5:40 PM EDT, June 19, 2013
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.
Then along came Megan Calvet, the young, French Canadian secretary at Draper's firm who impressed Don by seeming a better, warmer mother than Betty could ever be. She became Wife No. 2 and, as we've learned this season, the second gorgeous woman who was not enough for Draper. A few episodes back, he returned, Pryor-like, to his ex-wife's bed.
Jon Hamm plays Don's need for love, or at least physical contact, like a teenage boy's need for calories. It's automatic, unthinking, barely noticed in the moment and, ultimately, unsatisfying. There's the same haunted look in Hamm's eyes that we see in some of the photos of Pryor.
But how else could it be? Known as Dick Whitman in childhood — more on that in a moment — Draper, we see in flashbacks, was raised by a hard, physically abusive father and cruel stepmother who let him know the true circumstances of his arrival: His mother, a prostitute, died in childbirth.
"Whore child," she calls him as a young boy.
This season, we've seen flashbacks to a teenage Don taken by his stepmother, after his father dies, to live in a brothel where his aunt works. He has his virginity taken, with coercion if not outright force, by a prostitute who later mocks the incident in front of the adults in charge of Draper's life. All the prostitution allusions and outright references, which also include Draper's vocation, selling his creativity to clients for money, are a bit much for writer Heather Havrilesky, one of the most astute "Mad Men" observers out there.
In Salon, she writes of Draper's big affair in Season 6 with neighbor Sylvia Cohen, the wife of a doctor friend Don admires: "But it's not enough to make Sylvia the nasty, emotionally absent mother-whore. We've also got to have a whore spoon-feeding a young Don soup, then having sex with him. Because Don can't tell the difference between a prostitute and a mommy, get it? Don associates unconditional love with sex! He confuses the two! He loathes whores but he craves his lost whore-mama!"
The complex psychology of Pryor and Draper leads them to want to seduce more than just women. For Pryor, he has to win over audiences too — but just as with women, he alternates between attracting and repelling them. "I wanted to test you to your (expletive) soul," he says.
So he presented daring, soul-baring stories, in profane, racially frank language that hadn't been used on so big a stage before. It led to best-selling albums and a popularity that helped him become the biggest black movie star there had been. But at key moments, he turned on his audience too. In his Hollywood phase, it came when he upbraided the audience, including many celebrities, at a big charity fundraiser for having done nothing during the Watts riots.
Draper is at the cusp of an understanding that advertising isn't a pitch to the wallet so much as to the spirit. It's about creating an emotional bond between buyer and product, consumer and brand. As he puts these ideas across, his pitches of new campaigns to clients are masterpieces of seduction. And he often seems to hate himself for it afterward, especially when the client rejects his great idea, cementing the notion that his mind is for hire. But when he does win them over, that leaves him empty too.
"Every time we get a car," he said this season, after his firm had won Chevy as a client, "this place turns into a whorehouse."
Both men have sought escape from themselves in new identities. Draper, in the big secret that animates the show's first season, takes the name, dog tags and life details of a deceased Army buddy, trying to leave Dick Whitman behind for good. It won't surprise you to learn he cannot, as his first wife and even a couple of colleagues uncover the lie he is living. This season, his teenage daughter Sally discovers a newer lie. Her father, caught by the girl in Sylvia's arms, isn't the good, stoic man she imagined. Draper, as the finale looms, seems genuinely crushed by her discovery and is shown twice in last Sunday's episode in the fetal position.
Pryor, meanwhile, began his career as a sort of Bill Cosby imitator, working with his representatives to clean up a natural inclination to work blue so that he could come across to a wide audience. It worked too. He did the 1960s talk shows. He had big headlining gigs in Vegas. But at one of those, at the Aladdin Hotel, he turned on an audience, breaking loose with a string of profanity because, he later said, he didn't like the false self he saw reflected in the eyes of Dean Martin, who was there in the crowd that night.
He moved to the San Francisco area and immersed himself in the counterculture, living on the cheap, even taking a false name. "Edwin or Edward. Something stupid," Mooney recalls.
When he returned to comedy, his 1970s work, including the groundbreaking "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert" film, was much truer to who he really was. But offstage, he remained a compulsive and uncomfortable personality.
In the best explanation his friends offer, Pryor was too sensitive to what was really going on to handle life without chemical intermediaries. More bluntly, one describes him as "a full-blown junkie": vodka, cocaine, Courvoisier, freebase cocaine when that became available.
It was during a freebasing binge that he poured 151-proof rum over his body and lit himself on fire, the incident that should have killed him. Instead, he came back in the 1980s with some potent comedy, despite his change of heart about using the N-word on stage, but a declining movie career that saw him taking mainstream, demeaning roles, including one as a child's puppet in "The Toy."
Pryor returned to cocaine, which he finally fully quit after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the degenerative disease that would allow his last years to be calmer, filled with high accolades rather than drama. He died in 2005 at age 65.
Pryor "defeated himself," said the comic David Steinberg, a contemporary.
The question for Don Draper is where his downward spiral will lead. He is certainly, too, an alcoholic and self-saboteur. While he has been granted some redeeming qualities through the years, this season the show has hit very hard at his character flaws. Thematically, he has been slowly working through Dante's Circles of Hell, after reading "Inferno" on the beach in the season's first episode.
Replete with Draper lies, Sunday's second-to-last episode was all about fraud, the eighth circle, although it nudged toward the ninth circle, treachery, when he savagely undercut former protege Peggy Olson in a client meeting.
"You're a monster," she told him in response.
The question is whether the monster is heading toward a tragic ending, perhaps a suicide, as suggested by the episode this year that saw him pass out into a pool and by a demeanor that, for six seasons now, has all but screamed "depression."
Will his central hollowness and dissatisfaction, like Pryor's, be granted some way to modulate itself? Castration is probably out of the question, but disease might be one answer.
Or because he is, after all, a fictional character, and because TV shows do come to an end, we might just be forced to live with ambiguity, a fade-out and a starting point for speculation: What do you think happened to Don Draper in the 1970s, and how would he have reacted if the show had put him in the audience at a Richard Pryor concert?
email@example.com | Twitter @StevenKJohnson
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC