March 13, 1978 12:00 PM

Richard Pryor said it first: That Nigger’s Crazy. It was only an album title, but who else would, unflinching, brand himself with the most stinging epithet of all? Sure, part of the point was to satirize such slurs right out of the American consciousness. But as for craziness, at the very moment Richard has reached an artistic and commercial peak, his fifth wife and the whole show world tiptoe around him like he’s some kind of Claymore mine. Stevie Wonder has counseled him to try to cool his hostility, and even friend Bill Cosby openly worries about him. “For Richard,” says Cosby, “the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it.”

Pryor’s current blotter of outrages includes a gay rights’ benefit at the Hollywood Bowl last fall, in which he became so incensed at apparent inequities for the black artists on the bill that he told a horrified house of 17,000 to “kiss my happy, rich, black ass.” Lily Tomlin, who had invited him to appear at the rally in the first place, shrugged: “When you hire Richard, you get Richard.” Indeed, that’s what NBC discovered, trying suicidally to slot America’s blackest comic since Lenny Bruce into the family hour last fall. “They retained about 6,000 people to do nothing but mess with my material,” cracks Richard about the censors—and the series was kaput after four brilliantly erratic weeks.

Certainly Pryor’s most surreal calamity of late occurred last New Year’s dawn when he got into an imbroglio trying to chase his newlywed wife Deboragh’s friends out of the house. Pryor was later booked for assault with a deadly weapon. “I don’t know why I do self-destructive things like that,” says a chagrined Pryor, 37. “I want to learn by my mistakes. In my working life,” he exonerates himself soberly, “I think I am doing well.”

To say the least. As a writer, aside from crafting material for Tomlin no less, Pryor co-scripted Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. The last four of Richard’s LPs have gone gold, and three (including That Nigger’s Crazy) have won Grammys for comedy album of the year. As an actor, he’s had a run of box office winners, including Silver Streak, Car Wash, Greased Lightning and Which Way Is Up? Now he’s proved his straight dramatic skills as an angry auto worker in the just released proletarian saga, Blue Collar. “We fought sometimes like crazy,” admits its director-writer Paul Schrader, “but I feel quite strongly that Richard will be the biggest black actor ever.”

Universal obviously buys that potential, having set Pryor up with a multi-picture deal and a handsome brown-and-gold office bungalow on the lot next door to Telly Savalas. The price was $2 million plus, but that doesn’t buy exclusive rights to Richard Pryor. He has an even sweeter four-to-six-movie commitment with Warner Brothers and properties in the works with Paramount and Columbia. It must also tickle his irony that his divorce from NBC was the cushiest of his career—he collects $2 million not to appear on any other network for five years.

Money’s not a hang-up for Pryor—he’s made a name for well-meaning, if slightly fulsome, charity. He will send a helpful secretary not a bouquet of flowers but an entire truckload; he gave individual Christmas presents to all 20 messengers at Universal. A diamond-studded pinkie ring went to his record producer, a gold bracelet to an old friend, a Rolls-Royce to his busy attorney. “He is the softest touch in town,” says his estranged wife, Deboragh, 26. “He’ll loan money to anyone and never care if or when it’s paid back.”

There’s fondness in her voice—even when she recounts the New Year’s Eve Armageddon causing their breakup. The trouble began when his and Deboragh’s guests split into warring camps. “I thought the situation was hysterically funny at first,” she recalls. “Just like a silly movie with everyone bad-mouthing everyone else. But things really got out of hand, and Richard blew up.” By 8 a.m. Pryor had ordered everyone out of the house, and, after some backtalk from two of his wife’s friends, he chased them and gave their Buick a $5,000 creaming with his Mercedes. “I was furious,” says Deboragh, who fled with her friends on foot. Pryor discouraged their return by riddling their abandoned vehicle with bullets. “He shot out the tires, windshield and basically killed the car,” says a friend. “No one was around at the time, but it must have made a hell of a noise.” (Johnny Carson later gagged, “If you’re ever invited to Richard Pryor’s for a party, forget the valet parking.”)

“I love my wife,” Richard now says contritely. “I don’t know how the situation got so out of hand.” Deboragh, who’s moved to an L.A. apartment and gone back to study junior college psych and real estate, likewise professes to “love Richard very much.” But, she adds, “A lot of things were said in anger that will be hard to smooth over. Richard just can’t argue. He waits until something gets under his skin so bad he blows up.”

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor may not play all that well in Peoria, but he was born there. He was brought up, he says, in his grandmother’s whorehouse, where his mother worked. “It was not an ideal childhood.” He was booted out of Catholic grammar school at 9 when the nuns discovered the nature of the family business. “I didn’t care so much for me,” he says, “but it made my mother cry. She wasn’t very strong, but she tried. At least she didn’t flush me down the toilet, like some.” After another stint in a Sweat-hog-style class and expulsion at 14 for smashing a science teacher in the face, Pryor settled into menial jobs and petty thievery. “We used to go till-tapping and I always got caught,” he says. “My father kicked ass all the way up Washington Boulevard.” Still, Richard professes to be unembittered by that upbringing, and claims, “The biggest moment of my life was when my grandmother was with me on the Mike Douglas Show.”

Pryor joined the Army intending to be a career man but returned to Peoria after a two-year hitch in West Germany, serving under superiors he couldn’t respect. Desperate, he thought his calling might be a stand-up Dean Martin impression. “You got no talent, boy,” Pryor remembers a club owner saying, “but you sure got guts.” By the early ’60s he was on the comedy circuit in East St. Louis, Youngstown and Pittsburgh, before winding up in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I’ll never forget going up to Harlem and seeing all those black people. Jesus, just knowing there were that many of us made me feel better.”

Pryor eased into the big time on Ed Sullivan, Merv and Johnny, but his style was not yet his own. “In his early days there was a lot of Bill Cosby in Richard’s act,” notes Cos himself. “Then one evening I was in the audience when Richard took on a whole new persona—his own. In front of me and everyone else, Richard killed the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then,” says Cosby, “he worked on them, doing pure Richard Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis I have ever seen. He was magnificent.”

Except to himself. He was snorting $100 of cocaine a day, had been arrested for assault and battery, sued for wife-beating, and accused of stabbing a landlord with a fork and of beating a hotel clerk. Strung-out one night in Vegas, Pryor suddenly crashed mid-act, blurting, “What the f— am I doing here?”

He sank out of sight for two years in Berkeley, holing up in a cheap flat and playing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On over and over on his stereo. He shook down his comedy before nodding hippies in Berkeley bars, then resurfaced with Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and practically stole it. Next followed a series of movies like Uptown Saturday Night and a creative breakthrough as an ersatz Latino baseball player in Bingo Long, just one of his funky, jivey and always joyously rendered characters (e.g., Big Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with a 280-pound ass”). “I love those people,” he says. “They are real and have a need to be somebody.”

Pryor’s bumpy upward course made it hard on everyone with him. After five wives—two white and three black—Pryor admits, “For a long time I saw women as sexual objects, and I was always trying to keep from getting hurt. Then one day they would pack up and leave, taking something more with them than their clothes. They took my happiness.” Now, he says, “I’ve finally gotten to the stage where I am trying to understand women as friends—I’d rather rob a bank than mess with women the way I used to.” His most celebrated relationship before Deboragh was with Greased Lightning co-star Pam Grier. But they broke up last summer after, among other transgressions, she beat him twice in tennis. “I love strong, smart woman,” Richard admits, “but I feel inadequate to them.”

Closest to his heart are his four children. Renée, 20, lives with him; Richard, 15, is back in Peoria with his mother, and Elizabeth, 10, and Rain, 8, both live in L.A. with their respective mothers. “Last summer I took them all to Europe. I’m not going to make that mistake again,” groans Pryor. “There was just not enough Daddy to go around.”

The real Pryor family base is his three-and-a-half-acre, $500,000 estate near the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. It has an iron fence, an electric gate and lawyer and doctor neighbors. From the orange trees in front of the pink stucco house, Richard or his live-in Mexican couple squeeze the morning juice. There is a pool (though Pryor can’t swim), a stable with one pony, a tennis court and a Hansel-and-Gretel dollhouse for the kids. “I like it on top,” he admits. “I got here myself. I earned it. I love it.”

If Richard sounds more solid now, credit at least in part goes to Atlanta lawyer David Franklin, a counselor also to U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. He began running Pryor’s affairs not long after the comedian served 10 days on an income tax rap. Richard’s friends are also still loyal. “I feel no need to make apologies for Richard,” says Cosby. “He’s a man who, if he sat down for an IQ test, would run the chart off the paper. He is a very sane man. That aura of craziness gives his material more impact. It’s an intelligent calculation.”

This fall Pryor will appear as the title character of The Wiz, the black musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and he begins shooting Neil Simon’s California Suite this month. In the works is one of Richard’s original scripts, but Vegas he considers passé. “It takes too much out of me,” he says. “Before, I kept going by using cocaine and alcohol, but I realize that is self-destructive.

“I’ve been told,” Pryor muses, “that when a child hears often enough that he ain’t worth sh–, he begins to believe it and that it really messes him up later. I don’t know if that’s true with me.” But, he says, “It’s too easy to find reasons for messing up. Everyone carries around his own monsters, but you have to face them and deal with them. It’s my life and I’m responsible for it, and I’m going to do the best I can.”

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