Lessons From Richard Pryor's Caregiver
For the first time since the comic's death, his widow talks publicly about his battles and hers
John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.
The comic’s troubled life — he was raised by his grandmother in a whorehouse — and groundbreaking comedy is the subject of the documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, which airs Friday (9 p.m. Eastern time) on Showtime. It was directed by Emmy-award winner Marina Zenovich, whose credits include Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Lee-Pryor, who continues to guide Pryor’s estate, is executive producer.
Pryor is all over the entertainment map lately. A new, nine-CD box set called "No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert" is being released in June. An as-yet-untitled feature film about the comic was also just announced. Forest Whitaker will be directing; so far no one has been cast in the main role. Lee-Pryor is co-producing.
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I recently talked with Lee-Pryor about what her husband’s life was like after the diagnosis of his MS.
Next Avenue: When did you learn that Richard had MS?
Jennifer Lee Pryor: In 1988 Richard hired me to help him with dialog, wardrobe and keeping him on schedule during the filming of See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The film was being shot in New York, where I was living. Even after our divorce we remained friends and were dating periodically. One day on the set I said to him, "Why are you walking like an old man?" He then admitted to me that he had been diagnosed with MS at the Mayo Clinic two years earlier.
When did you move back to Los Angeles, and why?
In 1994 Richard asked me to come out and help him get his life in order. So I went to L.A. to see what I could do. By now everyone knew he had a fatal, crippling disease. He wasn’t getting the big movie parts or big bucks anymore. When I got to his house, I was shocked. It was clear the locusts had descended. He was living in a large, expensive rental. It was filled with ex-girlfriends, ex-wives and other hangers-on. The staff was taking care of everyone in the house but him. The cooks were cooking for them, the maids were cleaning for them. Richard was sequestered in his bedroom drinking and taking pills.
Richard’s business managers, attorneys and other professionals weren’t minding the store or looking out for him. The cost of maintaining a roof over his head was more than $20,000 a month. His money was going fast. He wasn’t earning gazillions of dollars anymore and he still had child support obligations. It was a frightening and dark scene, one I couldn’t turn my back on. I returned because he asked to me to help him get his life in order. He knew it was devolving into chaos.
I flew back to New York and gave notice on my apartment. I rented an SUV and, with a friend and my two dogs in tow, drove across country to L.A. The first thing Richard instructed me to do when he hired me was to fire everybody. That meant shutting off the Bank of Pryor, turning off the money spigot. I got some pretty nasty threats and even had to take out a restraining order on one ex-wife.
The house was full of guns, which really terrified me. I had to get rid of them. I remember dumping ammo into a dumpster at 3 a.m. one morning. I knew Richard very well. I realized that he was planning to kill himself if things kept going downhill. Not on my watch. One of the first things I did was get Richard into a new living situation. I found him a small house in Encino to buy. It was nice, but nothing you’d associate with a big celebrity.
But Richard didn’t require grandeur. He needed a place that could serve as a well-appointed hospital. It had to be one-story with bedrooms for the caregivers and a yard for his companion dogs. I had the house refitted for his needs and wheelchair access. I moved into a small rental a few blocks away.
Did you know what you were getting into?
I thought I was going in with my eyes wide open. But nothing could have prepared me for the work and burdens I was taking on. I’m sure that’s true of anyone who wants to help someone who is ill or very old. Every day was a new surprise, a new travesty uncovered, a new lesson learned. My job was a three-prong effort: Get his business affairs straightened out, help him with his living situation and find him the very best doctors, nurses and caregivers.
How did you find the best medical help?
I had to do my homework, which meant getting referrals from doctors and friends. I had a steep learning curve with lots of trials and errors. I finally learned to trust my instincts. After firing some caregivers, I got better at managing them and became hyper-vigilant. One day, for example, I noticed a nurse was having a hard time lifting Richard out of bed. Turned out she was drunk. I chased her out of the house. From then on I kept the liquor cabinet locked.
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How much did caregiving cost each month?
Between $5,000 and $10,000. We had two caregivers during the day, and one at night.
What things did you do to make Richard feel connected to the world?
I always made plans for Richard, like going to the movies every Friday or to a nearby Zen park to enjoy its beauty. I made sure friends and family came to the house to visit him, including his therapist.
Richard loved going to the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard to perform stand-up sitting down. His bodyguard would hoist him out of his wheelchair and onto a stool. He also loved going to restaurants, even when he wasn’t hungry. He would enjoy just being there watching people.
As celebrities get older they accumulate awards and accolades for their careers. And Richard was no exception. In 1995 he wrote an autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. He enjoyed doing the publicity and it became a best-seller. He won the first Mark Twain Award in 1999. I took him to Washington for the ceremony. Even though he wasn’t strong enough to go on stage and thank everyone, he sat in a box on the side of the Kennedy Center beaming.
His disease required visits to doctors three and four times a week. Rather than make them just medical visits, I’d turn them into fun outings that he'd look forward to. After seeing a doctor, we’d go to lunch or have ice cream, or go to the beach to watch the surfers.
I want to say something here. Yes, there was money to make Richard’s life easier. But caregiving is about some things that money can’t buy, namely respect and dignity.
Richard wasn’t self-conscious being seen in public?
No, which is what I really admired about him. He wasn’t ashamed of his situation. But Richard was always all about the truth, making people look at realities. He really wanted to be a part of life. There were other celebrities, and I won’t name names, who couldn’t face what he could. They told me they were too depressed by his situation to come visit. That infuriated me.
What celebrities did the most to stay in touch with him?
Whoopi Goldberg was forever sending him beautiful presents and notes. George Lopez was always coming by the house to hang out with him and make him laugh.
Richard’s life, as the documentary shows, was plagued by demons — like the time he deliberately set himself on fire. Did his illness bring him some kind of peace?
At first I think his illness was very hard for him to accept. But over the years he became very reflective of his life. I know he came to terms with it. There was a peacefulness about him that I had never seen before.
How did you cope with the stress of being a caregiver?
I went to therapy every week and to the gym. Finding creative ways to bring Richard income was also therapeutic. I loved learning about producing and licensing. We produced the first box set of his recordings in 1998. I produced a show for Comedy Central: The Richard Pryor, I Ain’t Dead Yet, Mother#*%$@!! I also went after stolen intellectual property belonging to Richard. I made it my mission to clean up his business and focus on his legacy.
I have always loved animals. So did Richard. He really came to love dogs even more when he was an invalid. He loved the company they gave him, even just sitting alongside him in silence. In 2003 we founded Pryor’s Planet, a nonprofit for the rehabilitation and rescue of homeless dogs. Helping dogs helped me. It helped Richard, too. So far Pryor's Planet has saved the lives of several thousand dogs. In fact, he became a PETA spokesman against animal testing. We went to an event where the animal rights organization honored him. In 2006 I helped PETA create the Richard Pryor Memorial Award, to honor his advocacy for elephants imprisoned in circuses and zoos.
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In 1990 you wrote a book, Tarnished Angel: Surviving the Dark Curve of Drugs, Violence, Sex and Fame, that dealt with your first marriage to Richard. You talked about him hitting you on various occasions when he was high. Did the two of you ever come to terms with this?
There were times when I could see him lost in sorrowful thoughts. Then he’d blurt something out, like "Jenny, I’m sorry I hit you." Finally after a few apologies I said to him: "Richard, in order to go forward we have to practice acceptance and move on. We love each other and it’s pretty amazing that we have an opportunity to make peace with the past. So no more I’m sorrys. Let’s go forward in a positive way."
Is that why you remarried him in 2001?
Throughout our journey we came to know what real love is — to let go of our anger and regrets about the past. The only thing that mattered is that his disease gave us this amazing gift to focus on the future and love each other again. The challenges that we faced were very different from the previous ones. I came to admire Richard so much for his courage. He was no longer the panther stalking the stage. But he had grown to 10 feet tall in my eyes and my heart.
What do you want audiences to take away from the Showtime documentary?
That Richard told the truth, no matter the price. And there will never be another Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor.