April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

She has the same face: long, caramel-colored and extraordinarily elastic. And she has the same wicked sense of mimicry and humor. But there is no question that the similarities between Rain Pryor, the tough-talking T.J. on ABC’s Head of the Class, and her father, comedian Richard Pryor, score a point for nature and not nurture in the old heredity debate. Rain, the third child in a confusingly configured family of five, rarely sees her father. Pryor left soon after the girl, named for the weather on the day of her delivery, was born. “We all love our father,” Rain, 19, says of her siblings, “but he never had a real home life, so it’s difficult for him. We talk to him like we’re talking to an egg. If you push it too hard, it will crack. We tell him what we think he wants to know, not what we really want to tell him. It’s just that way.”

Shelley Bonus, whom Rain calls “my blond, blue-eyed Jewish mother,” met Pryor in Los Angeles in 1967, when she was a jazz dancer and choreographer and he was a wild new comic. “We were in love, we got married, and we were two accidents ready to happen,” says Bonus, 42, a writer and comedian. Two years after the wedding, Rain was 6 months old, Pryor was gone and Bonus was filling out a welfare application.

In 1976 she won a child-support battle, so while Bonus still struggled to make ends meet, sometimes working as a clown, Pryor paid a monthly stipend and covered costs for their daughter’s acting, dancing and music lessons. Although Bonus would have nothing to do with her ex, she encouraged her daughter to make a connection. “After all, he is her father,” she says. “He’s a brilliant man. Rain should know him.”

She’s working on it, mostly by becoming a performer and finding something in common with him. This season Rain was cast in Head of the Class, creating a character during her audition that so impressed the producers they wrote it into the show. In addition, her second single, titled “I’ve Got a Right to Be Wrong,” is due out in a few weeks. Her fast rise leaves her father cautiously confident. “She knows about the pitfalls [of this business],” says Richard. “She’s lived around it all her life. She’s seen it through her mother and her father. I just know she’s gonna be all right.”

At least Rain’s success is bringing her closer to the Pryor who came prior. “My dad and I talk more,” says Rain. “I don’t necessarily see him, but now I talk to him about my work.”

Today, as in the past, Rain only sees her father rarely, sometimes along with his four other children, Richard, 25, Elizabeth, 22, Stephen Michael, 4, and Kelsey, 2, by three other wives. (He’s divorced from Flynn Le-Blaine, No.5.) The older children, says Rain, “used to battle because we didn’t know who each other was. We’d all be saying, That’s my dad,’ and then my dad would say, ‘You’re all my children.’ And we’d look at each other like, ‘Ohhhh…we’re all related?’ There’s still tension when we get together because he doesn’t know what to say to us. We’re not what society would say is a family, but we all care about each other.”

Pryor doesn’t blame himself for seeing so little of his children. “There was nothing I could do about it,” he says. “I can’t be beating myself up about that.” For Rain, however, the unusual family situation “made me angry and frustrated.” She remembers being asked to draw a family tree in school. “I went home and said, ‘Mom, how do I do this?’ I was mad. I said, ‘Where is my family?’ ”

Another source of anger was her mother’s drug addiction. Suffering severe depression, Bonus says, she became addicted to prescription drugs, and her eight-year habit caused “fighting, sometimes physical fighting,” according to Rain. “I didn’t have a great deal of self-esteem,” says Bonus, who entered a treatment program in 1984 and has since remained straight.

A spokesperson for Students Against Drunk Driving, Rain knew little of her father’s drug problems. “I was upset when he was in the hospital,” she says, referring to the 1980 freebasing episode in which Pryor seared his face and neck, “but I didn’t think any more of it.” The severity of the burns prompted Bonus to finally visit her ex-husband. “But when the nurse asked for Mrs. Pryor,” she says jokingly, “and five women stood up, I left.”

In 1987, when she developed asthma, it was Rain’s turn for convalescence. She received a rare offer from her father. For the first time, Pryor invited her to live in his Bel Air home. “It was hard for him,” says Rain. “He’d never had any of the children living with him for any length of time. He tried his best, but it was like walking on eggs for both of us. He wasn’t used to being a father on a day-to-day basis.” She left after two months.

Rain now lives in a tiny L.A. apartment with her boyfriend, Anthony Varuola, 27, whom she met last August. “If I don’t marry this guy,” she says, “it better be someone like him.” A best boy (head stagehand) on ABC’s Wonder Years, Varuola does most of the cooking. “She tries to cook,” he says, groaning.

If her culinary skills are lacking, her ambition isn’t. As a performer, she says, “my goals in life are to change the world, although I know that sounds pretentious.” Of course, she does foresee some bumpy spots. “I think even after I make it, I’m gonna have problems,” says Rain, “because people will get to me to get to my dad.” On the other hand, she says, she looks forward to the day when “people will get to him to get to me.”

Maybe she got what she needs from her father after all.

—Margot Dougherty, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles

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