On his 80th birthday, remembering Richard Pryor’s prime-time confessional interview with Barbara Walters
A comedian renowned for his honesty talked about lying, drug use and abusing the women in his life
Had Richard Pryor survived the hurricane that was Richard Pryor, he would’ve turned 80 years old on Tuesday. But no one knew more than the legendary comedian himself that just wasn’t feasible. Pryor, who died of a heart attack in 2005, spent his life on the thin line between heaven and hell and love and hate. This juxtaposition played itself out on stages and in the tabloids for decades, but never more authentically than in a December 1986 sit-down with celebrity interviewer Barbara Walters.
During an ABC special that also included segments on Lionel Richie and Betty White, Pryor confessed to lying about a previous suicide attempt, wrestling with drug addiction and his problematic relationships with women. Walters, who over decades had interviewed bold-faced names from Michael Jackson to Margaret Thatcher, would say years later that Pryor was one of the most fascinating interviews of her career.
Call it fate, irony or coincidence, but months before what would be his third televised chat with Walters, Pryor first noticed his body was betraying him. For much of his life until that point, Pryor’s body had been a petri dish for vice: Alcohol — and lots of it — sex, and of course, cocaine. He once joked in the 1970s that he, “… snorted cocaine for 15 years, my dumb a–. I must’ve snorted up Peru.” And that, “I said, ‘I know I ain’t going to get hooked.’ Not from no coke. You can’t get hooked. My friends been snortin’ for 15 years, [and] they ain’t hooked.”
But while filming the movie Critical Condition in the summer of 1986, Pryor began to witness the disconnect between his mind and body. A trip to the Mayo Clinic in Cleveland discovered multiple sclerosis — a diagnosis that led to, in Pryor’s words, “the lowest point of my life.” Pryor’s appearance on the prime-time ABC special revealed a man in transition. At least for this moment, he abandoned the search for laughs and instead revealed the pain that made the Washington Post call him in 1980, a man “with a death wish.”
Pryor had recently turned 46 at the time of the sit-down. He’d already suffered a heart attack at 37 and tried to kill himself at 39. By 1986, Pryor was no longer the undisputed king of comedy. That title rested with Eddie Murphy, a fearless young comedian whose style evolved from the School of Pryor. Pryor admitted to Walters that not being the king of the hill pissed him off, but it’s a reality his wife Flynn Belaine Pryor helped him to come to peace with. (Pryor and Murphy, of course, would star alongside Redd Foxx in the cult classic Harlem Nights three years later, bringing together three generations of Black comic royalty.)
Over the course of four interviews in his career, Walters saw Pryor in different stages of his life. He had lied to her in 1980 when he claimed he hadn’t been trying to commit suicide while freebasing, an incident that resulted in burns over half his body. Now, six years later, he was trying to make amends. He said he was clean. He’d been saying that for years, even once telling the same thing to Johnny Carson, but that the urge to relapse was haunting. He was almost apologetic to Walters for the fabrications in their previous chat.
Pryor was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, with the bank account to reflect that. He was one of the first Black superstars to write the terms of his own deals, as evident in his $40 million agreement with Columbia Pictures in 1983. His social commentary was as poignant as any Black thought leader in America. Profane as it was, Pryor’s line of thinking became fixtures in Black America and verbal field trips for white America to a world they either never knew existed or refused to acknowledge. But Pryor was still an addict. He had to remember that every day of his life.
So, Walters asked, why would one of the most famous, successful and beloved men in America try to kill himself? The answer was simple. He hated himself and the drug made hating himself logical. He found hell in his own fame and the drug provided the escape he needed.
“God had given me all this. And what did I do with it? I’d put the pipe down and it’d jump back in my hand. I couldn’t stop five minutes,” he told her.
Pryor then said something powerful, in part because a punchline never came. “There wasn’t a minute that’d go by when I’d have to pick that pipe back up. And I had money. That was the curse of life — to be able to buy the dope.”
Public fodder derived from private pain was Pryor’s algebra. He grew up in his grandmother’s brothel. His father was a pimp and his mother a prostitute. He was molested by a local teenager when he was in elementary school. Being in a relationship with Pryor meant taking in the complete emotional spectrum that came from a lifetime of hurt and a rageful combination of drugs, liquor and fame. Pryor’s high-profile relationship with Pam Grier dissolved because of his unrelenting drug habit (that even impacted her health). Shortly after New Year’s in 1978, he shot a car with his then-wife Deborah McGuire and her friends in it and then rammed it with his Mercedes.
Walters pressed Pryor about his history with women. If nothing else, he was brutally honest. He used to hit women because they, in his words, “pissed me off. I’m sorry to say that.” He admitted trying to talk his then-wife Flynn into getting an abortion because he was selfish. That statement left Walters with no other reaction than to shake her head.
“I was weak. That’s really the reason,” Pryor said. “I was drunk, or high, and I thought that was the macho thing to do. I’m ashamed of all that. I apologized to all of them and made amends. I thought I had. I made the effort to make amends.”
During his life and afterward, Pryor was seen as a flawed genius who brilliantly weaved social commentary into his comedy in ways that reached pockets of America politicians or activists could only imagine.
Yet, the same mirror he held up to America’s face also showed his own reflection. Despite how he was raised, or the yes men in his life, or the drugs and alcohol that saturated every vein and artery in his body, Richard Pryor was Richard Pryor’s worst enemy. He knew that. And he knew the consequences of his decisions would dictate the course of the rest of his life. It’s why he described his multiple sclerosis diagnosis as “… the stuff God hits your a— with when he doesn’t want to kill ya — just slow ya down.”
Much like another contemporary, Muhammad Ali, he’d eventually lose the powerful weapon that was his voice. In the December 1986 interview, he still looked and sounded like himself. But Pryor knew his most prolific days were behind him. With a diagnosis that had no cure (and still doesn’t), he saw the writing on the wall. During the final 19 years of his life, Pryor stayed in the public eye, including a brief return to stand-up, a 1996 Emmy nomination for a disabled character he played on Chicago Hope, and more movies that he’d apologize to fans for making (he needed the money).
When he sat down with Walters 34 years ago this month, Pryor wasn’t hiding behind his comedy. His pros interlocked with his cons. Neither of which he ignored. Because he had no other choice.
“I’m touched by Richard Pryor,” Walters would later say, “because I saw this brilliant man self-destruct.”
Self-destruction eventually comes to an end, one way or another. But the talk of it lasts lifetimes.