Stand-up and actor Mike Epps, best known for roles in the Friday sequels and The Hangover, has just been cast as Richard Pryor in a new biopic about legendary jazz singer and civil rights pioneer Nina Simone, who will be played by Zoe Saldana. Epps was originally going to play Pryor in a biopic about his own life back in 2005, but was let go after widow Jennifer Pryor disagreed with the casting. Eddie Murphy and Marlon Wayans were the next to be attached to the Pryor movie, being produced by Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, but the project is currently on hiatus. Mike Epps says he spent time with Pryor (who couldn’t speak at the time) just before his death in an informal audition for the role. Jennifer Pryor has publicly disputed that Richard Pryor wanted Epps to play him.
Mike Epps will only be playing a supporting role in the Nina Simone biopic, which will be written and directed by Cynthia Mort (creator of HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me). Simone and Richard Pryor’s lives intersected in New York in the early 60s, when he opened for her at the Village Gate as one of his first-ever performances. Here’s Simone telling the story of Pryor’s early stage fright, and Pryor saying some nice stuff about Simone:
“Opening the show was a young comedian, Richard Pryor, and on the first night of my booking I stood in the wings with him as he waited to go on. He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time. He never stopped being nervous — at least not while I was there.” – Nina Simone in 1991’s I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography.