Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., May 30, 31 or June 1
More and more, so many media so deftly defy logic, the smooth-talking liars on radio and cable TV seem like the man in the old joke by the late, great comic actor Richard Pryor. His wife catches him betraying her and he coos, “Who you gonna believe: me or your lyin’ eyes?”
Pryor is the subject of a new documentary produced by his seventh (and fourth) wife Jennifer Lee Pryor, “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic,” scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. this Friday on Showtime.
The only time I lied as a journalist was in the summer of 1985 when I was a cocky reporter who’d worked in Washington, D.C., and returned to Illinois to cover entertainment for the Peoria Journal Star. Pryor, a native Peorian, returned there to shoot his movie “Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life Is Calling.”
It was a big deal – and a big story.
However, Pryor refused to talk to the newspaper, against which he held a grudge, I found out later, for a policy of publishing newsmakers’ home addresses, even if the news story was about local people who went on to become world-wide celebrities, like Pryor, or rather embarrassing incidents, such as arrests for prostitution, in which Pryor’s mom and grandmother had been involved.
Day after day, I went to his locations where he was filming scenes depicting his childhood in Peoria. I went to his hotel. I chatted up old friends he’d grown up with, wrote short features on co-stars. I talked to – eventually, pleaded with – his publicist, his management.
My editor became annoyed that I wasn’t getting an interview.
“’S’matter, hot shot?” said City Editor Ed Lembeck, pinching my shoulder from behind and verbally ripping me a new one. “Can’t do your job?”
Frustrated, I tried to think what Pryor would want.
Or – what he’d like.
So, as I was covering Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks – in Peoria for some charity – I had an idea – an impulse, really. After Banks’ appearance, I briefly interviewed him and then blurted out that Richard Pryor was nearby and he’d like to see him.
Pulled that out of my ear.
Banks perked up and said, "Great! I'll follow you over." I drove to the location and got the attention of Pryor's publicity flack – who'd been totally uncooperative – and said Ernie Banks was coming over and would like to see Richard.
Again, had no basis for that.
Just as the crew stopped filming, Banks came in, things got quiet, and I said, “Richard!” and he saw Banks. Photojournalist Renee Byer (who went on to win a 2007 Pulitzer Prize at the Sacramento Bee) got a nice photo of them shaking hands. The picture was published – a candid portrait of a couple of guys shaking hands, the kind of shot readers liked, whether it showed Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, or Nixon and Mao.
Plus, the grudge dissolved. (In turned out, in a bit of dumb luck, that Banks’ son Joey had had a bit part in Pryor’s previous motion picture, “Brewster’s Millions.” So there was a tenuous connection besides Pryor having grown up a Cubs fan.)
So: Pryor phoned me in the newsroom that morning, thanked me and asked me to come by to talk for a story.
I believe I got that story because I put myself in someone else’s shoes, and I’ve tried to remember that lesson since.
Pryor had many more lessons to offer many more people, teaching not so much about coarse language but about tender connections. In fact, his widow says she thinks she has enough material for a follow-up documentary, and she’s also starting work on a feature film that Forest Whitaker may direct. So there could be more about Pryor, a talent who defied the odds as well as omitted the logic, and a skilled, instinctive teacher.
For now, Showtime has scheduled 14 showings of “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” through June 22.
[PICTURED: Ernie Banks meets Richard Pryor, 1985, courtesy photojournalist Renee C. Byer]