Pimp's Progress: How Richard Pryor Made The Mack His Own

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Excerpted from Scott Saul's new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor. Quick setup: When Pryor started collaborating on the screenplay to The Mack—the 1973 film that brought the figure of the pimp to mainstream America—he was at an uncertain crossroads in his career. In the mid-1960s, he had become a fixture on TV programs like The Merv Griffin Show with an act that made him over as a kookier and more antic version of Bill Cosby. Increasingly dissatisfied with the name he'd made for himself, he decamped in 1971 for Berkeley, Calif., where he delved for the first time as an artist into the darkest corners of his past: namely, the trials of having grown up in a Peoria, Ill., brothel with a pimp father who regarded his son as a featherweight of a man. Writing and later acting in The Mack, Pryor put an indelible imprint on its portrait of what he called "the sporting life." The result was a lurid, lively, jagged film that hit far too close to home.

According to the legend, the original script for The Mack was written by former pimp Robert Poole on toilet paper from within his San Quentin jail cell. A typed version, called Black and Beautiful, eventually traveled into the hands of tough-guy independent producer Harvey Bernhard, who was intrigued by the idea—a pimp using mind control to bind women to him—and had the chutzpah to think he could finance the project on Diner's Club cards if necessary. Bernhard estimated his budget at the Hollywood pittance of $120,000. The success of early blaxploitation films like Shaft and The Legend of Nigger Charley suggested that he could make a quick return on his overextended credit.

Though Bernhard bought Poole's script for its seductive premise, the script itself was a piece of agitprop that begged to be rewritten. Drafted in 1969, it was a flat transmission of the revolutionary politics of Black Power's zenith, much of its action centering on the protagonist's Black Nationalist brother. "Snipers, baby! The war has begun!" So exults the brother in the movie's final line, his revolutionary brigade having just riddled a pair of dirty cops with bullets.

Bernhard first pulled in a young director named Michael Campus to rewrite the script top to bottom. Campus was still smarting from the 1972 flop of his sci-fi movie ZPG, about the dangers of population explosion. ("To say I was cold after ZPG is an understatement," Campus said. "I was like a slab of ice.") He had an abiding interest in black working-class life and an enabling overconfidence in his ability to negotiate perilous situations. Raised by a Communist mother and father on the border of Harlem, he had grown up in a family knitted together by the idea of social justice. The young Michael sang the "The Internationale" at summer camp; cried with his parents over news of lynchings in the South; and saw his father, formerly chief radiologist at Harlem Hospital, blacklisted in the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s. By the time he went behind the camera in the 1960s, he had picked up a hunger for unsettling truths, and was happy to take assignments that put him in a riot on the streets of Calcutta or in the back of a police car in New York City. When Bernhard pitched The Mack his way, Campus agreed to the project under one condition: that he be allowed to move to Oakland and see the culture of "players" for himself. He wanted to ground his film in the reality of pimping, not some ersatz fantasy dreamed up by Hollywood.

Campus considered several actors (Ron O'Neal, John Amos, Paul Mooney) for the central role of Goldie, but fatefully chose Max Julien, an actor-writer who could rewrite the role around his own sensibility. Julien's mother, a part-time minister, had just been killed in a robbery in the streets of Washington, D.C., and Julien felt both devastated and free to take on a role he would have declined while she was living.

He brought to The Mack a brash and longstanding self-confidence. By the time he crossed paths with Campus, Julien had traveled a complicated itinerary, embracing a series of roles: premed student at Howard; middling stand-up comic in New York City (where he met Richard Pryor, who informed him, "I don't know what you do, but it ain't comedy"); expatriate actor-filmmaker in Italy; and writer-producer of Cleopatra Jones, a hit black action film with a shapely karate-chopping narcotics agent at its center. At the end of that journey of self-discovery, he was a committed radical, a close friend of Huey Newton, and an artist dedicated to upending the stereotypes that Hollywood preferred. "There could be [a black cinema]," he argued in a 1971 interview, "if films start to deal with the psychological problems of the black man instead of repeating the one-dimensional militant or Uncle Tom." His rewrite of Poole's one-dimensional Goldie would put his ambition to the test. "I can't play Goldie as a fop," he told Campus. "He has to be a real person."

Julien insisted that his friend Richard Pryor play Goldie's partner, Slim, and Pryor in turn demanded that he be able to write all the dialogue for his character. Soon he was hosting all-night rewrite sessions. More than Julien and Campus (who had yet to go to Oakland), he knew the world of pimps from the inside. The Mack gave him a chance to become on intimate terms, again, with the demons of his past. It remained to be seen whether, in revisiting the hard-edged world of his father, he would exorcise those demons or become their servant.

The three writers came together as a team—"the three musketeers," in Campus's optimistic view, each lending his individual talents to the project. Campus brought a sense of storytelling structure and, after he spent several weeks immersed in the world of Frank Ward, one of Oakland's leading gangsters, a familiarity with the rough characters who prospered in that city's underground. Julien inflected Goldie with his verbal bravado and the sensitivity that peeked out from underneath it. Richard gave the film his ear and his feeling for black street life. In his handwritten notes from the time, Campus described how Richard's creativity erupted in the rewrite sessions:

Richie says nothing. He just doesn't talk, then suddenly, he says everything. The words tumble out, a river. Overlapping, caustic, furious, tough, sloppy, myopic, visionary, crude and always, always real. His life is chaos. But in the core, constant discovery. Realization.

As with his work on Blazing Saddles, Richard considered his cocaine a necessary stimulant on the job. At their first meetup, he visited the bathroom to take a hit; in later sessions, he made multiple trips. Always, when he came back into the room, he avoided the eyes of Campus, whom he called "White Boy."

Gradually, over several weeks of intensive writing, the film took shape. The characters retained their names from Poole's script, but otherwise bore little resemblance to their original form. Richard's character, Slim, formerly a tough-minded mentor to Goldie, became his wobbly sidekick, macho in theory if not in practice. Goldie was reborn as a player of some complexity: preening in a maxi-length white fur coat, but devoted to his mother; quick with an insult ("Let me tell you something, you vicious-ass piece of jelly"), but liable to drift into a church to gather his thoughts; openhearted when the cash was coming in, but coldhearted when it was not. Through Richard's suggestions, he also became a more stylish sadist, injecting battery acid into the veins of a drug kingpin, forcing a rival to stick himself with his own dagger-tipped cane, or locking a "rat" into the trunk of a car that was teeming with the real thing.

All told, the arc of the film became more melancholy, less triumphant, its radical politics tempered by the disenchantment of 1972. The dirty cops were still righteously dispatched, but Goldie was left with nothing. At the beginning of the film, he came empty-handed to Oakland on a bus, and now he departed the film seemingly on the same bus, again empty-handed. Still, for a film about disenchantment, its dialogue crackled with the vitality of people teetering on the edge of disaster. "You shade-tree nigger. You ain't no pimp, you're a rest haven for ho's. You're a car thief, a car thief!"—so cries Pretty Tony, a pimp getting squeezed by Goldie's operation. Here, with his pitch-perfect sense of street talk, Richard's contribution was essential.

Richard couldn't have asked for a writing gig with more personal relevance, but the experience of rewriting The Mack was hardly idyllic. He had committed to it in a moment of faith—like Julien and Campus, he wanted to see the film come to fruition—but they had never formally discussed credit or compensation, and the default position was for all of them to get none at all. Of the "three musketeers," he was the one most ill-served by this arrangement: Since Campus and Julien were the film's director and star, respectively, their fortunes would obviously rise with the film's. And then there was the irony that wasn't lost on Richard: Wasn't he writing a movie about getting paid? Who was the mack but an expert in squeezing the last nickel from anyone who owed him?

"You're gonna pay me for doin' all this shit," he told Campus during one writing session, then started repeating it like a refrain. Campus shrugged: "I'm the director, not the producer, not the money guy."

At their last session, Richard stared at the pages of the script, taking in what they'd accomplished. Then, as Campus and Julien said their good-byes, Richard stepped back from the pleasantries. He lifted a key line from the script—what Goldie the pimp says to Lulu, the first woman in his stable, when she runs to him breathless and penniless, raving that a trick has just tried to kill her—and he made it his own: "Get me my money."

Having written The Mack, Richard was trying to operate as one. Campus agreed to plead Richard's case, to "get him his money," but in his mind he already could hear Harvey Bernhard's response: "Screw Pryor."

"Richie is the human submarine," Campus jotted down in his notes at the time. "Everything below the surface but the rage periscope." Now The Mack had to move into production up north in Oakland and Berkeley, on a tight shooting schedule and with a fuming Richard as its costar.

One of the reasons The Mack lives on as a cult classic—a movie that has inspired filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and the Hughes brothers, and hip-hop performers from Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to Outkast and Jay Z—is its texture, the way it evokes the feel of desperate nights in Oakland in 1972: Snoop Dogg has called it "one of the coldest movies in American cinema." That sense of hard-bitten reality was achieved at considerable risk. Campus was committed to filming on location—in Oakland's bars, nightclubs, barbershops, churches, and funeral parlors—at a moment when the larger location was dicey in the extreme, and not just on account of the expected complications that might arise when a film crew enters the inner city (for which The Mack's bodyguards carried firearms). One day, when Campus set up his camera and maneuvered his actors into place for an outside shoot, bottles started raining down from the nearby rooftops. The crew scattered, shocked at the organized ambush.

Bernhard and Campus had entered, blindly, into an ongoing territorial battle between the Ward Brothers, who controlled the underground economy of the area, and the Black Panthers, whose organization was at a tender transitional moment. Just two months before The Mack started filming, the Panthers had narrowed their ambitions, declaring Oakland their sole "base of operations" and asking all party members to close down other local chapters. The party aimed to concentrate on "liberating the territory of Oakland"—from the police and from kingpins like Frank Ward. In public, the Panthers started putting on a fresh face and mobilizing to elect Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale as mayor of Oakland; much less publicly, they tried to muscle in on the Ward Brothers and get a slice of their action. When Campus had toured Oakland's demimonde with Frank Ward and then secured the Ward Brothers' protection for the filming of The Mack, he unwittingly took sides in this war for possession of Oakland. The fusillade of bottles was the Panthers' way of announcing, as Seale told Harvey Bernhard, "You're in Panther territory now, boy."

Bernhard reluctantly agreed to meet "the Man," Huey Newton, at his penthouse apartment overlooking Lake Merritt, and the next day at noon, he, Max Julien, and Frank Ward were sitting on lacquered seats in front of a Chinese table, waiting for Newton. Bobby Seale walked out in white pants and a black watch navy cap, and recited his poetry for 20 minutes. His recitation complete, Seale announced, "I'm not going to rip you off for much"—just five grand. Bernhard pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for the full amount, unaware that his own financing agent hadn't yet put up the money. After the check bounced, the war between the Panthers and the filmmakers escalated. The Panthers set up pickets at the Showcase Lounge, where The Mack's crew hoped to film the essential "Players Ball" sequence. "The Black Community Will Not Be Exploited Anymore!" charged eight-foot-high banners. Seale demanded that all extras on the film receive $50, not the $10 for which they'd been contracted, and called films like The Mack a "silver coated form of oppression." This time, Bernhard wrote a check that didn't bounce—and that was funneled into a fund for extras.

At the same time that the filmmakers were fending off the Panthers, they hit an equally persistent spot of trouble with Richard, who appeared to have pushed a Self-Destruct button en route to the East Bay. His character, Slim, was written as an insecure player with a taste for the finer things, and sometimes it seemed there was little daylight between Richard and the role he had scripted for himself. He partied with three or four women through the night, getting high on coke and champagne, then treated the set like his private playground during the day. Once, he came out of his trailer with three ladies of the evening at his side, and staggered up to Campus.

Campus asked, "What are you doing? Who are you?"

Richard deflected the brunt of the question. "This is family. It's okay—these are my cousins."

The substance abuse, combined with Richard's insomniac sleep schedule, took its inevitable toll on his body. When acting out a scene of drunken camaraderie between Slim and Goldie at a bar, Richard was so wasted on booze and coke that Michael Campus needed to prop him up during filming. If Campus lost his grip for a moment, Richard hit the floor.

Meanwhile, Richard continued to simmer over his unpaid work on the film's script, his anger spilling out on set and off. In the early hours of September 27, at the tail end of a punishing day of filming, he told Campus, "I want my fucking scene now."

Campus snapped at Richard: The reason for the delay, he said, was that his two stars were talking too much. He turned away.

Richard snagged Campus's attention by insulting his mother—a cruel touch, as Richard knew she had died early and tragically, when Campus was a child. Then, without another word, Richard charged at the director and clocked him so hard on the jaw that Campus reeled and fell to the ground, unconscious.

"How'd you like that blow?" Richard asked the limp body on the ground. Then, to everyone: "Did I get him? Did I really get him?"

The security crew trained their guns on Richard, and Max Julien rushed to grab and protect him. "You can't shoot him. No, you got to shoot me," Julien said, making himself a human shield. The security crew stood down, and Richard was escorted back to the Marriott.

Yet he was not done with the day's mayhem. At 3 a.m., he knocked on the door of Julien's room, carrying a homemade weapon—a sock with some metal in it, some coins or some iron ball—and appealed to Julien to join him on a late-night visit to Harvey Bernhard. Julien demurred, and the two embraced. Richard said, "You know, sometimes even if you love people, you've got to cut them loose," and he wandered off on his lonely journey down the hall toward Bernhard's room, sock in hand.

"Harvey, you know I really love you and am sorry," he began with Bernhard. "I wanted to come in here and apologize for beating up Michael." Then, as if disgusted by his act of ingratiation: "I came in here to kill you." He swung the sock.

Bernhard was sitting, groggily at first but increasingly awake, next to a coffee table on which he'd left an extremely sharp knife, one he used to peel almonds. "I was going to throw the coffee table on top and cut his throat," Bernhard recalled. But before he could execute the maneuver, his wife walked into the room and started talking about the good heart of her husband, Harvey. The temperature in the room shifted; Richard's bravado collapsed. "I can't take this shit," he said, and left.

The next day, he borrowed $50 from Bernhard's sister and went back down to L.A. The manager of the Marriott pulled Bernhard aside so that he could see the state of Richard's room at checkout. It looked as if a hurricane had torn through it: broken lamps, broken chairs; a total shambles. As for the film, Richard's character, Slim, would have to be written out of his remaining scenes.

Perhaps the whole production cut too close to the bone, too close to the pain of Richard's past. Just as he had played second fiddle to his father Buck, a hardened pimp, for two decades in Peoria, Ill., so here he was playing the mack's sidekick, the wannabe who voices the vulnerability that his emotionally armored friend cannot. In some of the film's most famous scenes—some of Richard's best acting work, too—Slim steals the spotlight with his cracked-up pain. In one, he refuses to walk away from two dirty cops who ask him and Goldie to beat it. Slim is perceptive enough to know that as soon as he and Goldie turn their backs, they might be shot for "resisting arrest," and bold enough to defy a shotgun pointed at him by a cop. But Slim isn't as collected as he is perceptive. He sucks in his mouth; his eyes widen with fear. "I ain't runnin' no fucking place," he says. "I ain't no track star."

The scene then sputters unforgettably, as if some actor in it were going off-script (which Richard in fact was doing, improvising around Slim's pain). The cops leave abruptly when a group of onlookers—potential witnesses—appears. Goldie walks away somberly, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders in the form of a hip brown suede cape. Alone now on the street, his friend receding into the distance, Richard's Slim can't stop talking, even though he's talking only to himself. He spits out the words with a teary-eyed fury:

We're gonna get the motherfucker, 'cause he's a punk! You ain't shit! I'm gonna get him! Goldie, we gonna get 'em 'cause they pulled down on us! They didn't use that shit, baby! The motherfucker pulled a gun on me, man! I ain't bullshittin', brother! We gonna get him, punk-ass motherfucker!

As Slim raves on alone, talking about a "we" that doesn't exist, the camera gradually pulls back to reveal a new detail of his outfit: along with a pink floral shirt and gray satin vest, he's wearing a pair of crimson knee pants that seem designed for a child. Neither the pimping game nor these brave words have made a man of Slim; neither has restored him to himself.

In all, Slim's monologue furnishes one of the strangest half-minutes in 1970s film. To fantasize about revenge is, for Slim, to fall apart—to become too intimate with his pain. But his defiance is, in its weakness, also exquisitely human. It connects him to those who've felt that they were living, literally or figuratively, with someone who pointed a gun in their direction; links him to those who have wanted to stand up for themselves but doubted their power to do so. Max Julien observed, "I know ladies who've been abused, and they saw that scene and they realized they didn't want to be abused anymore. It said, 'Don't touch me again.'"

The Mack could never escape being a shoestring production—its acting was uneven, its plotting forced—but with Richard's help, it fingered something raw and profound. Upon its release in the spring of 1973, it rose to become the fourth-highest-grossing movie in the United States, despite the fact that it was largely limited to inner-city theaters.

Scott Saul is the author of Becoming Richard Pryor and the editor of its digital companion, which curates more than 200 documents related to Pryor's formative years growing up in Peoria. He has written on American culture and politics for the New York Times, Harper's, the Nation, and other publications, and is on Twitter at @scottsaul4.

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