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A New Black Superstar

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The Pryor Engagements Go Up and Up

Words, too, can be born again. Just then it seemed to have been purged from the language, an epithet consigned to the ashcan by a more enlightened society, there it is again: nigger. But when Richard Pryor says it, it means something different from what it did through too much of America's history. Depending on his inflection or even the tilt of his mouth, it can mean simply black. Or it can mean a hip black, wise in the ways of the street. Occasionally, nigger can even mean white in Pryor's reverse English lexicon. However he defines it, Pryor is certain of one thing. He is proudly, assertively a nigger, the first comedian to speak in the raw, brutal, but often wildly hilarious language of the streets.

"Nigger is his favorite word," says Beau Bridges, the co-star of Greased Lightning, Pryor's new hit movie. "Niggers is beautiful," Pryor explains. "Got their own rhythm and play their own games. Whitey don't know how to play."

Bicentennial Nigger, Pryor's latest comedy album, won a Grammy last year, as did That Nigger's Crazy in 1974. Greased Lightning, the amiable story of Wendell Scott, the first black race-car champion, is going like—well, you know what—at the neighborhoods, and Pryor's acting is the only thing to remember from such films as Silver Streak and Car Wash. His next movie, Which Way Is Up?, will be released in November. Also on his packed schedule is The Wiz, the film version of the longrun, all-black Broadway hit. Pryor will of course be the Wiz himself. Pryor has multipicture deals with both Warner Bros, and Universal studios. This week he begins taping his own comedy variety series for NBC.

Everyone wants Pryor, and, barring an accident of nature, he appears certain to be the next black superstar—if he is not already. "Of all the actors working now," says Lily Tomlin, "he is the one who has the most instant rapport with his audience." Paul Schrader, who directed him in Blue Collar, which will be released in February, does not stop there.

Says he: "I feel quite strongly that Richard will be the biggest black actor ever." Lome Michaels, who produces NBC's Saturday Night, on which Pryor has appeared three times, can top even that exuberant encomium. "Richard Pryor," he says, dismissing half a billion other funny fellows, "is the funniest man on the planet."

Everything about Pryor is special. "A lot of people try to tell the truth and make it funny," says Wiz producer Rob Cohen. "Most comedians use truth as a point of departure. Not Richard. No one else is so accurate and compassionate. He just lets it run, and you see it." Pryor does not tell jokes, and he probably would be tongue-tied if he attempted a one-liner. Instead, like Tomlin, perhaps his closest white friend, he does sketches.


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