Over 18 years after Richard Pryor died of a heart attack while suffering from multiple sclerosis, new secrets about the late comedian continue to pour out from the people who knew him best.
Last year, Quincy Jones said in a bombshell interview that Pryor had a slept with Marlon Brando, an assertion that his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor later said was true. (Richards’ son Miko disputed the claim.) In a new documentary titled I Am Richard Pryor, Jennifer — who discusses their whirlwind romance in an exclusive PEOPLE clip — dives deeper into Richard’s life.
“It certainly wasn’t an affair, it was a dalliance with Brando, as he had with other men,” Jennifer, 79, clarifies to PEOPLE. “Richard wasn’t gay, he just had dalliances. He preferred women over any other kind of experience, but he wasn’t loathe to have those experiences.”
Richard joked about engaging in oral sex with men during his standup act, and wrote about a weeks-long romance he had with a transgender woman in his autobiography Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences. “That actually went on for a couple of weeks, which was a long time for Richard at that point,” Jennifer says. “Richard didn’t have any shame about it.”
Jennifer met Richard while helping a friend decorate his Northridge, California home. “I was vaguely aware of him as an artist and that he had a reputation of being very hard-edged,” she says. “But when I met this man, he was completely the opposite. He was vulnerable and sweet. There’s a Polaroid that a friend of his took of us [when we met] and you can see in that picture how smitten I am with him. I think I fell in love.”
The Superman III star married his third wife Deborah McGuire after meeting Jennifer, but that “didn’t deter me at all,” the Tarnished Angel author says.
After Richard shot at McGuire’s car on New Year’s Eve 1978 and got arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, his relationship with Jennifer turned romantic. Jennifer then became aware of Richard’s heavy drug use, and hoped her love could save him from a path of self-destruction.
“Our love was going to cure all,” she says. “It was going to be the panacea for any ills that existed, any problems that Richard had, any abuse — that was my solid belief and of course, reality started sneaking in as reality is wont to do, and we started visiting some dark places together.”
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Jennifer recalls moving out after realizing Richard loved freebase cocaine (the purest form of the drug, created by heating it to produce vapors for inhalation) as much, if not more, than he loved her.
“It broke my heart,” says Jennifer, who admits to being a “recreational drug user” during that time.
Richard’s freebase cocaine habit threatened his life when he caught on fire while high in 1980 by pouring 151-proof rum on himself. He received a one in three chance of living, but upon his release from the hospital, met up with Jennifer and they reconnected. In August 1981, they married for the first time.
But their wedded bliss was short lived. After Richard supposedly hit Jennifer on their honeymoon, they divorced.
“I said, ‘That’s not going to happen again, dude,’ “ Jennifer remembers. “And he actually never did hit me again after that.”
Although before that, “There were fights,“ she says. “There were tumultuous arguments and I wasn’t a slouch. I just didn’t let myself get beaten. I fought back.”
Richard’s other marriages — he was married to a total of five women seven times, and had seven kids with six women — were also plagued with accusations of domestic violence and spousal abuse. But when he was diagnosed with MS in 1986, Jennifer still had love for the comedy legend and came back to help him in his time of need.
“He asked me to come back and help him because things were really going down the tubes fast,” Jennifer reveals. “He said, ‘I’m in trouble, can you come back?’ “
Jennifer says she saw their reunion as a chance to “resurrect the good and leave the past behind us.”
“I did return in the summer of ‘94 and we eventually remarried,” Jennifer continues. “He kept apologizing for some of the things that he’d done. He kept saying, ‘Jennifer, I hurt you. I was horrible to you and I can’t tell you how sorry I am.’ There you’ve got a man sick sitting in a wheelchair, shadow of his former self, dealing with is life and looking back, happy to deal with it. He came to terms with it and so did I.”
The seven-time Grammy winner suffered a heart attack in December 2005 at age 65. Jennifer tried to revive him at their California home before paramedics took him to Encino Hospital, where he died.
“He’s a fascinating man,” Jennifer gushes, “and remains to be the love of my life.”
I Am Richard Pryor debuts on Paramount Network on Friday at 10 p.m. ET.