EXCLUSIVE: After blowing away everybody with his audition, actor-comic Mike Epps has emerged as the front-runner to star as Richard Pryor in the biopic that Lee Daniels will direct at The Weinstein Company. Daniels has been in TWC headquarters working with and auditioning a group of young actors that has included Epps, Michael B. Jordan, Marlon Wayans, and Nick mike eppsCannon, with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway the names I’ve heard to play Pryor’s widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor. I can only imagine what it must mean to several of these guys to get the role and play the stand-up comedian they grew up revering before they themselves succeeded onstage. It’s especially poignant for Epps and Wayans, because each one was signed to play Pryor in prior incarnations of the movie that fell apart.

marlon wayansWayans had the job in the last version of the comic legend’s story when it was going to be made at Sony with Bill Condon directing and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison producing. Epps won the job back in 2005, when the iconic Pryor was alive and involved in putting together the film through Indigo Productions, the banner he had with his wife. Back then, Walter Hill, who helmed Eddie Murphy’s star making turn in 48 HRS, was going to direct and co-write the script. When I revealed that the Pryors had chosen him, Epps was completely humbled by the experience. “I met Richard and felt like I was in Oz the whole time,” Epps said. “It’s hard to describe what he means to me or any stand-up comic. You could say he’s paid the dues for everything we do up there.”

michael bThe Pryors had been through previous incarnations of the film, one of which was to star Damon Wayans, the brother of Marlon. They went with Epps because they wanted an actor who hadn’t yet been stamped as a big star. Pryor, who by then was wheelchair bound from multiple sclerosis, died in 2005 and his widow kept getting her heart broken when each version of the movie built momentum and then fell apart.

nick cThings didn’t go much better right after for Epps, who moved on and played sewer worker Ed Norton opposite Cedric the Entertainer’s Ralph Kramden in a rather unwise remake of The Honeymooners. But it sure looks like Daniels and TWC are going to make this movie. Back when Epps was hired the first time, “The material is larger than life, and you need someone to fit into it who’s not extraordinarily famous or else it would be like Al Jolson playing Malcolm X,” Jennifer told me. “Richard and I saw Mike’s stand-up, and there is a dangerous edge, a Richard-esque quality about him.”

An insider cautioned me that no final decision had been reached but that Epps’ work put him in front-runner position and that Wayans is not out. Jordan’s test was strong, but they felt he was a bit young to play Pryor in his later years. Stay tuned. And meanwhile, here’s some vintage Pryor, in his prime, channeling a hard life into unforgettable stand-up comedy: