By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Richard Pryor, the outrageously raunchy and uproariously funny comedian and actor who defied the boundaries of taste, decency and race to become the comic voice of a generation, died yesterday at a Los Angeles hospital, where he had been taken after a heart attack. Pryor, who was 65, had been in deteriorating health for years because of multiple sclerosis.
Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, Pryor rode his uninhibited and foul-mouthed comedy to the heights of stardom, notching one hit movie after another, selling millions of recordings and drawing huge audiences to his one-man show, which treated some of the most volatile social issues of the time with a penetrating, unsparing comic eye. In 1998, he was the first person to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
After beginning his career with relatively tame, race-neutral comedy, he delved deep into his experiences and anger as a black American and emerged with a fresh, daring approach that put race, sex and obscenity -- and all the anxieties these once-taboo subjects evoked -- at the forefront of his almost stream-of-consciousness comedy.
He drew his humor straight from the lives and speech of working-class black Americans in an overt, unapologetic way never before seen. In so doing, he helped bring black customs and language into the American mainstream and exerted a lasting influence on the nation's humor and cultural life. He assailed the nation's inequities, unabashedly used the n-word and adopted a variety of exaggerated facial expressions to touch on some of the deepest and unspoken fears of all Americans.
Once forced off a Las Vegas stage for obscenity, Pryor saw his ribald routines adopted as the standard comic fare of a later generation of comedians of all races. Without his bold example, the careers of Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho and Chris Rock would scarcely be possible.
An article in Ebony magazine in the 1970s said Pryor "mirrors the black condition without exploiting it" and called his comedy "a major step forward in the evolution of a true black humor in the United States."
In 1998, comedian Damon Wayans told The Washington Post that "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 that was shocking."
Pryor had his first gold record in 1974 with his provocatively titled, "That Nigger's Crazy." He followed that a year later with an album whose cover showed him questioning a group of Ku Klux Klansmen about to burn him at the stake, under the title "Is It Something I Said?"
He recorded more than 20 albums in a period of 14 years, including the landmark "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" (1982), which was a distillation of his acerbic, lacerating style. Pryor received five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. He also received an Emmy Award for writing and was nominated for an Academy Award as an actor.
During his prime, almost every joke included a spate of blue language that can't be printed in a newspaper but induced uncontrollable laughter in his audiences. Beneath the humor, though, there lay a raw edge of barely tempered anger. Nothing was too sensitive for his barbs. In a joke about black men in prison, Pryor said: "You go down there looking for justice; that's what you find: just us."
Pryor's humor reflected the turbulence and anger in his life, which was marked by arrests, outbursts of violence, failed marriages and a long history of drug abuse. On June 9, 1980, he almost died when he was freebasing cocaine at his Los Angeles home, set himself on fire and received severe burns on half his body. With his body ablaze, he jumped out a window and onto a city street.
As usual, he turned the episode into humor: "You know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way."
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."
He wrote for others, including the TV series "Sanford and Son," and won his Emmy in 1974 for his work writing "Lily," a comedy special for Lily Tomlin. Pryor helped Mel Brooks with the script of "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and was credited with two of the most memorable parts of the movie: the bean scene around the campfire and Madeline Kahn's gasped exclamation, after a private moment with the black sheriff, "It's twue, it's twue!"
By 1974, when he appeared in the film "Uptown Saturday Night," Pryor had found a comic acting formula that led to a string of box office hits. From "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings" (1976) to "Which Way Is Up?" (1977), and "Bustin' Loose" (1981), he seemed to take over the screen with characters that were often elaborations of his stand-up personas.
"Richard Pryor works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper in to fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously," David Denby wrote in New York magazine.
As his fame increased, so did his troubles. In the 1970s, he had been charged with failing to pay income taxes from 1967 to 1970, and he was convicted of marijuana possession.
He had a heart attack in 1978 and the same year was charged with firing a .357 magnum at his wife's car. Then came the freebasing episode in 1980, which Pryor later half-admitted was a suicide attempt.
In 1986, he made "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling," an autobiographical film about a comedian looking back on his life after nearly dying. That year, after he began to grow weak, Pryor received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
He attempted a comeback as a stand-up comedian in 1992, but by then his failing health was evident. Nonetheless, he continued to perform throughout the 1990s.
Pryor had a tumultuous personal life. He married and divorced his fifth wife twice. His fourth wife, Jennifer Lee, whom Pryor had physically abused during their marriage, became his caregiver. He had seven children.
Upon receiving the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Award, Pryor said: "I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred."