In one of the grimmest moments of an already harrowing life, Richard Pryor almost burned to death in 1980.
“When that fire hit your ass, it will sober your ass up quick! I saw something, I went, ‘Well, that’s a pretty blue. You know what? That looks like fire!’ Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 in 4.3.”
The incident, originally downplayed as a mishap while freebasing cocaine, was actually an impromptu suicide attempt. Pryor finally acknowledged this fact in his book Pryor Confessions and Other Life Sentences. After an intense cocaine binge, the comedian sought relief by dousing himself with high-proof booze, setting himself ablaze and racing down the street in a panic. It was a far cry from a volatile reaction to cookies and milk that he cited in skits.
Like many comics, Pryor took his pain and made it funny. He was raised in his grandmother’s Peoria, Ill. whorehouse. He recounted tales of men coming to the door seeking blow jobs from his mother. That’s how he first met white people. They seemed nice, but also opened his eyes to hypocrisy within racial and economic divides. His mimicry of “The White Man” became a fixture of his routine, and entertained even the object of his ribbing.
Pryor began his career imitating Bill Cosby and transformed into a genuine legend. His influence is obvious in comics such as Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, but Robin Williams and even David Letterman admit they are indebted to one of the greatest comedians of all time. He has been called the Muhammad Ali of comedy, the Miles Davis of comedy, even The Beatles of comedy.
Frank sexuality played a major role in Pryor’s act, but he rarely demeaned women. He spoke lovingly of “pussy.” He married seven times to five women. “I believe in the institution of marriage, and I intend to keep trying till I get it right,” he said.
Eclipsing his talk of sex was Pryor’s social commentary. Years before the Rodney King beating and the anti-LAPD rants of rappers N.W.A., Pryor addressed the prejudices of law enforcement. In a 1978 vodka-fueled rage, he pumped rounds from a .357 Magnum into his then-wife’s car. “When the police came, I went in the house,” he said, “They got Magnums too and they don’t shoot cars—they shoot nig-gars.”
Pryor’s act would often teeter between the tragic and the comic. He wrapped up 1971’s “Live and Smoking” by portraying a heroin addict shooting up and nodding out, his dialogue mainly reduced to, “Oh shit.” It drew laughs and poignancy, and exposed members of the audience to a sordid world of which they were ignorant. Astute observations of Peoria’s drunks, bums and junkies later became mainstays of his stand-up act, culminating in his wino philosopher persona Hambone.
Pryor’s career was punctuated by the chaos of drug and alcohol abuse. By the late ’60s he was already doing hundreds of dollars of cocaine a day. His chaotic nature likely cost him the lead role in the comedy satire “Blazing Saddles,” which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks. He still managed to win the American Writers Guild Award and the American Academy of Humor Award in 1974 for his efforts. His handiwork is obvious in some of the film’s racially charged humor, as a black sheriff enters an all-too-authentic racist Old West. (“Excuse me while I whip this out,” Cleavon Little, who played Pryor’s part, says as he takes a notice out of his pants.)
Expletives always filled Pryor’s stand-up routines, especially rapid-fire nigga and niggas. This changed after a 1980 trip to Zimbabwe. “There are no niggers here,” he wrote. “The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” The trip changed his life. “I know how white people feel in America—relaxed. When you hear a police car you know it ain’t coming after your ass.”
Refraining from the N-word drew jeers and derision from some fans, as did his attempts at sobriety. In concert, he would announce how many months he had spent drug-and-alcohol free and hecklers peppered the applause. He was a victim of his ’70s persona—a persona solidified by one of his most extraordinary filmed performances, 1979’s “Richard Pryor - Live in Concert.”
In the 1980s, Pryor became the highest-paid black performer when he earned $4 million for his role in “Superman III”—more than the lead actor Christopher Reeve. Pryor made a series of mediocre and often insipid films with the main highlights coming when he paired with Gene Wilder in movies such as “Stir Crazy” and “Silver Streak.”
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. “Is there a doctor in the house?” he asked at one performance. An audience member reluctantly raised a hand. “What the fuck is MS?”
As Pryor’s physical condition deteriorated, his performances became a rarity. He was soon resigned to a motorized scooter, but remained vocal in causes such as his fight for animal rights.
In June 2001, Richard remarried Jennifer Lee, his business-savvy seventh wife. One can only guess a film of his life is already in the works.
Richard Pryor died of heart failure on Dec. 10, 2005 and was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial in Glendale, Calif. on Dec. 19, 2005.
craig [at] saltshakermagazine.com