Stephen O’Malley


Posted: Dec 11, 2005



Comedian Richard Pryor dies at 65
By Steve Jones, USA TODAY

Richard Pryor — who died Saturday of a heart attack at age 65 — changed the very definition of funny.

By confronting racial differences and lampooning social mores while giving voice to people (such as himself) who grew up and lived in the margins of society, he forever altered the face of mainstream comedy. (Photos: Remembering Pryor)

Once the profane, edgy, manic Pryor bogarted his way into what had once been the province of safe, smiling, middle-of-the-road comics, it would never be the same again. Pryor was angry, confessional, insightful — and the funniest man alive. He was in your face, shaking out all of life's dirty little secrets — often through the prism of his own troubled life — and in doing so, he emboldened a generation of humorists to tackle edgy material.

"By telling the truth about his pain, Richard held up a mirror to society, and we were able to see our fears, our beauty, our prejudice, our wretchedness, our hopes, our dreams — all of our contradictions. He is truly the greatest comedian of our time," Damon Wayans says in the liner notes of the nine-disc Rhino box set Richard Pryor: And It's Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992).

Some imitators misunderstood his genius, seeming to think they could reach his heights by simply being foul-mouthed. But Pryor's liberal use of the F-word and the N-word (which he would renounce after an eye-opening 1979 trip to Zimbabwe) was just a residue of his self-expression. The real humor was in the meaning of what he said.

"What I'm saying may be profane, but it is also profound," Pryor was quoted as saying in Richard Pryor: Black and Blue by Jeff Rovin.

Pryor bared himself to the world using his own wild trainwreck of a life as fodder for his routines. His real-life exploits with alcohol, drugs and women were an open book. He would share his hurt and have you splitting your sides even as he horrified you.

"I had to stop drinking because I got tired of waking up in my car going 90," he joked on Inebriatedfrom the album Here and Now.

In 1978, he famously shot up fourth wife Deboragh McGuire's Buick with his .357 Magnum as she tried to leave him. On New Year's Eve, from Wanted/Richard Pryor — Live in Concert, he joked about how he got in trouble for "killing a car" with his .357 Magnum, but confesses that he quietly went into the house when the cops showed up.

"They got Magnums too," he said of the police. "But they don't kill cars. They kill nig-gars."

Pryor was nothing if not a survivor. The father of seven was married six times. He had two heart attacks and had quadruple bypass surgery after the second one. Again, he found comic inspiration — "You thinking about dying now, aint'cha?" his rebellious heart says to him. "Why didn't you think about when you were eating that pork, (expletive), drinking that whisky and snorting that cocaine."

A 1980 suicide attempt in which he doused himself with rum, flicked a lighter and went fleeing down the street left him with third-degree burns over the top half of his body. "You know what I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way," he would later joke on Hospital.

He was addicted to drugs and alcohol and had a voracious sexual appetite. And in 1986, while filming Critical Condition with Gene Wilder, he was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which became increasingly debilitating over the years. Though the illness eventually took him from the spotlight and robbed him of his ability to work — he was a mere shell of himself in 1989's Harlem Nights, with Eddie Murphy, and could barely deliver his lines 1991's Another You, with Gene Wilder — he remained defiant.

"Rather than surrender to forces beyond my control, I've decided to hang on till the end of the ride," he said in his 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences.

Even as he spent years out of the spotlight, Pryor's classic material remained timeless. When it didn't find him talking about his own foibles, he skewered society's conventions through a colorful assortment of bums, junkies, barflies and the like. And whether the speaker was Mudbone (his most famous invention — an aged spinner of "fascinating stories") or a random wino giving Dracula the business, truth was delivered with side-splitting hilarity.

Pryor's upbringing, another great source of material, was anything but funny. He was the son of an abusive pimp and a prostitute who left the family when he was 10. He was raised in the brothels run by his stern grandmother. He was sexually abused in an alley with he was 7 and kicked out of school when he was 14. At 16, he had his first child, with a girl who was also sleeping with his father. He joined the Army and was kicked out, and did several menial jobs in Peoria until he started telling jokes at local nightclubs.

He eventually made a decent living playing the black club circuit in the Midwest. In the early 1960s, he moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where his act as a wholesome Bill Cosby clone brought him a measure of success and he started showing up on various variety shows.

But he grew increasingly dissatisfied with his safe routine, reportedly experiencing a nervous breakdown and fleeing the stage of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969. A year later, he moved to Berkeley, Calif., where he socialized with such activists and intellectuals as Huey Newton, Cecil Brown and Ishmael Reed. When he re-emerged as a comic, he was both more profane and more political.

He had made his film debut in the comedy Busy Body in 1967 and also appeared in 1968's Wild in the Streets. His career really took off in the 1970s with such films as Lady Sings the Blues, Car Wash, Uptown Saturday Night, The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Greased Lightning, Silver Streak, The Seduction of Mim, The Wiz and Blue Collar.

In the 1980s, however, he suffered several health-related setbacks and the quality of his work also took a turn for the worse. He appeared in such losers as Superman III (he was paid $1 million more than Christopher Reeve) and played a willing slave to the bratty son of millionaire Jackie Gleason in The Toy.

With the exception of his excellent concert films, the movies never quite captured Pryor at his best. He did win five Grammy Awards, however, for his remarkable recordings.

In recent years, Pryor's public appearances were limited, though he was often honored for his work. He received the NAACP Hall of Fame Award in 1996 and was the initial recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 1998. In 1995, he appeared with daughter Rain in an episode of the medical drama Chicago Hope as a patient with multiple sclerosis.

In 2003 he hosted Richard Pryor: I Ain't Dead Yet, which featured clips from concerts and appearances by fellow comics. The show's title was a reference the persistent rumors he'd hear over the years that he had died.

"Sometimes they used to have that on the news that I was dead," he said on his routine M.S. "That to me is the weirdest (expletive), to be assumed dead and you still be alive."

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