The Dec. 11 obituary of Richard Pryor incorrectly said that he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972 for best supporting actor in "Lady Sings the Blues." It also incorrectly said that the cover of his 1975 album "Is It Something I Said?" depicts Klansmen; the album cover shows dark-robed figures.
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With Humor and Anger On Race Issues, Comic Inspired a Generation
Early in his career, Pryor modeled himself after comedian Bill Cosby, who in turn became an ardent admirer of his protege.
"For Richard," Cosby once told People magazine, "the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it."
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Ill. Much of his youth is murky or mired in contradictions. His parents were not married when he was born. Pryor variously claimed that his mother was a prostitute or worked as a bookkeeper in a brothel. Little is known about his father except that he was a boxer and had little to do with Pryor as a child.
He was largely raised by his grandmother, who operated a brothel. As a preteen, he was apparently molested -- the perpetrator later asked for an autograph, Pryor said -- but he found solace in amateur theatrics and in improvising jokes and skits for his classmates.
He dropped out of school at 14, took a few menial jobs and enlisted in the Army when he was 18. He participated in amateur shows in Germany and by 1960 was back in Peoria, working in small clubs and modeling his act on Cosby and, to a lesser extent, Redd Foxx and Jerry Lewis. He made his way to New York in 1963 and had his major national break in 1966, when he appeared on network television programs such as "The Kraft Summer Music Hall" and "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Pryor wrote for "The Flip Wilson Show" in the 1960s while polishing his stand-up act and pushing his humor toward the outer reaches of acceptable taste.
"Back between '65 and '68, I had a metamorphosis," he told The Washington Post in 1978. "I found out who I wanted to be. And who I wanted to be was the same guy who used to rap on the street corner back on North Washington Boulevard in Peoria."
In his 1995 memoir, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," he wrote: "There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and a family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard."
He invented a series of exaggerated characters, often brought to life with goggle-eyed mugging and obscenities, including the n-word.
"I decided to take the sting out of it," he told The Post. "As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness."
Chastened by a trip to Africa in 1979, he vowed never to use the word in his act again.
In addition to his stand-up comedy, Pryor became a prolific actor, appearing in more than 30 feature films between 1968 and 1997. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972 for his dramatic role as a musician in "Lady Sings the Blues."