There is something in the eyes of a genuine comedian, something that can't hide the intelligence, curiosity and the absolute drive to express. Sometimes it is too terrible to say outright, but with a twinkle in the eye or a quiver of the lip, or a quick gesture, the comic's depth is safely revealed.
Richard Pryor had those eyes.
I met Pryor in 1981 on the set of Bustin' Loose — filmed, in part, in Seattle. In the movie, Pryor was an ex-con who was sentenced to drive a busload of children in a cross-country misadventure. His character meets a social worker (played by Cicely Tyson), who was in charge of the children. Michael Schultz, an extremely successful African American producer of movie and television productions, was co-producer of the movie.
Seeing Pryor at work was quite a shock. He was quiet, intensely observant and seemed a bit self-conscious. Freddie Mae Gautier, of Seattle, had been chosen to recruit the children who were in the movie and she asked me to assist her. At the end of a day when the threat of rain was still looming, a group of five or six of us went to Helen's Soul Food Kitchen on Union Street. Someone went in first to see if there was an available table for us. With a nod from the scout, we all got out of the cars and went directly to our table in the back of the restaurant. It was a small place, with busy cooks and waitresses handling the orders for plates of tasty red beans and rice, fried chicken, fried fish, greens and corn bread.
Wearing a little black knit hat and a black winter jacket, Pryor kept his head down and ordered quickly. He was hungry after a long day of shooting, and eager to sit and relax.
Then without any warning it happened. I never knew there were so many cameras in all of Seattle, and certainly not in the middle of the "CD," as we called the predominantly Black area of town. Yet, there people were, snapping, flashing, yelling on the public phone and telling friends to "get here right now!" "Richard Pryor's in town!! I'm not lying. He's here! I'm looking right at him!" Suddenly everyone was screaming: "Buy a camera, just get here! Richard Pryor's here!"
Through it all, Pryor ate as though nothing was going on. He didn't pose for the photos. He just kept on eating, still with his head down. Although he was enjoying the food, he suddenly announced he wanted to go, and we all left through the crowd. He was sullen in the car, as though he had believed that in rainy Seattle, no one would notice him.
The next day our small group went to dinner in a private dining room in the hotel where he was staying. He wanted candles, quiet talk. During the two-hour dinner, he never uttered one word of obscenity, never told any jokes — but everything sounded funny because it was, after all, Richard Pryor's voice we were hearing.
We soon realized that he wanted to talk about his life. In particular, he talked about his childhood, his prostitute mother and his brothel-owning grandmother. They were sad stories, which I do not remember in detail because I was more conscious of the sadness in his eyes, even while he was smiling.
He was a gentle man in that setting, who would sometimes disengage from the conversation momentarily, and then come back with his quick wit, to make us feel at ease with Richard Pryor, the comedian. Even then, there was no cursing, no foul jokes. Just conversation with a very nice, very humble human being who gave his all to make others laugh.
Mona Lombard is a public relations consultant and a real estate and loan consultant at Trans-Continental Mortgage Corp.