Richard Pryor, who was a groundbreaker in stand-up comedy, died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 65.
LOS ANGELES — Richard Pryor, whose blunt, blue and brilliant comedic confrontations confidently tackled what many stand-up comics before him deemed too shocking — and thus off-limits — to broach, died Saturday. He was 65.
Mr. Pryor suffered a heart attack at his home in San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The comedian’s tremendous body of work, a political movement in itself, was steeped in race, class and social commentary, and encompassed the stage, screen, records and television. He won five Grammys and an Emmy.
At one point the highest-paid black performer in the entertainment industry, the highly lauded but misfortune-dogged comedian inadvertently became a de facto role model — a lone wolf figure whom many an up-and-coming comic, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Robin Williams and Richard Belzer, have paid due homage. Mr. Pryor alone kicked stand-up humor into a new realm.
“Richard Pryor is the groundbreaker,” comedian Keenan Ivory Wayans once said. “For most of us, he was the inspiration to get into comedy and also showed us that you can be black and have a black voice and be successful.”
Mr. Pryor had a history both bizarre and grim: self-immolation (1980), heart attack (1990), and marathon drug and alcohol use (that he kicked in the 1990s). Yet Pryor somehow — oftentimes miraculously it seemed — continued steady on the prowl, even after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1986, a disease that robbed him of his trademark physicality.
Verbally potent and physically eloquent, Mr. Pryor worked as an actor and writer as well as a stand-up comic throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s. He won Grammys for his socially irreverent concert albums “Bicentennial Nigger” and “That Nigger’s Crazy.” And he won a writing Emmy in 1973 for a Lily Tomlin television special.
Pryor’s film credits
1968: “The Busy Body”
1969: “Wild in the Streets”
1970: “The Phynx”
1971: “You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat”
1972: “Dynamite Chicken”; “Lady Sings the Blues”
1973: “Wattstax”; “The Mack”; “Hit!”; “Some Call It Loving”
1974: “Blazing Saddles” (co-writer of screenplay); “Uptown Saturday Night”
1976: “Adios Amigo”; “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings”; “Car Wash”; “Silver Streak”
1977: “Greased Lightning”; “Which Way Is Up?”
1978: “Blue Collar”; “The Wiz”; “California Suite”
1979: “Richard Pryor Live in Concert”; “The Muppet Movie”
1980: “Stir Crazy.”
1981: “Wholly Moses”; “Bustin’ Loose”
1982: “Some Kind of Hero”; “The Toy”
1983: “Superman III”
1985: “Brewster’s Millions”; “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling”
1987: “Critical Condition”
1989: “Harlem Nights”; “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”
1991: “Another You”
1997: “Lost Highway”
Source: The Associated Press
Mr. Pryor starred in major feature films — from “Lady Sings the Blues” and the semiautobiographical directing turn in “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling,” to the less memorable “The Toy” and “Superman III.” He also co-starred with comedian Gene Wilder in the highly popular buddy films “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy.”
But many critics consider his concert films — particularly “Richard Pryor — Live in Concert” (1979) — to be his best work.
In later years, Mr. Pryor’s life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Mr. Pryor tried to take his life.
The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Mr. Pryor revealed the truth in his autobiography “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences” (Pantheon, 1995 and co-written with Todd Gold): “After freebasing without interruption for several days in a row, I wasn’t able to discern one from the next. … Imagining relief was nearby, I reached for the cognac bottle on the table in front of me and poured it all over me. Real natural. Methodical. … I picked up my lighter. … I was engulfed in flame. I was in a place that wasn’t heaven or earth. I must’ve gone into shock because I didn’t feel anything.”
The freebasing incident, like many of Mr. Pryor’s more dramatic mishaps, turned up as encore-worthy centerpieces of his stage routines. Among them, the much-talked-about New Year’s morning in ’78 when he repeatedly fired a .357 Magnum revolver into his then-wife’s car. In incident after incident, the public repeatedly walked alongside him, standing in full view of the wreckage, marveling at how many lives this mercurial man appeared to have.
But Mr. Pryor was best known for his searing analysis about the state of race relations. He was honored by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts with the first Mark Twain Prize for American humor. “I feel great about accepting this prize,” he wrote in his official response, his familiar edge glinting. “I feel great to be honored on a par with a great white man — now that’s funny!”
The comedian was poignant in his remarks to a Washington Post reporter after winning the honor. “I’m a pioneer. That’s my contribution. I broke barriers for black comics. I was being Richard Pryor; that was me on that stage. But I was on drugs at the time.”
Born in Peoria, Ill., in 1940, Mr. Pryor grew up in one of his grandmother Marie’s string of whorehouses that catered to various black entertainers and vaudeville performers. Mr. Pryor developed and honed his comedic skills at an early age as class clown, and later was tapped by his mentor, Juliette Whittaker, director on the Carver Community Center in Carver, Ill., as a “14-year-old genius.”
A father by 14 and Army veteran by 17, Mr. Pryor had a wealth of material from which to draw.
In his 30 years as a performer, Mr. Pryor recorded more than 20 albums, and appeared in more than 40 films. In 1983, he became the highest-paid black performer with his $4 million paycheck for “Superman III.”
Along with his Grammys and Emmy, his script for the comedy satire “Blazing Saddles,” written with Mel Brooks, won the American Writers Guild Award and the American Academy of Humor Award in 1974. Mr. Pryor was credited with one of the most memorable parts of the movie: the bean scene around the campfire.
In those small oases of calm that dotted his life, Mr. Pryor was ever-changing, reconsidering himself, his choices: A trip to Zimbabwe in 1980, for example, led him to excise his frequent use of the “N-word.”
Struggling with his sense of pride in another realm, Mr. Pryor was slowed and increasingly incapacitated in later years as MS took hold. He traveled in a motorized scooter and continued to write and perform throughout the ’90s — one-nighters at the Comedy Store and an episode about MS on CBS’ hospital drama “Chicago Hope” that he helped to write and co-starred with his daughter Rain.
Even with the help and therapeutic sparring of ex-wife Jennifer Lee, the disease left the once physically inexhaustible and seemingly insurmountable comedian immobilized and imprisoned.
Commenting on his battle with addiction, Mr. Pryor told The Washington Post in 1999, “The drugs didn’t make me funny. God made me funny. The drugs kept me up in my imagination. But I felt … pathetic afterward. … Drugs messed me up.”
Mr. Pryor, married six times, also is survived by sons Steven and Richard and daughters Elizabeth and Renee.
Details about “Blazing Saddles” were provided by The Washington Post.