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From the Archives: Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian

From the Archives: Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian
Richard Pryor shown in 1977. (AP Photo)

Richard Pryor, whose blunt, blue and brilliant comedic confrontations confidently tackled what many stand-up comics before him deemed too shocking to broach, died early Saturday. He was 65.

Pryor suffered a heart attack at his home in the San Fernando Valley. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

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The comedian's 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 lauded but misfortune-dogged comedian inadvertently became a de facto role model: a lone wolf figure to whom many an up-and-coming comic from Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock to Robin Williams and Richard Belzer have paid homage. Pryor kicked stand-up humor into a brand new realm.

"I've been trying to figure out the analogies to what Richard Pryor meant, and the closest I can come to is Miles Davis," said Reginald Hudlin, the film and TV director and president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television. "There's music before Miles Davis, and there's music after Miles Davis. And RichardPryor is that same kind of person.

"Every new piece kind of transformed the game," Hudlin said. "He was a culturally transcendent hero. His influence is bigger than black comedy; it's bigger than comedy. He was a cultural giant."

Comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans once said: "Richard Pryor is the groundbreaker." He "showed us that you can be black and have a black voice and be successful."

Pryor had a history both bizarre and grim: self-inflicted burns (1980), a heart attack (1990) and marathon drug and alcohol use (that he finally kicked in the 1990s). Yet he somehow — often miraculously, it seemed — continued on, even after being diagnosed in 1986 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that robbed him of his trademark physical presence.

Pryor worked as an actor and writer as well as a stand-up comic throughout the 1970s and into the '80s. He won Grammys for his groundbreaking, irreverent concert albums "Bicentennial Nigger" and "That Nigger's Crazy." And in 1974, he received a writing Emmy for a Lily Tomlin television special.

Pryor starred in major feature films — from "Lady Sings the Blues" and the semiautobiographical writing, starring and 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."

Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor (Showtime)

It was, however, his concert films, particularly "Richard Pryor — Live in Concert" (1979), that many critics considered his best work.

"What he was able to do with his body, with his mentality, was incredible," said Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist who recalled getting to know Pryor in the late 1960s in New York. "He could just walk across that stage while he was getting ready to transition — the movements of his body, people would just laugh."

Called genius by some, self-destructive madman by others, Pryor, throughout the tumult of a zigzagging career, remained an inclement force of nature.

"He was actually one of the rare people of that era who was a product of the chitlin circuit and the white, liberal, coffee shop thing," said journalist and cultural critic Nelson George. "Where Bill Cosby immediately made it into the crossover realm ... Pryor was a product of both. He was able to draw upon his kind of raw black experience through his storytelling skills, and that was accessible to a hipper white crowd. He mixed all of those things, but always had a singular vision."

In 1975, Pryor appeared on "Saturday Night Live," at the time considered among TV's most irreverent shows. But it wasn't until he went on the air that "SNL" instituted a five-second delay to ensure that Pryor did not ruffle the NBC censors.

He also had his own short-lived series, "The Richard Pryor Show," which was axed after only four episodes in 1977, the victim of head office scrutiny and low ratings — he was pitted against the hugely popular "Laverne and Shirley" and "Happy Days."

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"You look at 'The Richard Pryor Show,' " Hudlin said, "and without that show you don't have 'In Living Color,' and you don't have Dave Chappelle's show. And again, people forget the number of white comics that were influenced by him."

Among the young performers on the Pryor show were Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhard.

In later years, Pryor's life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Pryor tried to take his own life.

The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor finally revealed the truth in his autobiography "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," 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 incident, like many of Pryor's more dramatic episodes, turned up as encore-worthy centerpieces of his stage routines. Among them was the New Year's morning in 1978 when he repeatedly fired a .357 magnum revolver into his then-wife's car.

But Pryor was best known for his searing analysis of race relations. He was honored by the Kennedy Center 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 through. "I feel great to be honored on a par on with a great white man — now that's funny!"

The comedian was poignant in his remarks to a Washington Post reporter shortly 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."

He told the Post: "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."

Born in Peoria, Ill., in 1940, Pryor grew up in one of his grandmother Marie's string of whorehouses that catered to black entertainers and vaudeville performers. He developed and honed his comedic skills early as class clown and later was tapped by Juliette Whittaker, director of the Carver Community Center in Carver, Ill., as a "14-year-old genius." She helped him develop his talent.

A father by 14 and Army vet by 17, Pryor already had a wealth of material from which to draw.

He worked the Midwestern chitlin circuit until the early 1960s, when he took his show on the road to Greenwich Village, which was in the throes of sociopolitical transition.

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"A tentative but innovative rapprochement had been established between white audiences and a select group of black comedians," says journalist and historian Mel Watkins in his book, "On the Real Side." "The transitional comics of the '50s (Timmie Rogers, Slappy White, and Nipsey Russell) had made inroads, and in varying degrees Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge all had bridged the racial impasse."

Many black comedians not only eschewed social commentary, but also tended to mute any fury, or at least sanded the edges of racial realities. Pryor, however, dived head-first into the deepest of uncharted waters. "African Americans were accepted as clowns and jesters," wrote Watkins, "but were expected to avoid satire and social commentary — the comedy of ideas."

Pryor's breezy act had been modeled on Cosby, then an up-and-coming stand-up. But with one gesture, in 1967 during a performance at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, Pryor willfully shattered that mold into tiny pieces. He, as the story goes, had an epiphany.

Walking off stage mid-act, he went into a self-described exile: "For the first time in my life I had a sense of Richard Pryor the person," he wrote in his autobiography. "I understood myself.... I knew what I stood for ... knew what I had to do.... I had to go back and tell the truth."

And he told it to America's face.

"Richard was always upset with Bill Cosby," comedian and friend Paul Mooney told The Times in 1995. "I think he wanted to be Bill.... But I always liked Richard's stuff better. Bill didn't wow me. He wowed white people.... Black people sank into Pryor's material like an easy chair.... That's what his talent was: talking about black people to black people."

Much of the entertainer's font of observations was attributed to his own wrestling with personal demons: a dramatic push-me-pull-you relationship between success in a predominantly white industry and his own racial allegiance.

"Richard basically blazed a trail for black comedy. He defined what it is. As a young black man he was saying what he felt — and was shocking," comedian Damon Wayans once said.

In his 30 years as a performer, Pryor recorded more than 20 albums, and appeared in more than 40 films, including, "Wild in the Streets" (1968); "You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat" (1971); "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974); "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" and "Car Wash (1976); "Greased Lightning" and "Which Way Is Up?" (1977); "California Suite" (1978); "The Muppet Movie" (1979); "Wholly Moses" (1980); "Bustin' Loose" (1981); "Some Kind of Hero" (1982), "Brewster's Millions" (1985); "Critical Condition," (1987); "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" and "Harlem Nights" (1989); and "Another You" (1991).

In 1983, he drew the highest salary paid a black performer to that date with his $4-million paycheck for playing a comic villain in "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.

In those small oases of calm that periodically dotted his life, 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."

"There are no niggers here," he wrote in his autobiography. "The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride."

Struggling with his own sense of pride in another realm, Pryor found himself slowed and increasingly incapacitated in later years as MS took hold. But though he traveled around in a motorized scooter, he continued to write and perform through the '90s: one-nighters at Sunset Boulevard's Comedy Store and an episode about MS on CBS' "Chicago Hope" that he helped write and co-starred in with his daughter Rain.

Even with the help and therapeutic sparring of fourth wife Jennifer Lee, whom he remarried in 2001, the disease left the once physically inexhaustible Pryor immobilized and imprisoned.

Pryor was married six times. In addition to Lee and Rain, his survivors include sons Richard, Steven and Franklin, and daughters Renee, Elizabeth and Kelsey.

It was trumpeter Davis who once gave Pryor a key piece of advice during his Village days: "Listen to the music inside your head, Rich. Play with your heart." He did until his instrument just wore out.

Times staff writer Paul Brownfield contributed to this report.

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