Comedian and actor Mike Epps wants to give a shout-out to a dear friend: “I love you, Rich,” he says, “I appreciate the opportunity.”
The lanky, affable Epps has made a name for himself over the past few years, playing sidekicks to talents as diverse as Ice Cube and Milla Jovovich. With this summer’s “The Honeymooners,” he’ll attempt a modern interpretation of arguably the greatest second banana in comedic history, sewer worker Ed Norton. Some would say that stepping into Norton’s waterproof boots takes an enormous amount of courage, but Epps plans to keep raising the stakes.
“I’ve signed on to do Richard Pryor,” he said with a smile, referring to an upcoming biopic. “We’re getting the script together, man. That is an honor itself, to play Richard Pryor. But that’s what I live for, challenges, and this is a great challenge.”
It will indeed take a monumental effort from Epps to bring proper life to the tale of Pryor, a comedic icon whose influence still echoes within every punch line delivered by Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy and scores of other comedians. Looking beyond the laughter, however, the story of Pryor seems ripe for dramatic adaptation: a childhood spent in a brothel, seven marriages to six women, a catastrophic near-death experience and an ultimately debilitating disease that keeps him in quasi-seclusion to this day.
Epps, however, has been able to visit with the frail comedic icon, crippled by multiple sclerosis since the mid-’80s. “I’ve been going, sitting with him, talking with him,” Epps said respectfully. “Just chilling with him, and telling him how much I appreciate him.”
Epps admits that meeting with Pryor can be difficult at times, but they’ve managed to connect. “Richard is in a situation, he can’t talk. If you can understand, I’ve been blessed with a little gift — I understand people. I can look in his eyes and I could tell if I needed to get the hell out of the house,” he laughed. “I met with him a couple of times, I made him laugh, and I made him say, ’Ahhh’ … [he was] frowning at me, giving me a smile, and his wife said, ’Don’t none of those [other friends] do that to him.’ ”
Appropriately enough, it’s still the dirty humor that gets Pryor to smile. “I was talking to a girl, somebody that was in the house, one of the little maids,” Epps remembered of one occasion. “One of his nurses farted, walked past and pooted, and I said, ’Damn, that sounds like that’s been tampered with’ … and we laughed, and his wife was like, ’See, I told you … he must like you.’ ”
Without his knowledge, such visits were actually subtle casting calls. “I went to his house on his birthday. … I guess this was the audition process,” Epps said. “She had me keep coming up to the house, meeting with her, and before you know it she was like, ’Richard, this is Mike, he’s playing you in the movie,’ and then they announced it in Variety.”
Ultimately, Epps sees the currently unnamed Pryor movie as the same kind of triumphant, heart-wrenching biopic that turned Jamie Foxx into a megastar last year. “You have to give him the ultimate screen treatment,” he insisted. “Like they did for ’Ray,’ you know? This dude was an icon.”
Epps is a veteran of the stand-up comedy scene but insists that it’s his other firsthand experiences that will allow him to melt into the persona of a superstar as effectively as Foxx. “I’ve been on drugs,” Epps admitted. “I’ve dealt with the Department of Corrections. I’m from the Midwest. I’ve had all the odds against me. I’ve got a mother with nine brothers and one sister, and they’ve all got different daddies. … My mother had us in a one-bedroom apartment, seven kids and ho’s and people selling dope on the side of the apartment. … I won’t look at the Hollywood Richard Pryor. I’ll look at where he came from.”
“It’s the dream role,” Epps said, looking to the future. “It will start filming probably next year.”
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Relive everything big, bad, hairy and awesome from the last 365 days in film when the 2005 MTV Movie Awards air Thursday, June 9 at 8:30 p.m. The action kicks off a half-hour earlier with MTV’s pre-show when the red carpet action, celebrity interviews and surprises begin at 8 p.m.