took in the whole world and a wide smile that begged for more attention than anybody had time to give.”

Gertrude would often disappear for months at a time, and when Richard was 10 she walked out for good, returning to her family’s farm in Springfield, Ill. Grandma Marie Carter became the one constant in his life. Pryor was lulled to sleep at night by the sounds of hookers plying their trade. Doubtless on Marie’s orders, the working girls refrained from giving Richard private tutorials.

Not so a local teenage pedophile named Bubba, who molested him in an alley when he was just 6 years old. “For a long time,” says Pryor. “I tried not to think of it.”

Strangely, Bubba sought Pryor out again in the 1980s, when he came home to Peoria as a star. “I went out and signed an autograph for Bubba’s son,” says Pryor, who somehow held down his anger. “But when Bubba left, I said to myself, ‘I pray to God his son don’t have to go through what I did.’ ”

As a child, Pryor learned to use humor to win love and approval. He discovered he could make people laugh one day when he fell off a porch railing—on purpose—and everyone roared. Humor even pierced his father’s thick hide. Pryor remembers, at 11, going with Buck to a Jerry Lewis movie, Sailor Beware. “I’d never seen my father laugh like that,” he says. “He was just sick from laughter. I watched him and thought, ‘That’s the way I want to make him laugh.’ For the rest of my life, I always said that.”

Did it ever happen? “No,” says Pryor. “But he did say to me once he thought I was doin’ good. That made me happy.”

In 1961, after being discharged from the Army for slashing another G.I. with a switchblade, Pryor walked into Harold’s Club in Peoria and said he could sing and play piano. He could do neither, really. But he still managed to impress Harold, who came backstage and said, “You got more nerve than anybody I’ve ever seen. Would you like to keep coming?” Pretty soon Harold got a real singer. But he kept Pryor on for his patter.

Over the next few years, Pryor began to build a reputation, working so-called Blackbelt clubs in Cleveland, Chicago and Buffalo. By 1963, he was doing stand-up in New York City, where Bill Cosby was the comic of the moment—and Pryor’s idol. “Richard was obsessed with Cosby,” recalls comedian and longtime friend Paul Mooney. “I used to tell him, ‘Bill can’t hold a candle to you.’ Richard touched the heart and soul of his race as no one did before, but he was fascinated by Bill’s success.”

By the mid-’60s, Pryor was making regular TV appearances and opening at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas for Bobby Darin, pulling down $2,400 a week and blowing most of it on drugs. Cocaine made him feel brave. “I started snorting little pinches, saying, ‘I know I ain’t gonna get hooked,’ ” he said with pungent irony on one of his concert albums. ” ‘My friends have been snorting 15 years and they aren’t hooked.’ ”

By 1968 he had a $200-a-day habit and two ex-wives—Patricia Price and Shelley Bonus. Each marriage lasted about a year and produced a child—Richard Jr., now 33, and Rain, 25. He also had another child, Elizabeth Anne, 28, with Maxine Silverman, who took on his last name sans marriage. “Uninterested in relationships,” he writes, “I caught women as if they were taxis.” Then, in September, his father died. “He’d been with five women. At the same time! In the midst of it, his heart gave out.”

With Buck’s death, Pryor came into his own. The scrum of junkies, winos, hustlers and prostitutes that had been screaming in his head finally made themselves heard in his act. Pryor had found his own stand-up persona, which grafted the profane edge of Lenny Bruce onto the pathos of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. In 1979, critic Pauline Kael described him as “a master of lyrical obscenity; the only great poet-satirist among our comics.”

He began to make his mark in movies after playing Piano Man opposite Diana Ross in the 1972 Billie Holliday bioflick Lady Sings the Blues. A series of hits would follow between 1974 and 1980, including Uptown Saturday Night, Car Wash, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. At his peak he juggled multimillion-dollar deals with both Universal and Warner Bros. But still plagued by private demons, he stood one night in his L.A. backyard with doomed comic Freddie Prinze and fired his handgun at the moon.

In 1977, Pryor almost checked out himself, when, like Buck, he had a heart attack while dallying with a hooker. His doctors advised moderation, but they could have saved their breath. In 1980, at loose ends after the death of his beloved grandmother, Pryor turned himself into a human torch.

In 1983, after making Superman III in London, Pryor plunged back into the maelstrom of his love life. He bounced from Superman costar Margot Kidder to 19-year-old Flynn BeLaine (who became his fifth wife in 1986—and sixth upon remarriage in 1990—and bore two children, Steven, now 10, and Kelsey, 7) and back once more to Jennifer Lee. He also renewed relations with model Deboragh McGuire, to whom he had been married briefly in 1977.

“My dad was a very scared, closed person,” says Rain Pryor, the comic’s daughter. Rain had a ringside seat for the circus that was her father’s love life. “Dad spent most of my childhood locked away in his room with his women and his drugs. He lived in his own reality. He trusted no one.”

On Christmas 1983 in Hawaii, though, he had what he calls a moment of clarity. Pryor, who had lapsed back to free-basing, threw his pipe in the garbage and followed Rain into the surf, despite a lifelong fear of water. “For my dad,” says Rain, “letting me lead him into the water was an expression of trust, almost unheard of for him. I think he was willing to trust me because I was a child. Why would I want to hurt him?”

At present, the comic is putting his trust in Jennifer Lee, who rode back into town from New York City in 1994 and booted out two of Pryor’s exes, Flynn and Deboragh. “It made me mad to see him so helpless,” says Lee, who lives nearby and sees Richard daily. “There was a classic chaos, inappropriate sexual behavior going on in the living room, while Richard was hiding in the bedroom. I helped Richard stand up and say, ‘I’m taking charge.’ ”

Lee complains that the two former wives were draining Pryor’s assets. In fact, she says that Pryor has been fleeced not just by his exes but by lawyers, accountants, even his relatives in Peoria. “His family would grift him like a stranger,” she says. “They would ask him not just for $100 but for $50,000. His Uncle Dickie would cry and then he’d show up the next day wearing rhinestone glasses and polyester suits.”

Pryor approves of Lee’s intervention. “I think you just have to cut ’em off,” he says of her coup d’état over the other exes and hangers-on. “You’ve helped me with that, Jenny.”

For her part, Deboragh thinks that Lee has mainly been helping herself. “Here’s a woman,” she says, “who went on Geraldo saying, ‘He’s the worst human being I’ve ever met. I’ll never speak to him again.’ I resent being pushed aside. If I call, she never gives him my messages. When I was Richard’s caretaker, I always passed along her messages, even when she was faxing him pictures of her breasts.

“She’s not a very nice lady,” Deboragh adds. “But—I want to be honest. I’m not very nice either!” Lee would agree with that. “The last time Deboragh stopped by,” she says, “the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Make me a martini and give me a thousand dollars.’ ”

Pryor, who had quadruple-bypass surgery in 1991, does his best to stay out of the line of fire. These days he rises most mornings around 11, showers and dresses himself, usually in designer jogging pants, and endures a grueling exercise workout three times a week with his physical therapist, Maria Mosher. While awaiting visitors such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Quincy Jones, he watches O.J. Simpson on Court TV. The trial fascinates and depresses him. “That could be me,” he says, reflecting on the killings. “I could have done that. But I don’t think I could kill two people and lie about it in the courtroom. I don’t have the heart for that.”

Pryor does have the heart to be burdened by regrets, largely about his children. Though he makes more than $11,000 in monthly support payments, he has had difficult times with his kids. “My own need for parenting,” he says, “exceeded my ability to be one.” He planned none of his children, but loves them all, he says, and beams at the notion that daughter Rain has embarked on a career as a stand-up in L.A. “She told me not to come yet,” he says. “She has only been doing it four months.”

Does he give her advice?

He nods: “Duck!” Then he adds, more seriously: “I don’t know how to give anybody advice.”

Is it possible to think of his disease in some positive way—has serenity been forced upon him somehow? “I believe that,” he says. “I lived big for a time, but never appreciated life. Nor did I think that people really liked me. That’s changed since I became ill. I’ve been deeply touched in more ways than I could’ve imagined.” Nor could he have imagined that illness would bring him down. “I thought I’d get hit by a train, maybe, or a bus, you know? But I never, never thought of this. When you look at me, say, ‘There but for the grace of God goes I,’ because, man, it’s a f—kin’ horror show.”

Still, lately, Pryor has been feeling better. He is even talking about doing more comedy—wheeling onto the stage at the Comedy Store for some short sets. “I think there is a reason he’s still alive,” says his friend Paul Mooney. “There is something he hasn’t done yet. He has a destiny.”

But this sort of language is a bit heavy for Pryor, who lapses into one of his many voices, someone like Mudbone, the mythic elder who narrates parts of the comic’s autobiography. ” ‘Just say you had some fun, Rich.’ Because I did,” says Pryor, with that old mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Richard had some fun. Some big fun. And? He might still have some more.”


F.X. FEENEY in Los Angeles

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