Pryor Bustin' Loose with Lawsuit

Richard Pryor claims director Penelope Spheeris won't return his first full-length film

By Charlie Amter Jul 28, 2005 5:15 AMTags

Richard Pryor wants his movie back--you know what I'm sayin'?

The iconic comedian has filed a lawsuit against director Penelope Spheeris over the first film that Pryor ever starred in, which he claims Spheeris has, or had, in her possession.

The never released 1968 comedy, about a white man who goes on trial for having raped a black woman, is best known as Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales, but is variously titled Uncle Tom's Tales and Bon Appetit.

Copies of the early Pryor work were rumored to be non-existent after Pryor's former wife supposedly shredded the negative due to her frustration with his constant work on the would-be opus.

In a suit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Pryor says he put up the money for the production and hired Spheeris, then a film student, to help shoot and edit the envelope-pushing movie. He says that all negatives, positives, prints and soundtrack went missing from his house in the mid-1980s--around the time he was recovering from a free-basing incident gone awry and his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis.

The 64-year-old holds Spheeris, best known for helming Wayne's World, and his daughter Rain, also named in the suit, responsible for absconding with the film.

Pryor says he believed the film to have been lost until scenes from Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales surfaced two months ago, when he was feted by the Directors Guild of America.

Per the suit, he contacted Spheeris after the tribute and asked about the whereabouts of the footage. She supposedly told him that she had turned over elements to the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She later withdrew the elements with the intent of giving them to the 36-year-old Rain Pryor.

But daughter has apparently remained mum to her dad about the film, which he says holds "substantial artistic and historical value."

Neither Spheeris nor the younger Pryor have commented on the lawsuit.

Richard Pryor, considered one of the greatest stand-up comics of all time and a huge box-office draw through the early 1980s, is now confined to a wheelchair due to MS. Although he rarely appears in public, he did turn out to receive the inaugural Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 1998, and most recently was featured in the 2004 Comedy Central special I Ain't Dead Yet, M*therf@ck%r!, where he was lauded by the likes of Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Jamie Foxx, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Harvey, Chris Rock, Denis Leary and Robin Williams.

Rain Pryor has been touring with her one-woman show, Fried Chicken and Latkes to generally positive reviews. Her chief credit is as a series regular on the 1980s ABC sitcom Head of the Class.

Spheeris most recently helmed the 2003 made-for-TV movie The Crooked E: The Unshredded Truth About Enron. She has two projects in the pipeline, the Tom Arnold-penned comedy The Kid & I and the long-in-the-works biopic on singer Janis Joplin, The Gospel According to Janis.