Superman III 4.21: The World According to Attila the Hun

Okay, somebody secure the bankbook, we’ve got incoming. Brando’s famous paycheck for the first movie was $3.7 million at best, and now the Salkinds are paying $4 million for the services of superstar comedian Richard Pryor. So far in the movie, he’s just been typing in the background, but here — in his first sequence with Ross Webster — is the moment where Pryor is out of the chair and bustin’ loose.

Except they forgot to write him any jokes.

The idea, I suppose, is that Richard Pryor was famous for his inspired ad-libs, so all they had to do was put in some empty space, and let him do his thing. That’s what they do here in the computer room, and it works just like they’d hoped.

Here’s the scene as scripted:


Say what?

The boss wants to see you.

Say who?

And that’s it; that’s the end of the scene. Clearly, this must be a placeholder; I can’t imagine even Richard Lester shooting a scene like that on purpose.

This is how Pryor expands the scene on screen:

Fred:  Hey Gus, the boss wants to see you.

Gus:  He can see me all right from here, I can see him too! Hello, Mr. Lewis!

Fred:  No, not that boss. (He points up.) The boss.

(All activity is suddenly silenced.)

Gus:  (points up) You mean the boss?

Fred:  Yep.

Gus:  Wants to see me?

Fred:  Yep.

Gus:  (nervous giggle) Why would he want to see me? I mean… (He gets up.) Why would the boss want to see me? There’s no reason, you see. (He starts walking, smiling and waving his arms.) Oh, I know! It’s my suggestion for the volleyball uniforms. That’s it! (His smile vanishes, and becomes a worried frown.)

It’s a funny little moment, and it’s clearly ad-libbed, because in the last two seconds, you can hear the crew chuckling. (Seriously, you can. Go check it out.) Richard Pryor abhors a vacuum, and if there’s a quiet moment, he will fill it with funny.

A nervous Gus goes up in the elevator, and he gets one more funny moment at the start of the Gus/Webster scene:

Webster:  Mr. August Gorman?

Gus:  (startled) Oh! Sir! August Gorman here. Listen — I know that you’re a man of compassion, and you have pity, and I don’t want to go to jail, because they have robbers, and rapists, and rapists who rape robbers…

The “rapists who rape robbers” line does come from the script, but Pryor rewrites it on the fly to a much funnier version. Unfortunately, that’s his last funny line for the foreseeable.

Webster:  Mr. Gorman, I just want to ask you one question. You’ve been a naughty guy, haven’t you?

Gus:  I, uh —

Webster:  Come on! Admit it, now! You’ve been just a liittle bit naughty, haven’t you?

Gus:  I was kind of —

Webster:  Oh, that’s all right, pal, I understand. I can, um — what do the young folks say today? — “dig where you’re comin’ from, brother.” You want to be rich. Right?

Gus:  How can, what? I —

Webster:  (starts making drinks) I was born rich! Never worn the same pair of socks twice.

Gus:  What do you do with your socks?

Webster:  I don’t know, they’re laundered and sent to some charitable institution, I think. Actually, I don’t know what they do with them. Maybe they turn them into dust rags, or penwipers, or something like that.

Gus:  Maybe socks!

Webster:  (pauses) Yes! That never occurred to me.

So that’s six to zero, advantage: Webster, and it stays like that through the entire scene. Webster gets legitimately funny lines, which he delivers well — the socks, for instance — and Gus is the nervous straight man. There’s a moment where Robert Vaughn looks at Richard Pryor and says, “You’re a genius,” and then doesn’t give him any opportunity to do the thing that he’s actually a genius at.

Vaughn has a nice sense of comic timing, for an actor who’s not usually associated with comedy. He delivers an entire comic monologue slyly mocking his character’s greed and heartlessness, while Pryor stammers and does a little physical business that doesn’t add up to much.

“Colombia has two important exports, and one of them’s coffee,” Webster says, and “You know, a wise man once said — I think it was Attila the Hun — it is not enough that I succeed. Everyone else must fail.” He gets all the good lines, and then his sister comes downstairs, and she gets a bunch of good lines too. It’s actually a pretty good scene, if you ask me, but I wouldn’t pay four million dollars to the guy who hardly says anything.

Here, I’ll show you what they were supposed to be paying for, from the 1976 Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder film Silver Streak. In the movie, George (Wilder) is falsely accused of murder, and he’s stolen a police car to make his getaway. While he’s driving, we find out that Grover (Pryor) was sitting handcuffed in the back seat.

George:  Who are you?

Grover:  I’m a thief, man! Take it easy! I ain’t going to freak you out no more, how about hand me them keys up there? I’d like to get these cuffs off.

George:  Sorry. (hands him the key)

Grover:  (unlocking the cuffs) It’s real nice the way you handled yourself back there with ol’ Oliver, I was listening! What they want you for anyway, man?

George:  Murder.

Grover:  (pauses, eyes him warily) Drop me off anywhere along in here, okay? I don’t mess with the big M.

George:  I’m not stopping anywhere! Do you know the roads around here?

Grover:  Yeah.

George:  Well, maybe we could make a deal. I’m not a murderer, I’m trying to prevent one. But in about a minute, we’re going to be surrounded by cops. If you can get us out of it, you’d be doing both of us a favor! What do you think?

Grover:  I think you better make a right up here, and then a sharp left. I’m comin’ over.

(Grover climbs over the seat to get in the front, as George makes a sudden screeching turn. Grover tumbles into the seat.)

Grover:  Jesus Christ, man, that’s how you murdered your victims? Put ’em in a car, and bounce them to death?

George:  Sorry.

Grover:  Sorry, my ass! You dangerous.

That’s already funny just from the transcription, and when you add Pryor’s timing and facial expressions, it’s basically a perfect scene. He plays Grover as a combination of streetwise and vulnerable, a guy who runs from the law and makes friends easily. It’s already a whole hour into the movie, but the audience instantly accepts him as a second lead.

And as you can see, Pryor has all the funny lines. Wilder does the exposition and feed lines; Pryor is the funny one. That’s why you put him in the movie.

But in this scene, the filmmakers are doing exactly what the villains are doing: flattering Gus, pretending that they’re his friends, claiming that they can’t do this without him — when what they really want is for him to keep quiet, and do what he’s told.

Pryor won’t be making a lot of decisions about how he’s going to play a scene. There are a couple obvious exceptions where they let him off the leash for a moment, but for the most part, he’s boxed in as a nervous character who reacts to the other actors, who are playing stronger parts. It’s cinematic self-sabotage, really, at a premium price. But as Attila the Hun once said, everyone else must fail, and there appears to be enough failure to go around.

4.22: The No Comprendo


— Danny Horn

10 thoughts on “Superman III 4.21: The World According to Attila the Hun

  1. Easter Egg alert: one of Pryor’s other movies was “Bustin’ Loose” (see first paragraph).

    This right here is why stars want creative control over their movies. When the director doesn’t understand how your shtick works, you look like a fool.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s amazing to me how many times people are hired for their specific skill, like ad libbing funny stuff, and then cut off from doing what they were hired to do. It’s like those rich guys who hire thieves to steal the Mona Lisa, but instead of hanging it in their bedroom or whatever, they bury it in the backyard.


  2. I don’t have a problem with Pryor’s character taking the passenger seat in this exchange. He is overwhelmed by Webster’s power over him and his charisma/eccentricity, which makes sense in his situation. Let’s not overlook that Pryor is still funny in this scene even if he’s not wise-cracking. He also gets stuck in Webster’s rotating bar for a while.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It could be exciting to see Richard Pryor straighting for Robert Vaughan if you were confident that those roles would be reversed at some point. If Robert Vaughan can be this funny, imagine what will happen when Richard Pryor gets his moment in the sun! But they’ve already screwed up so much so badly in this movie that we can’t really muster that much confidence that such a moment will ever materialize.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. It’s like watching the Cliff Notes of a scene: all carefully laid out is why it’s supposed to be funny, and the precise scenario that makes it so (rich arrogance so at ease with itself that it uses up all the oxygen in the room and overwhelms the genius from the wrong side of the tracks) but never trusts the audience to get anything on its own.

    Like, we know who Richard Pryor is! We get why he’s here! And Vaughn has been doing a good job as Arrogant Rich Bastard so far, so it’s not like we’re worried everything’s going to turn into a second grade Thanksgiving play. We trust the performers!


  4. I once listened to a recording of Richard Pryor live in concert and even though I couldn’t see his facial expressions he had me laughing almost nonstop until it hurt. It’s probably his most famous recording, the one where he says “when your hair is on fire and you’re running down the street, people will get out of your way” or something to that effect. You can read that sentence out loud or hear someone else read it out loud and it’s not as funny. But as with all great comedy, it’s in the build up and the delivery. It’s a shame that talent was mostly wasted in this film.


  5. In the book, Gus actually grows more confident over the course of the scene and this shows in his yo-yo, which starts off dangling limply from his finger and is eventually racing again by the end of the scene (pp. 88-90):

    Gus stared at Webster, visions of concrete mattresses still filling his mind; he heard the long cell block ringing in his brain and seemed to taste again the special flavor of prison beans.
    Gonna be eatin’ that food again.


    As Webster spoke, Gus grew more comfortable.
    Man’s got the soul of a thief.

    (This next scene is after getting rotated into the wall by the revolving bar, which Gus triggers accidentally but seems to think Webster did on purpose. It takes him a while to get out, in this version. Webster continues talking without noticing.)

    Gus nodded, and worked his yo-yo thoughtfully, life returning to the precision instrument, its rainbow whirling again. This dude, thought Gus, is offerin’ me some kind of deal whereby he will use my peculiar talent, and then rotate me back into the wall.
    But I wasn’t born yesterday, Jack.
    I will rotate him into the wall.
    And slip out the back door ’bout a million dollars richer than I am right now.


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