Richard Pryor

  • Born: December 1940
  • Died: December 10, 2005
  • Location: Encino, California

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Richard Pryor and George Carlin, 2001

Pioneering standup comedian and movie star

Richard Pryor startled audiences with his foul-mouthed routines, but his universal and frequently personal insights propelled him into one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

The pioneering comedian, whose audacious style influenced generations of standup artists, died Saturday of a heart attack at age 65, said his business manager, Karen Finch. He had been ill for years with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

"By expressing his heart, anger and joy, Richard Pryor took comedy to its highest form,'' Steve Martin said.

A series of hit comedies and concert films in the '70s and '80s helped make Pryor one of Hollywood's highest paid stars, and he was one of the first black performers with enough leverage to cut his own deals. In 1983, he signed a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures.

His films included "Stir Crazy,'' "Silver Streak,'' "Which Way Is Up?'' and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip.''

Throughout his career, Pryor focused on racial inequality, joking as the host of the Academy Awards in 1977 that Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were the only black members of the Academy.

Pryor once marveled "that I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that.''

But he battled drug and alcohol addictions for years.

In a 1977 interview with The Associated Press, Pryor spoke of his struggle to overcome the substance abuse.

"God blessed me,'' he said. "There were shows I never remember, towns I never knew I was in. Somehow I was always able to perform. I respect performing too much ever to do a bad show.''

After nearly losing his life in 1980 when he caught on fire while freebasing cocaine, he turned the experience into laughs in later routines, telling audiences how quickly the flames sobered him up.

While Pryor's material sounds modest when compared with some of today's comedians, it was startling when first introduced. He never apologized for it.

Recognition came in 1998 from an unlikely source: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington gave Pryor the first Mark Twain Prize for humor. He said in a statement that he was proud that, "like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred.''

Born in 1940 in Peoria, Ill., Pryor grew up in his grandmother's brothel. His first professional performance came at age 7, playing drums at a night club.

After two years of Army service, he honed his comedy in bars throughout the United States. By the mid-'60s, he was appearing in Las Vegas clubs and TV variety shows.

Later in his career, Pryor used films as therapy. "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling,'' was an autobiographical account of a popular comedian re-examining his life while lying delirious in a hospital burn ward. Pryor directed, co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the film.

"I'm glad I did `Jo Jo,''' Pryor once said. "It helped me get rid of a lot of stuff.''

In 1995, he played an embittered multiple sclerosis patient in an episode of the television series "Chicago Hope.'' The role earned him an Emmy nomination as best guest actor in a drama series.

Pryor also had legal problems. In 1974, he was sentenced to three years' probation for failing to file federal income tax returns. In 1978, he allegedly fired shots and rammed his car into a vehicle occupied by two of his wife's friends.

Despite his health troubles, he was happy and in good humor in his final days, said his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor.

"He will be missed, but will forever live in thousands and thousands of hearts and continue to impact and inspire people with his truth and his pain, which he turned into comedy brilliantly,'' she said.

Pryor was married six times. His children include sons Richard and Steven, and daughters Elizabeth, Rain and Renee.