Richard Pryor, who lived his life dangerously close to the edge both on stage and off, died this morning (Dec. 10, 2005). The pioneering comedian suffered a heart attack at his home in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles and was taken to a hospital, where he passed away. He had just turned 65.
As a comedian, Pryor amassed a tremendous body of work that encompassed all areas of entertainment, including film, television, stage shows and recordings. During his career, he won five Grammys and an Emmy. He also paved the way for many of today's comedians, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Robin Williams.
Along the way, he created tremendous controversy in both his professional and personal lives.
On stage, he rarely shied away from any topic, especially if he felt it would push somebody's buttons. He also was known for his use of profanities when telling jokes. So much so, that when he appeared on the television show "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, the show instituted a five-second delay, for the first time ever, just in case. That episode produced one of my favorite skits ever on the show, as Pryor and Chevy Chase did a racial slur word association. Very cutting edge, and very funny, too, even as it exposed the prejudice that existed amongst races during that time period.
Pryor's upbringing certainly contributed to his controversial comedic viewpoints. Born December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, he was raised in brothels that were owned by his grandmother. After high school, he served two years in the army before hitting the comedy circuit in the US.
He made his first film appearance in 1967's "Busy Body," but it was for his starring role in 1972's "Lady Sings The Blues" that he received his first Academy Award nomination.
During the early 70's, Pryor also wrote for television, including episodes of "The Flip Wilson Show," "Sanford and Son," and in 1973 he received an Emmy for his writing on a Lily Tomlin television special. In 1974, he helped Mel Brooks write the bitingly humorous, "Blazing Saddles."
His fame exploded in the late 70's and early 80's with a string of successful movies, including "Stir Crazy," "Silver Streak," "Which Way Is Up?" and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip."
But in 1980, Pryor's personal life briefly eclipsed his professional when he caught on fire while freebasing cocaine. He suffered severe burns over 50 percent of his body and spent six weeks in the burn ward.
In his autobiography "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences" he remembered the incident: "After freebasing without interruption for several days in a row, I wasn't able to discern one from the next . . . I reached for the cognac bottle on the table in front of me and poured it all over me. I picked up my lighter . . . I was engulfed in flame . . . I must've gone into shock because I didn't feel anything."
Six years later, in 1986, the comedian directed, co-wrote and starred in "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling." The film was an autobiographical account of a popular comedian re-examining his life while lying delirious in a hospital burn ward.
"I'm glad I did `Jo Jo,'" Pryor once said. "It helped me get rid of a lot of stuff."
That same year, the comedian was stricken by multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, but he continued to work, despite constant physical pain. In 1995, he used his personal experience to turn in an Emmy-nominated performance as a bitter multiple sclerosis patient in an episode of the television series "Chicago Hope."
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington gave Pryor the first Mark Twain Prize for humor three years later, in 1998. In his response, Pryor commented, "I feel great to be honored on a par on with a great white man—now that's funny!"
Pryor was married six times; his current wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, was by his side this morning. "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 in a press statement.
He is also survived by five children: sons Richard and Steven, and daughters Elizabeth, Rain and Renee.
No announcement has been made regarding funeral services.