The Lost Roles of Richard Pryor

One of the most acclaimed and respected stand-up comedians of all time, Richard Pryor shot to fame in the 1970’s and proved to be a charismatic presence in movies and TV. Although he starred in dozens of films throughout his career (his Gene Wilder buddy pictures Silver Streak and Stir Crazy being the highlights), Pryor’s movie work never reached the heights of his stand-up. Despite this, Richard Pryor did have several opportunities to play big parts extended to him. Let’s take a look at some of the parts Richard Pryor turned down, wanted but couldn’t have, and the projects that fell apart all together.

1. Blazing Saddles (1974)

The role: Sheriff Bart

Who got it: Cleavon Little

Richard Pryor was one of five writers who worked on Mel Brooks’s 1974 western comedy Blazing Saddles, and he was Brooks’s original choice for the lead role. On the movie’s DVD commentary, Brooks recalls going “on bended knee to every studio executive” to try to convince them to hire Pryor, but rumors about Pryor’s mental health and drug use, as well as his vulgar stand-up act, caused the studio to reject the idea. Cleavon Little did a great job in the role and certainly plays it differently than Pryor would have, often serving as the straight man where Pryor is more prone to being the funny one. Still, it would have been fun to see what this classic would have been like with Richard Pryor in the lead role. Pryor had tackled racial politics at length in his stand-up act and this was a great opportunity for him to address similar subject matter on the big screen. Pryor and Gene Wilder always had great chemistry together, too, and the two of them starring in a film that’s more acclaimed and successful than anything they actually made as a team is a missed opportunity for both actors.

2. History of the World, Part 1 (1981)

The role: Josephus

Who got it: Gregory Hines

Mel Brooks intended to cast Richard Pryor in another one of his movies — albeit in a much smaller and less culturally significant role than he would have taken in Blazing Saddles. Pryor couldn’t commit to the project, which may have had something to do with an infamous incident in which he accidentally lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine that occurred just prior to the start of History of the World’s production. Gregory Hines was brought in to play Ethiopian slave Josephus (his first movie role), kicking off a mildly-successful career in film for the tap dancer-turned-actor.

3. Hanky Panky (1982)

The role: Kate Hellman

Who got it: Gilda Radner

Hanky Panky, a comedy about an innocent man accused of murder who’s drawn into a web of intrigue, was originally intended to be a Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder buddy movie, but Pryor’s part was rewritten for a woman and the film was turned into a romance when he was unable to commit to the project. Ex-SNL star Gilda Radner won the role and started up a romance with costar Gene Wilder during production. Wilder and Radner married two years later. Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder would star in two more movies together before they retired - 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil and 1991’s Another You - but those two projects are pretty forgettable and pale in comparison to their earlier efforts Stir Crazy and Silver Streak. Hanky Panky was intended to be a reunion of the key players from Stir Crazy: Pryor, Wilder, and director Sidney Poitier. Pryor dropped out, but Wilder and Poitier remained on this project, which didn’t reach the level of their first collaboration.

4. 48 Hrs. (1982)

The role: Reggie Hammond

Who got it: Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy was a breakout star on Saturday Night Live when he was cast in his first feature film, 48 Hrs., which was the start of a movie career that’s still limping along today. Murphy, though, wasn’t the first choice for the part; as he puts it, he was “fourth or fifth” in line. Ahead of him on the casting list were Richard Pryor, Denzel Washington, Gregory Hines, and believe it or not, Clint Eastwood. Around this time, Pryor’s relevance in movies was waning with underperformers like Some Kind of Hero and Superman III, and he could have used a hit like 48 Hrs. to give his career a jolt.

5. Trading Places (1983)

The role: Billy Ray Valentine

Who got it: Eddie Murphy

Another early Eddie Murphy role that Richard Pryor almost had was that of con man-turned-millionaire Billy Ray Valentine. Trading Places was originally entitled Black and White and it was intended to be a vehicle for Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Pryor was unable to do the movie and Eddie Murphy was brought in to replace him. Murphy had Gene Wilder’s part recast because he didn’t want it to seem like he was just trying to emulate Pryor.

Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy’s careers are interesting to compare as they were two of the earliest black movie stars, and they both started out as raunchy stand-ups. Pryor paved the way for Murphy and was the predominant influence on his comedy, but he never had the same success as Murphy did when it came to movies. 48 Hrs. and Trading Places are the projects that made Eddie Murphy a mega-star, and Pryor may have had similar success if he had picked his parts more carefully. Murphy’s youthful energy was a large part of these films’ success, though, and something that Pryor couldn’t duplicate as he was nearly twice Murphy’s age at this point. Eddie Murphy found his first few films to be a natural extension of the comic persona he cultivated in stand-up and television, but Richard Pryor always just seemed like a watered-down version of himself when he was in movies.

6. The Sting II (1983)

The role: Jake Hooker

Who got it: Mac Davis

Richard Pryor was cast in this never-shoulda-been-made sequel to The Sting, which he was set to star in alongside Jackie Gleason and Lily Tomlin. Filming was scheduled to begin in 1977, but Pryor and Tomlin wisely dropped out and production didn’t begin for another five years. There was speculation that Lily Tomlin was refusing to star in the movie with Pryor after he’d made derogatory remarks towards the gay community at a charity event, but this hasn’t been proven to be the reason she left the project. Either way, it was in the best interest of Pryor and Tomlin to steer clear of this box office disaster.

7. The Cotton Club (1984)

The role: Sandman Williams

Who got it: Gregory Hines

Richard Pryor was set to star opposite Richard Gere in Francis Ford Coppola’s film about a famous jazz club in Harlem in the 1920’s, but the budget couldn’t accommodate Pryor’s salary and the part was given to Gregory Hines. The Cotton Club’s costs skyrocketed out of control without Pryor and it wasn’t able to turn a profit, although it did receive favorable reviews and a few awards nominations. Richard Pryor would star in a film with similar subject matter a few years later with Harlem Nights, which was also a crime drama about Harlem during this time period. Harlem Nights, which still stands as the only thing Eddie Murphy ever directed, was also a commercial dud, but it didn’t receive the respect from critics and the film community that The Cotton Club did.

8. A Fine Mess (1986)

The role: Dennis Powell

Who got it: Howie Mandel

The original intention behind this aptly-titled late period Blake Edwards comedy was to book Richard Pryor and Burt Reynolds in the lead roles. This plan didn’t come together, and Edwards selected names from much lower on his casting list in Ted Danson and Howie Mandel. Pryor’s movie career was hitting the skids by the late 80’s when A Fine Mess was offered to him. This project certainly wouldn’t have helped him to bounce back, although a buddy comedy starring Pryor and Burt Reynolds would have been a much bigger hit than the finished product.

9. Bird (1988)

The role: Charlie “Bird” Parker

Who got it: Forrest Whitaker

Richard Pryor was interested in playing all-time jazz great Charlie Parker in a film about his life, and he was attached to a project about the man’s life at Columbia Studios in the early 80’s. He soon had a falling out with the studio and left the project. Clint Eastwood came onboard to direct Bird a few years later and opted to pick a non-famous actor for the lead role (and a more conventional one at that), Forest Whitaker.

10. Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)

The role: Eddie (voice only)

Who got it: Damon Wayans

Richard Pryor was offered the opportunity to voice a talking baby in this sequel to the family comedy Look Who’s Talking, but he was too ill at the time to take the part. I’m guessing a lot of people were scrambling to come up with excuses to get out of this movie, but Pryor had a legitimate one.

11. Malcolm X (1992)

The role: Malcolm X

Who got it: Denzel Washington

A Malcolm X biopic had been in development since the late 1960’s, taking over two decades to make it into theaters. Richard Pryor was attached to play the radical African-American leader for a brief time in the 1980’s, but he dropped out of the project. Fellow comedian and Pryor acolyte Eddie Murphy ended up considering the project a little later on, too. The Richard Pryor version of Malcolm X’s story didn’t get very far, and it’s not hard to see why. Pryor was a wildly talented comedian but playing such a controversial and dramatic role would have been a bit of stretch. As with the Charlie Parker biopic, this is a part better left to a trained dramatic actor.

12. A Confederacy of Dunces (never filmed)

The role: Burma Jones

Perhaps the most infamous unproduced film in Hollywood history and the one that’s been attempted the most times, A Confederacy of Dunces was originally ramping up towards production in 1982 with stars John Belushi and Richard Pryor working under the direction of Harold Ramis. Belushi’s untimely death occurred before filming began, leading people to call this a cursed project. Talk of a curse sounded absurd at the time, but as each subsequent attempt at making the film was met with disaster, the situation seems to closer to curse than coincidence. The Confederacy of Dunces curse is said to include the suicide of the author of the book on which the movie is based, the murder of the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission (the story is set in New Orleans), Hurricane Katrina affecting a planned 2005 production, and the deaths of stars John Candy and Chris Farley shortly after they signed on to the project.

Richard Pryor, though, was not affected by the curse. It’s a stretch to call his multiple sclerosis a part of it, but his tragic disease has been ascribed to “the Superman curse,” which has been said to have affected several stars of the original Superman movies. Pryor was set to play wise janitor Burma Jones in Confederacy. When the movie looked like it was finally headed for production in 2005, rapper-actor Mos Def was attached to this role, but that version fell apart as well.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Richard Pryor