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December 12, 2005

Comedy Legend Richard Pryor Dies

Pioneering Performer was 65

Richard Pryor

Encino, CA Richard Pryor, the groundbreaking comedian and actor whose uncensored, taboo-shattering style continues to influence comedy today, died on Saturday at his home in Encino, California.

While the cause of death was cardiac arrest, Pryor had been suffering from the degenerative effects of multiple sclerosis for nearly 20 years. He had turned 65 on December 1.

Although he appeared in numerous movies, and for a period of time in the 1970s and ’80s was a major box-office draw, Pryor’s most enduring legacy is his stand-up comedy.

A perennial lightning rod for controversy throughout his career, Pryor consistently challenged social conventions with biting commentary on racism and other cultural ills that was as profound as it was profane.

Pryor’s jaundiced worldview had its origins in his childhood. A native of Peoria, Illinois, he grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother. Upon discharge from the Army, he became a stand-up comedian, working his way up through the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” of all-black theaters. He moved on to clubs in Las Vegas and New York, and in the 1960s he appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin shows, as well as the Tonight Show.

When he became frustrated with the limitations of the sanitized act required by such mainstream venues, Pryor abandoned his early material in favor of a vulgar, expletive-strewn style influenced by the characters he encountered as a child at his grandmother’s bordello.

His stand-up success eventually led to television and film work that made him a worldwide celebrity and one of the most highly paid performers in Hollywood.

Pryor won three Grammy Awards for recordings of his stand-up act, which included That Nigger’s Crazy, Is It Something I Said?, Bicentennial Nigger, Reverend Du Rite and Live on the Sunset Strip.

He later abandoned the racial epithet he used so freely. In one of his 19980s routines, and in his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, he recounted how a trip to Zimbabwe inspired him to cut the N-word out of his vocabulary. “There are no niggers here,” he wrote. “The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.”

Richard Pryor in concert circa 1980.

Although his raw comedy had to be reined in for television, Pryor nevertheless enjoyed success in the medium. In addition to his work as a performer, he wrote scripts for the television series Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and two specials for Lily Tomlin. For the 1973 special Lily, he shared an Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music.

Controversy returned in 1977 with the debut of the NBC series The Richard Pryor Show, most memorable for a sequence in which Pryor, nude from the waist up, boasted that he had won his battles with NBC censors—followed by shot of his lower half in a flesh-colored loincloth to suggest he had been emasculated. The show lasted just five episodes.

Years later, in 1995, he garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his performance as a multiple sclerosis patient in an episode of Chicago Hope.

A series of hit movies in the 1970s and 80s, as well as filmed versions of his concert performances, gave Pryor tremendous Hollywood clout. In 1983, near the height of his popularity, he signed a $40 million, five-year contract with Columbia Pictures.

Among Pryor’s best-known films are The Mack, Car Wash, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy, Silver Streak, Uptown Saturday Night, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Blue Collar, Brewster’s Millions, The Muppet Movie, Superman III, The Toy and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.

The latter, which Pryor starred in, directed, co-wrote and co-produced, was loosely autobiographical. The story concerns a successful comedian taking stock of his life while lying in a hospital burn ward after an accident sustained while freebasing cocaine. Pryor, a heavy drug and alcohol user, found himself in a similar situation in 1980 when he nearly died after being burned over 50 percent of his body in a freebasing incident.

After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, Pryor was increasingly less in the public eye. In 1999, he was awarded the first annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for humor.

Pryor, who was married seven times (including two separate marriages to two of his wives) and had seven children.

In 2002, Sheridan Road on the south side of Peoria was renamed Richard Pryor Place in his honor.

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