INTERVIEW: Writer/Director Robert Boris on DOCTOR DETROIT and working with Richard Pryor

Robert Boris Interview

PART TWO:   Writer / Director Robert Boris talks with Justin Bozung for TV STORE ONLINE about his screenplay for DOCTOR DETROIT, almost writing 48 HOURS as well as his work with Richard Pryor on SOME KIND OF HERO...

PART ONE of this interview can be read HERE.

Robert Boris screenwriter
TV STORE ONLINE:  Can we get into DOCTOR DETROIT (1983)?  I know there were three screenwriters that worked on the screenplay for that film...Did you originate the story and where did Carl Gottlieb jump onto the project?

BORIS:  I didn't start it.  I had done SOME KIND OF HERO (1982) with Richard Pryor, Howard Koch, and Michael Pressman before DOCTOR DETROIT.  After SOME KIND OF HERO I was contacted and asked to work on 48 HOURS (1982) at Paramount.  The studio had asked me to come in and it was around the time that the writers' strike was looming.  They just wanted me to do a polish on it, and just before I was about to start that--Michael Pressman contacted me and asked me to read Bruce Jay Friedman's original script for DOCTOR DETROIT.  The original script was kind of convoluted, and Dan Aykroyd's character wasn't yet a college professor. It was a crazy comedy that wasn't quite together yet, but it was really interesting. 

When I spoke with Michael Pressman, he said, "Well, what would you do with this?"  I said, "Well, I'd do it as BRINGING UP BABY (1938)."  Let's make him a college professor like Cary Grant and have him exist in two different worlds and then have him get stuck with the hookers.  Michael liked that very much.  From there, I met with Bernie Brillstein, Dan Aykroyd's manager and agent and then Dan himself.   Dan and I got along very well and I started re-writing the script.  I used a good deal of what Bruce Friedman had already written.    I wanted to make it into a sophisticated and witty comedy.  That's what Dan Aykroyd had wanted the movie to be as well.   We didn't want it to be a gross-out comedy.   We wanted it to be sophisticated and not broad comedy.

Doctor Detroit
One of the highlights of my life was being over at Michael Pressman's house and writing scenes for DOCTOR DETROIT while Dan acted them out in front of us.     He would crack both Michael I and up.   I was really excited for the film to be made and I'm really proud of having written it.

TV STORE ONLINE:   It really is a screwball comedy in that vein of BRINGING UP BABY...

BORIS:  That's exactly right. I wanted Dan's character to be like Cary Grant. I wanted him to maintain two different worlds.  Everything was moving forward with the film at MGM, and as they were about ready to start it--I got that call to work on 48 HOURS.  I really wanted to work on that because I had been a fan of both Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.  When I went in to meet with Walter Hill--he wanted to work in a way that I wasn't used to working. It was a difficult experience.  I like to work in a very linear fashion.  I like to go scene-by-scene and learn and grow with the characters, and get to know them.  Walter Hill wanted to split the movie up; where he'd write some scenes and I'd write the others.    I just couldn't work that way in the end.  I couldn't jump around from scene-to-scene.  I just didn't feel like I was able to give them my best work in that fashion.  But that’s what they needed under the time pressure of a looming Writer’s Strike.

Doctor Detroit screenplay
DOCTOR DETROIT, I don't know if MGM had money problems or there was a changing of the guard, but they pulled the plug on the film and it ended up getting the green light over at Universal.    The people at Universal wanted a change in the script.  So Michael Pressman asked me to come over and make the fixes.  So I went in to talk to [Producers] Larry Gordon and Joel Silver about 48 HOURS.  I said, "Look, I'm very happy to be here working with you on this, but DOCTOR DETROIT is my baby, and I don't know if I'm giving you the biggest bang for your buck because this is a hard way for me to work..."   They were fine with my leaving and they wished me luck.  I went over to Universal and DOCTOR DETROIT, suddenly, became a very broad comedy. It became a different movie, and not a bad movie, but it wasn't the movie that I had first written. "Mom" became not as sophisticated as we had first written her.  The humor became more guttural and it became a wider-appeal movie.  In some ways, I missed out on 48 HOURS, because if you worked on that movie--you've had a career ever since.   It doesn't matter if they've failed twenty-eight times since then--the people who worked on 48 HOURS will always have this get-out-of-a-jail-free card because of the incredible success of that movie.  (Laughing)

In the end, I left DOCTOR DETROIT, because I just couldn't give Universal what they wanted.  I got the concept--I really wanted to do it as if it was Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY and the film ended up as a low rent Marx Brothers comedy.  I didn't feel like I was able to give them what they wanted and needed, and Universal felt the same way too.   I got a credit for the script along with Carl Gottlieb and Bruce Jay Friedman, but the movie, today, as you know it-- isn't the DOCTOR DETROIT that I wrote. Still, I must admit, no one who has seen it has ever forgotten it.  It has a real following and a very positive reputation.  In films that I have directed since then, actors constantly come in and talk fondly about DOCTOR DETROIT.

Richard Pryor Some KInd of Hero
TV STORE ONLINE:   You mentioned SOME KIND OF HERO a few moments ago...I'm a huge admirer of Richard Pryor and, in particular, that film.  Is it too presumptuous to say that SOME KIND OF HERO is Richard Pryor's greatest work...

BORIS:   You know--it's hard to say.  I'm not sure that it is, but many ways, I think it is too.  I know he cared more about SOME KIND OF HERO than most of his other films.   I've always considered myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks with Richard at his house in Maui with Michael Pressman and Howard Koch.  I went out to his house every day for those two weeks, mostly to talk alone with Richard about the movie, because he really cared about that one, and he had real input into what he wanted the SOME KIND OF HERO script to be.  That character was a dream for him, but the movie didn't give his audience what they wanted.  It was too dramatic and there wasn't enough of Richard Pryor doing that wild and crazy stuff that they wanted him to give them. 

I love everything that Richard Pryor ever did.  He created indelible characters.  In CAR WASH (1976) and BLUE COLLAR (1978) for example.  There will never be another actor that can create characters like that ever again.  He also really loved GREASED LIGHTNING (1977) too.  He loved that because it was based on a true story...  He talked about that film a lot of with me during those two weeks I spent with him at his house in Hawaii.  In LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972) too, he took a small part and created a character so big that they had to expand it for him in the movie.

Richard Pryor Some Kind Of Hero Margot Kidder
TV STORE ONLINE:  SOME KIND OF HERO is a sort of masterpiece.  It's a strange and dark film.   Yet with that in mind--it's damn funny too.  How did the project come to you?  

BORIS:  You  know....Well, I was working at the studio at that time.   They had just optioned a script I had written called AIN’T NO HEROES.   It was a story about an African/American solider in the war in North Africa in 1942.  He was a cook and he couldn’t carry a gun.  But he wanted to be a solider. Finally, after his camp is bombed and strafed, and several Black Cooks are killed without having a chance to return fire, he gets fed up and he deserts the Army and heads for Lisbon.   He escapes, and in the middle of the desert, he bumps into another deserter, an Italian, who is escaping from the Germans.   They try to fight each other, and after a couple minutes, the Italian stops speaking Italian and begins to speak English.  Suddenly, you find out that he was from Brooklyn and his back story about how he got into the military because he was visiting family in Italy when war broke-out, and the Italians drafted him.  Both of these characters are wheeler-dealers and con artists.  The studio optioned the script and when they needed a fresh hand on SOME KIND OF HERO they asked me take a look at it, because I had written an action/comedy with some Black Humor in it. 

I had seen Richard Pryor on the stage years before and remembered his act.   When we met, we got along very well, and he was very impressed that this white Jewish kid from Brooklyn knew his act so well.  So Richard approved me. I can't remember how much of SOME KIND OF HERO had already been written or not written, but it was based on a book by James Kirkwood, and I can tell you that Richard's input on what that movie was to be was massive and significant.   I mean, when Richard and I spent those two weeks together at his house in Maui--we would spend as much as eight hours a day talking about the movie.

Richard Pryor Some Kind Of Hero 1982
TV STORE ONLINE:   Maybe you have some insights, then, into how the movie has this obsession with shit?  There's that opening scene where Richard is taken captive while he's taking a shit, his mom, who's had a stroke, only remembers how to say the word "shit,"  Richard robs the two guys from the bank while they're in the bathroom on the toilet.  There's a lot of fecal humor in the script...

BORIS:   I think all that came from Richard. I think he added that in, but there might have been a couple references in James Kirkwood's book as well.  I remember him adding in some of that stuff while we were shooting. Very spontaneous. (Laughing)

The thing I remember with the most affection about the shooting of SOME KIND OF HERO is the stuff with Richard in the P.O.W. camp at the beginning of the film.  We shot so much stuff there that didn't make the finished movie--there were some wonderful things that Richard created there.  Like when it begins to rain and Richard jumps up on his bunk and begins to dance around in it like he's Gene Kelly in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952).   He did stuff that you do when you're trying to survive in impossible conditions.  It was all very inventive, fresh, and it all came from his heart.  I love all that stuff.  Also, his relationship with actor Ray Sharkey--who passed away later on from a drug overdose was unique and intense.  Richard really tried to help him through that--he was very loving and he cared a great deal about Ray.  Some of those scenes between Richard and Ray--they just came up with those together.   That stuff was beautiful and magical.  In the end, Michael Pressman the director, just realized that we couldn't spend that much time in the P.O.W camp. 

Richard Pryor Drama
Also--Richard and the basketball game.  Everything he did there was just so wonderful and so subtle.  It was magical.  Richard was working up a storm there.  In the entire movie, in fact.

TV STORE ONLINE:  There's a strange surrealness to those opening scenes in the P.O.W. camp...Was it Richard's idea to wear only one lens in his sunglasses?

BORIS:  It was totally his idea.  That wasn't written.  Also, if you remember, in the opening of the film--where his unit is walking along there--I played one of the soldiers.  I was standing next to him when the explosions started going off...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Wait...!  You were "Kowalski?"  (Laughing)

BORIS:  I think I was!  (Laughing)   We were walking before those explosions went off and he was coming up with all kinds of stuff--it was just hilarious.  That day is a magical memory for me.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What do you remember about the shooting of that great scene, and it's probably my favorite scene in SOME KIND OF HERO--where Richard has just come back to The United States after being liberated from the P.O.W. camp and he spends the night in that hotel with his wife where she just unloads on him all the things that have changed since he went off to war years before?   The scene goes on forever, and brilliantly.  Richard gives us those incredible shrieks at every piece of devastating news his wife delivers to him....

BORIS: (Laughing) Right.  Every time his wife tells him something horrible....he laughs.  That's an amazing sequence.  Lynn Moody is great in that sequence too.  Richard and Lynn rehearsed that sequence many times and he would keep adding new stuff for both of them.  That's a magical moment in the film.  But, the stuff with him and Margot Kidder is magical too. They had a great chemistry together.  Intense, personal, and very caring. 

Richard Pryor Lynn MoodyTV STORE ONLINE:  I think the film is interesting, too, because of how it serves a moral dilemma.   There's the idea that if the world shits on you--it's okay to become a criminal and take what you think is yours...Was that something that you ever discussed with Richard?

BORIS:  I don't think we ever discussed it, and I think it was part of the morality and theme of James Kirkwood's book.  The justice out of that mistreatment wasn't a revenge--but it was only to level the playing field in some way.  I don't think I applied that to it nor did Richard.  None of us looked at it in that particular way.  Richard's character was a pretty decent guy who was thrown into something out of his control, he was mistreated, saw his friend die, and when he comes home- he's stuck in all of that red-tape and bureaucracy.  All that was left for him was to find a solution to the problem himself.

And like the character in SOME KIND OF HERO, that’s what Richard Pryor always did in life.  I loved the man, and considered the days I spent with him as some of the best days I have ever known.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung

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