Ranking the Three Actors Who Are Up for Lee Daniels’ Richard Pryor Biopic

In 2014, The Hollywood Reporter revealed a shortlist of actors varying in age and relevance.
Richard Pryor biopic
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on January 11th, 2014

That Richard Pryor biopic that’s seemingly been in the works since before Pryor was born? Well, it might actually be moving forward, with a director and a shortlist of three potential actors and a giant wheelbarrow full of money to fund it. The director? Lee Daniels. The actors? Eddie Murphy, Marlon Wayans and Michael B. Jordan. The group filling farm equipment with legal tender? The Weinstein Company, which has come on board to finance the entire project.

There’s a lot to think about here. The big issue might seem to be Daniels’ involvement, and one could discuss that until the cows come home (if Lee Daniels lived on a farm, which I’m assuming he doesn’t). Daniels isn’t known for his funny bone, and a biopic about a stand-up comedian would have to at least acknowledge that jokes exist and that people do this thing called “laughing” after hearing them. But that’s only one half of the story. The other half involves those three fellows up for the starring role and the humongous differences between each one.

So let’s break ’em down one by one.

1. Eddie Murphy

Murphy has one gigantic advantage going into this, and that’s his stand-up comedy. Sure, Wayans may occasionally stand in front of a brick wall and crack wise, but he’s not what you’d call a stand-up by trade. Besides, the only reason Wayans started doing stand-up in the first place was to prepare for a potential role as Pryor. Murphy wasn’t the trendsetter Pryor was, but he was arguably just as famous – Eddie Murphy Raw remains the highest-grossing stand-up comedy film of all time. And a great big portion of Raw just happens to be about Pryor himself. Murphy discusses how the comic-inspired him, counseled him in a time of need, and even does his best impression of Pryor as he launches into a surprisingly complicated poop joke.

But Murphy is not perfect. The Eddie Murphy of the mid-1980s would be ideal for this role. However, Murphy’s stand-up and acting chops have been in a decades-long slump (with Dreamgirls being the exception). Yet even if Murphy could channel Jimmy Early and Raw into a single role, he’s still got an age problem to deal with. The Pryor of this particular biopic is in his mid-30s, and Murphy is 52. To pull this off, he’d have to spend the film in young-person makeup, and that’s almost always a horrible thing for everyone involved. What this world doesn’t need is a Richard Pryor film starring Murphy modified by CGI, a la Jeff-Bridges in Tron Legacy (or, even worse, Murphy in makeup, Nutty Professor-style).

2. Marlon Wayans

This here’s what they call the safe choice. Wayans has stand-up experience – not anywhere near Murphy’s, but experience nonetheless. He’s also got incredible acting talent, even if the word “Wayans” appears directly after his first name. No amount of Scary Movies or Little Mans can ever erase the performance Wayans delivered for Requiem for a Dream, and just because he’s never done a dramatic role since then doesn’t mean he’ll never do one again. He may just be saving up his serious actor points for a potential biopic role. Plus, Wayans is the only one who can actually play Pryor without significantly altering his face. At 41 years old, Wayans has been described as the perfect age for a mid-30s Pryor. His screen test “is said to have wowed Harvey Weinstein,” and it’s always good to score points with those who control the giant movie budget cash fountain.

3. Michael B. Jordan

Of the three actors, Jordan has by far the least comedy chops. And it’s Jordan that The Hollywood Reporter seems the most worried about in terms of aging makeup, as he’d need about a 10-year boost to go from his current age of 26 to the right age for this film’s take on Pryor. Yet Jordan is also the front-runner for the role, likely because of the man now sitting in the directors’ chair. Daniels’ take will probably be light on the laughs and heavy on the domestic violence/spontaneous face combustion, and Jennifer Pryor (the comedian’s widow) will be producing the film and contributing many of Pryor’s personal journals to the project. The journals are described as “dark,” while the film is already being called “gritty fare,” and it sounds like Jordan may be the youngest, hungriest, angriest actor up for a very angry-sounding part.

But were it up to me (and it won’t be, at least not until my Harvey Weinstein droid gets out of the prototype phase), I’d want Daniels to keep the righteous anger and group cry-hugs to a minimum. Pryor could turn the most horrific situation into a good belly laugh, and his film should probably do the same.

So let’s end on a clip of Pryor doing just that.

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