Richard Pryor’s life was like his comedy: funny, sad and shocking, often all at once. In Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor, his daughter Rain, 37, recalls with candor—and, true to her roots, much profanity—her tough childhood, her mother’s depression and her father’s violence and addictions to sex and drugs. “I wanted to carry on what he was about, which is to always tell the truth,” says Rain, a comedian and actress (Head of the Class) who lives in Baltimore and recently separated from her husband. “But this isn’t a Daddy Dearest book. I found a place where I could forgive my father and love him.”
Rain was 4 when her mother, Shelley Bonis, a dancer who was divorced from Pryor, took her to meet her father for the first time.
My mother told me we were going “somewhere special,” and to put on a dress and try to look pretty. When she told me we were going to visit my father, I was confused. I couldn’t believe he lived in Los Angeles, a few miles from our shabby duplex. I couldn’t understand why we had never visited or why he’d never come to see me.
I had heard many stories about my father. He was a self-destructive, self-absorbed schmuck, and he wasn’t even remotely interested in me. That’s what my mother told me—that and worse.
We made our way up my father’s steep driveway. A party was in full swing. My mother took me by the hand, and we approached a man sitting by the pool. As we drew closer, my nervousness was replaced with astonishment. Looking at that man was like looking into a mirror.
Suddenly, he noticed us. “Can it really be?” he said. “She looks just like me. Ain’t denying this one’s mine!” Everyone laughed. I was terrified.
“Man, you’re even prettier than me!” he said. He reached for me, and suddenly I was in his lap. “Ain’t you a wonder? A regular little look-alike princess!” He kissed me, and I felt like crying, but with happiness. I had a daddy, just like other girls, and he was nice and he smelled awful good. Little Rain Pryor was home at last.
A few minutes later, though, Dad’s interest began to wane. He gestured vaguely, and some woman appeared and whisked me away.
I became a frequent visitor to Richard’s place on Parthenia Street, getting to know him and bonding with my half sister Elizabeth. There were always people at his house, drinking and smoking reefer, and when Daddy told a joke everyone would laugh—a little too hard. But he liked sitting with his friends and the hangers-on, sipping Courvoisier, telling stories. The man liked an audience. He was most alive when he was “on.”
Life on Parthenia Street was very pleasant those first years, but before long Daddy began to exhibit the erratic behavior that plagued him for most of the rest of his life. I think it must have been the drugs. He would explode for no reason, and he would beat us kids. Later—probably once he had his fix—he’d come looking for us, all sweetness and light. Years later, I would think back on all I endured at my father’s hands—the abuse, the hostile girlfriends, the exposure to drugs—and wonder why I wasn’t angrier. But I never felt anger. He had a hold on me, and I couldn’t help but love him. I remember going fishing with him once or twice. Dad would get so excited every time we caught something that he’d clown and jump around. I loved those times. He seemed just like a regular father.
When I was 10, I saw him perform for the first time. Until that moment I never really understood what he did for a living. Watching him strut across the stage, I finally got it: My daddy didn’t just tell jokes. He told funny stories that dug for deeper truths.
That same year, Mamma—the grandmother who had raised him—died. Daddy was beside himself. “I can’t go on,” he told me and Elizabeth. The depression worsened, and on June 1, 1980, all hell broke loose. I’m talking about his infamous freebasing accident.
The first news reports noted that my father had been smoking crack cocaine and accidentally set himself on fire. The truth turned out to be simpler. He was in a psychotic state, induced by depression and drugs, and the man poured a bottle of rum over himself and struck a match. Engulfed, he ran through the house, screaming, and ran down the street, still screaming. The police found him not more than a mile from the house, mute with shock, the upper half of his body covered in festering burns. I was with my grandparents that night, oblivious. But my mother raced to the hospital, and she sat by his bed till morning. I was very upset, of course, but she made up for it by finding a picture of me and putting it in a little frame. She took it to the hospital and set it next to Daddy’s bed, and for years that picture remained on my father’s night table.
A few weeks later, Daddy went home, and after that I went to the house often, to keep him company. One day, his ex-wife Deborah came by—ex-wives always came through for him, the abuse notwithstanding—and I watched her put vitamin E oil on his burns. I asked him if it hurt, and he said only a little, and I reached over to help. I wasn’t afraid. I would do anything to easy my father’s pain.
A few days earlier, Dad had joked about the incident. “It was an accident, baby. I was eating cookies, dipping them in milk, and there was two kinds of milk. And boom! The thing exploded. Nobody ever told me you couldn’t mix two types of milk.” But this time Daddy decided to tell me the truth. “I was drunk,” he said. “Stoned, too, and feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to die. So I set my black ass on fire.”
I don’t pretend to know what was going on in his head, but I honestly believe that after the accident he was reviewing his life. He was a disaster as a man. But as a comic, actor, writer—he was a huge success. And I wonder if maybe that’s what got him through the day. He’d be onstage, making people laugh, and he’d think, Those people love me. How bad can I be?
The truth is, my father never earned my love, but I loved him anyway. And after his “accident” I loved him even more—so much that I felt that I had failed him. If I love him enough, I thought, maybe he’ll never want to die again. If I love him strong and pure, I can save my daddy’s life.
Rain Pryor last saw her father in November 2005, a month before he died of a heart attack following a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
From the book Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor by Rain Pryor with Cathy Crimmins. Copyright © 2006 by Rain Pryor. To be published by REGAN, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.