Richard Pryor and Don Draper, soul mates

They are unlikely compatriots, but tough childhoods give them a lot in common

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Somewhere in the middle of Showtime's new documentary about Richard Pryor, it hit me: They're also talking here about Don Draper, the antihero at the center of the TV series "Mad Men," which concludes its sixth season Sunday night.

On the face of it, the two men, one dead, one fictional, don't have much in common besides the era in which they came to prominence. Pryor, one of the country's great comedians, was a proud black man who made his living challenging the establishment.

Draper, the genius of Madison Avenue with the mysterious past, is white and, for the most part, uptight. He watches a Nixon-for-president ad promising law and order approvingly. As the 1960s roil around him, he is the establishment.

Pryor had trouble with the TV network, which feared reaction from the sponsors, during his self-titled sketch series. Draper's clients are the sponsors. And yet these two men are more alike than not, a commonality rooted in similar, unconventional, profoundly warping upbringings.

Before this goes any further, I need to issue the obligatory alert about spoilers. The triumphant, self-destructive, wildly frustrating arc of Pryor's life, from Peoria to Las Vegas to Hollywood, is well enough known that reasonable adults can discuss the documentary "Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic" without giving away anything that would, in fact, spoil a viewing.

But if you're waiting to watch "Mad Men" a few years from now, after you finally get through, say, "Breaking Bad," this is probably the moment to flip to the comics page. Plot points will be revealed. Draper's penchant for wearing latex undergarments beneath those sharp suits will be discussed, as will the controversial "Breaking Bad"-"Mad Men" crossover episode. (Those aren't actual facts so much as a final warning to leave the room.)

I first thought of Don Draper while watching the Richard Pryor story during the section on the comedian's childhood, which immediately followed one on his multiple marriages and many more affairs. Like Draper, another serial philanderer, Pryor was the son of a prostitute and was raised in a brothel.

On the couch for a Barbara Walters interview at the height of his career, a moment when he is famous enough to be interviewed by Walters in prime time, Pryor says, "I grew up seeing my mother go into rooms with men, and my aunties go into rooms with men."

Marina Zenovich's documentary makes clear the effects this can have on a man in a way that Matthew Weiner's AMC TV series only implies — albeit with a heavy hand — about Draper. But there is little doubt the two creators are in agreement.

Having grown up in such an environment, and with a father who was, literally, a pimp, "How do you maintain love?" a friend of Pryor's asks in the film.

Kathy McKee, a former girlfriend, says, "If he wanted you, you had that power. And usually that would last until he got you, and then it would be time to go after another woman, and that was the game with Richard."

Patricia Von Heitman, another former girlfriend, says, "Richard had a compulsion to be married because he didn't want to be alone. But once he got married, the magic would be off."

There are words on the screen such as "Jennifer Lee Pryor, Wife No. 4 & 7" and "Flynn Belaine, Wife No. 5 & 6." There is mention of six children and a lament about condoms.

And there are tragic missteps. We learn that Pryor was in love with Pam Grier, the movie star, and living a relatively healthy life under her influence. Then, while the two were filming "Greased Lightning" together, he threw her over for a surprise marriage to Deboragh McGuire, Wife No. 3, described in the film as "a girl he got pregnant."

"Richard had a pimp's mentality," says a friend, the comedian Paul Mooney.

"I really am trying," Pryor says in a snippet from a stand-up routine, "but it's hard to wake up and see the same person all the (expletive) time."

Swap out a few of the particulars, and all of that applies to Don Draper in his TV life, as well. Lots of famous, powerful men have affairs. But for these two, it's a compulsion, a seemingly desperate search to fill some void.

Draper, those who've watched the series well know, has so much trouble keeping it in his pants that you figure he only wears pants so that the series can get another period detail right.

Having wife Betty, the former fashion model, back in suburbia with his home and kids wasn't enough for Don. So there was an artist in downtown New York City. There was the client, the daughter of a department-store founder. There were the comedian's wife, the stewardess, the secretary, the psychologist and, significantly, the prostitute.

Although it hasn't been depicted as graphically, Draper's sex life makes "Game of Thrones" look restrained.

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