Hollywood Flashback: A Sober Richard Pryor Spent 'Brewster's Millions' in 1985

Universal Pictures/Photofest
Richard Pryor (center, as Montgomery Brewster) starred with John Candy (right, as Spike, Brewster’s pal) in the 1985 remake of 'Brewster’s Millions.'

The comedian starred in Walter Hill's adaptation as a minor league pitcher whose rich uncle dies and leaves him $300 million, if he can spend $30 million: "Over the years, he told me several times 'Brewster's' was his favorite," says the director.

George Barr McCutcheon's novel Brewster's Millions has been a source for movies about money madness since 1902. The book has been adapted for the big screen 13 times, including a 1914 film by Cecil B. DeMille; another silent version in 1921 starring Fatty Arbuckle; and on four occasions in India, in both Hindi and Telugu. While all the Millions versions follow the novel's plot of an average guy who has to spend an enormous amount of money in a limited time to receive an even larger inheritance, only Walter Hill's 1985 take features the premier black comedian of his era playing Montgomery Brewster.

"Richard Pryor and that premise seemed like a certain hit," says Frank Price, who in 1983 had just become president of Universal Pictures. "His career was peaking at that point."

There had been other choices for the part: The film had been developed for director Peter Bogdanovich with John Ritter in the lead, and the movie's writers originally thought to make it with Bill Murray as an unemployed astronaut selling knockoff jeans in Manhattan. In the end, Pryor's Brewster was conceived as a pitcher in the minor leagues whose rich uncle dies and leaves him $300 million — if he can spend $30 million in 30 days.

Hill, who was known primarily as an action director, tells THR he took on the comedy "so I wouldn't have to be staging a gunfight every 15 minutes." Production began a few years after the infamous night when Pryor, while freebasing cocaine at home, poured 151-proof rum on his clothes and lit himself on fire. He was also in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. "He was still recovering from what was called 'the accident,' " says Hill. "He was sober, but he was in a frame of mind that he couldn't be funny if he didn't take drugs; and if he did take drugs, he would die."

THR predicted the film would be a hit: "Brewster's Millions should soon become Universal's millions." The $20 million production ($50 million in today's dollars) went on to gross $46 million domestically ($114 million today), good for No. 20 at the domestic box office that year. "A big thing for me was that Richard really liked the film and he specifically liked being a comedic actor rather than a full-blast comedian in it," says Hill. "Over the years, he told me several times Brewster's was his favorite."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.