The Richard Pryor Biopic’s 17 Years in Development Hell
Regarded by his peers as the greatest stand-up comedian of all-time, Richard Pryor also lived a fascinating life to match his larger-than-life reputation as a comic. Pryor’s tumultuous personal experiences are what fed his comedy, and it’s no wonder that Hollywood executives, filmmakers, Pryor’s family, and Pryor himself have tried many times to make a biopic about his life. There’s enough stuff in Richard Pryor’s life to fill two or three movies (he grew up in a brothel, rose to the top of his field by breaking boundaries and fighting numerous censorship battles, had some run-ins with the mob, lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, and was diagnosed with a debilitating disease at a young age), but attempts to make a big-screen version of Pryor’s story have hit some snags since the earliest gestations of the project in the mid-90s.
Richard Pryor was actually the first to make a movie about his life. Pryor wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the poorly-received 1986 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which he insisted wasn’t autobiographical even though it was clearly a retelling of his life story. Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis right around the time of Jo Jo Dancer’s production, which forced him to retire from acting and stand-up shortly soon after. Let’s take a look at some of the movies and shows about Pryor’s life that were almost made.
Damon Wayans in Martin Scorsese’s Richard Pryor Biopic Live (1995-98)
Richard Pryor’s well-received autobiography Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences was released in 1995, and Martin Scorsese began developing a movie based on the book that same year as a potential directing project for himself. Damon Wayans was cast as Pryor, with Richard Pryor and wife Jennifer Lee consulting and Rob O’Hara writing the script. The working title was Live. Filming was supposed to begin in late 1996 or early 1997, but the project was held up, with everyone waiting on Martin Scorsese to decide whether he wanted to direct or not. Live was still in development as of 1998, but things never came together and everyone involved moved on.
Eddie Griffin as Richard Pryor in a Showtime’s Pryor Offenses (2004)
In 2004, Showtime began developing a TV series, called Pryor Offenses, based around the comedian’s life with Pryor and his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor producing. Stand-up Eddie Griffin was cast as a young Richard Pryor, with Lauren Weedman (The Daily Show) and Jonathan Silverman (Weekend at Bernie’s) in supporting roles and Mad About You writer Billy Grundfest penning the script. The strangest thing about Pryor Offenses is that it was set in modern times, following Pryor’s career breakthrough in his 30s as if it had happened in 2004. Showtime opted to not pick up the series, but aired it as a one-off special in 2007.
Mike Epps as Richard Pryor (2005-06)
After the modernized Pryor sitcom turfed out, Jennifer and Richard Pryor returned to the idea of a big-screen film about the comedian’s life in 2005. The well-received Ray Charles biopic Ray, which had been released the previous year, may have inspired them (and the studio heads) to reimagine Pryor’s story as a film. Mike Epps, who said he refused to audition for Pryor Offenses after reading the script, was cast in the lead role, with Jennifer Pryor telling the press, “The material is larger than life, and you need someone to fit into it who’s not extraordinarily famous or else it would be like Al Jolson playing Malcolm X. Richard and I saw Mike’s standup, and there’s a dangerous edge, a Richard-esque quality about him.” Epps said he had been spending time with bed-ridden Richard Pryor, telling a story about how he had impressed the legendary comedian with a fart joke. Walter Hill, who had directed Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, was on board to direct at the time, from a script by Caleb Kane.
Richard Pryor passed away in December of 2005, and in 2006, Mike Epps told the press that project had stalled after a dispute over assets between Pryor’s first and second wives. A new script was commissioned with more input from Pryor’s children, and a new director, Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) was hired. Development continued to be sluggish on the project, until the Richard Pryor role was recast again. MediaTakeOut posted an insulting message the Jennifer Pryor allegedly posted online, in which she claimed Richard Pryor had not wanted Epps to play him and insulted Epps’s comedy.
Eddie Murphy in Bill Condon’s Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? (2009)
Writer/director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) wrote a screenplay about Pryor’s life, named Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? after Pryor’s classic 1975 comedy album, and began shopping it around to studios. Eddie Murphy was reportedly attached to the project. Murphy, a friend and admirer of Pryor, worked with him on the 1989 movie Harlem Nights. Despite the fact that a release date was set, Eddie Murphy later claimed that the project never made it too far with him involved, saying “”We had a couple of conversations about Richard Pryor, but I was never involved. Our conversations never got past stage one. There’s a great script out there that Bill Condon wrote.”
Chris Rock as Richard Pryor (2009)
After Eddie Murphy backed away from the project, Bill Condon stayed involved. According to Contact Music, Chris Rock was a contender for to play Richard Pryor, but Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee, an animal rights activist, made sure Rock didn’t get the job after she was offended by a Michael Vick dog fighting joke he made on TV. Contact Music published a strongly-worded open letter to Rock, in which she explained her feelings.
Marlon Wayans as Richard Pryor (2009-Present)
In 2009, Marlon Wayans, whose brother Damon was supposed to play the part 14 years earlier, was selected to portray Richard Pryor in Bill Condon’s biopic Is It Something I Said? The movie jumped studios to Sony, where Adam Sandler and Chris Rock signed on to produce the project via Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. Rock’s involvement is strange so soon after Jennifer Lee Pryor kept him from the job over his dog fighting jokes. Rock did, however, have some nice things to say about Wayans’s audition: “Marlon Wayans, he did a screen test and it was just unbelievable… It’s not just doing the comedy of Richard Pryor. He captures the vulnerability of Richard Pryor.”Production was set to begin in spring of 2010, but director Bill Condon signed on to helm Twilight: Breaking Dawn (Parts 1 and 2) instead. When asked when the movie would start filming in 2010, Sandler said, “It’s all being worked on. Hopefully soon.”
Other Pryor-related projects and the current state of the Pryor biopic
Earlier this week, it was announced that Mike Epps would be playing Richard Pryor in a biopic of jazz singer Nina Simone, whom Pryor opened for in the early 1960s at some of his first-ever gigs. Epps’s role in the movie will only be a supporting one, but it’s the only time anyone has portrayed Richard Pryor onscreen since Eddie Griffin starred in that ill-fated Showtime pilot in 2004. Speaking of Griffin, he currently voices Richard Pryor and his longtime friend and collaborator Paul Mooney in the Adult Swim series Black Dynamite.
There hasn’t been an update on the status of the Richard Pryor biopic in two years. Now that director Bill Condon is done filming his two Twilight movies, hopefully, he’ll return to Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? and make it his next project. As of now, the project is still in development at Happy Madison Productions, and Marlon Wayans is presumably still onboard to play the lead role, but we’ll just see how that goes. After 16 years of false starts, internal disputes, and casting shifts, it will probably be a while before we ever see a Richard Pryor biopic, if it even does end up happening.