More and more, so many media so deftly defy logic, the smooth-talking liars on radio and cable seem like the man in the old joke by the late, great comic 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, Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. on Showtime this Friday.
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.
Day after day, I went to his locations, I went to his hotel, I talked to his publicist, his management, old friends he’d grown up with, co-stars.
My editor became angry that I wasn’t getting an interview.
City editor Ed Lembeck pinched my shoulder from behind and verbally ripped me a new one, saying, “’S’matter, hot shot? 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 – it dawned on me. 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.
The crew stopped filming, Banks came in and 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 – and the grudge was dropped. 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, Jennifer Lee Pryor, his widow, thinks she has enough material for a follow-up documentary, and she’s 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 the logic, and a skilled, instinctive teacher.
For now, Showtime has scheduled 14 showings of Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic through June 22.
Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.