From email@example.com Mon Dec 12 10:00:37 2005
Date: Sun, 11 Dec 2005 14:22:58 -0600 (CST)
Subject: [NYTr] Richard Pryor, Iconoclastic Comedian, Dies at 65
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;
Richard Pryor, the iconoclastic standup comedian who transcended barriers of race and brought a biting, irreverent humor into America's living rooms, movie houses, clubs and concert halls, died Saturday. He was 65.
Mr. Pryor, who had been ill with multiple sclerosis, suffered a heart attack and died at a hospital in Los Angeles, his wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, told CNN.
Mr. Pryor's health had been in decline for many years. Episodes of
self-destructive, chaotic and violent behavior, often triggered by
drug use, repeatedly threatened his career and jeopardized his life.
I couldn't escape the darkness, he acknowledged, but he was
able to put his demons at the service of his art.
Mr. Pryor's brilliant comic imagination and creative use of the blunt cadences of street language were revelations to most Americans. He did not simply tell stories, he brought them to vivid life, revealing the entire range of black America's humor, from its folksy rural origins to its raunchier urban expressions.
At the height of his career, in the late 1970's, Mr. Pryor prowled the stage like a restless cat, dispensing what critics regarded as the most poignant and penetrating comedic view of African-American life ever afforded the American public. He was volatile yet vulnerable, crass but sensitive, streetwise and cocky but somehow still diffident and anxious. And he could unleash an astonishing array of dramatic and comic skills to win acceptance and approval for a kind of stark humor.
Pryor started it all, the director and comedian Keenen Ivory
He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of
black comedians, unlocking that irreverent style.
For the actor Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor was simply
anyone who ever picked up a microphone. The playwright Neil Simon
the most brilliant comic in America.
Mr. Pryor's body language conveyed the ambivalence—at once belligerent and defensive—of the black male's provisional stance in society. His monologues evoked the passions and foibles of all segments of black society, including working-class, church-going people and prostitutes, pimps and hustlers.
He unleashed a galaxy of street characters who traditionally had been embarrassments to most middle-class blacks and mere stereotypes to most whites. And he presented them so truthfully and hilariously that he was able to transcend racial boundaries and capture a huge audience of admirers in virtually every ethnic, economic and cultural group in America. In 1998, he received the Kennedy Center's award for humor, the Mark Twain Prize.
Mr. Pryor's crossover appeal derived largely from his innovative
approach to comedy—what Rolling Stone magazine called
type of realistic theater. It was essentially comedy without
jokes—re-enactments of common human exchanges that not only
mirrored the pretensions of the characters portrayed but also subtly
revealed the minor triumphs that allowed them to endure and even
prevail over the bleak realities of everyday living.
Comedy, he said,
is when you are driving along and see a
couple of dudes and one is in trouble with the others and he's
trying to talk his way out of it. You say, ‘Oh boy, they got
him,’ and you laugh. I cannot tell jokes. My comedy is not
comedy as society has defined it.
In his autobiography,
Pryor Convictions, written in 1995 with
Todd Gold, he allows Mudbone, the down-home raconteur who was perhaps
Mr. Pryor's most unforgettable character and in many ways his
alter ego, to comment,
the truth is gonna be funny, but it's
gonna scare... folks.
In fact, Mr. Pryor's often harsh observations and explicit
language did offend some audiences. But he insistently presented
characters with little or no distortion.
A lie is profanity, he
A lie is the worst thing in the world. Art is the
ability to tell the truth, especially about oneself.
Richard Pryor, the only child of Leroy Pryor and Gertrude Thomas
Pryor, was born in Peoria, Ill., on Dec. 1, 1940, and raised in a
household where, as he wrote,
I lived among an assortment of
relatives, neighbors, whores and winos—the people who inspired a
lifetime of comedic material. His parents and grandmother ran a
string of bars and bordellos that catered to a constant influx of
transients who moved in and out of town, which was such an important
stop on the black and white vaudeville circuits that it inspired the
Will it play in Peoria?
A frail child, he learned how to use his quick wit and belligerent humor to gain respect from street gangs and bigger, more aggressive peers. But the antic behavior that served him well in the streets did not translate to the classroom, and he was expelled from school in the eighth grade despite his obvious talent and intelligence. During the remainder of his teens, he worked as a truck driver, a laborer and a factory worker, then joined the Army, where he served in Germany until he was discharged after stabbing another serviceman during a fight.
He returned to Peoria, married, became the father of a son, Richard Jr., and, inspired by the television appearances of Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory, began performing in local nightclubs. In 1962, a variety act offered him a job as a master of ceremonies; leaving his wife and child behind, he began touring, appearing at small black nightclubs in East St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Youngstown.
In 1963, after honing his craft on the
Mr. Pryor decided to take a crack at New York City. He felt ready to
compete with the
big cats and to try to emulate the success of
Bill Cosby, the comedian he most admired. Soon, he was appearing at
Greenwich Village clubs like Cafe Wha?, The Living Room, Papa
Hud's and the Bitter End.
Mr. Pryor made his national television debut on Rudy Vallee's
On Broadway Tonight in 1964. He had, in his own words,
entered the mainstream, presenting
nonoffensive humor that freely copied the styles of other comedians,
particularly Mr. Cosby. He worked the Catskills resort hotels and
opened for the singer Billy Eckstine at the Apollo Theater in
Harlem. Big-time television appearances followed on
The Ed Sullivan
Show and Johnny Carson's
Tonight Show. Two years after
his arrival in New York, he had a national reputation.
Despite his growing popularity, Mr. Pryor was frustrated.
I made a
lot of money being Bill Cosby, he recalled,
but I was hiding my
personality. I just wanted to be in show business so bad I didn't
care how. It started bothering me—I was being a robot comic,
repeating the same lines, getting the same laughs for the same
jokes. The repetition was killing me.
In 1967, Mr. Pryor stormed off the stage of the Aladdin Hotel in Las
What am I doing here? I'm not going to do this
In his autobiography, he recalled:
There was a world of junkies and
winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming
inside my head, trying to be heard. The longer I kept them bottled up,
the harder they tried to escape. The pressure built till I went
Despite resistance from club owners, booking agents and advisers, he
began listening to those voices, developing new material during the
next few years served straight from the black experience, even
embracing the street vernacular use of the word
His first comedy album,
Richard Pryor (1967) revealed his new
direction with such routines as:
I always wanted to go to the
movies and see a black hero. I figured maybe on television they'll
have it - Look, up in the sky! It's a crow. It's a bat. No,
it's Super Nigger. Able to leap tall buildings with a single
bound; faster than a bowl of chitlins.
By 1970, he had gone underground to reassess his life and his comic approach.
When he returned to show business in Los Angeles, his comedy had
changed radically. After seeing his revised act, Mr. Cosby said:
Richard Pryor took on a whole new persona, his own. Richard killed
the Bill Cosby in his act, made people hate it. Then he worked on
them, doing pure Pryor, and it was the most astonishing metamorphosis
I have ever seen. He was magnificent.
Some of his new material appeared on his second album,
Hours) (1971), which was recorded at the Redd Foxx Club in
Hollywood. He boldly engaged sensitive racial topics, mocking police
harassment of blacks and exploring differences between white and black
Craps is considered one of Mr. Pryor's best comedy
albums, initial sales were dismal. Even the black audience for whom it
was intended largely ignored it.
Mr. Pryor persisted, however, developing his act and building a new following by returning to the small black clubs that he had abandoned with his initial success. He also appeared at better-known and challenging venues like the Apollo in Harlem and more cutting-edge comedy clubs downtown like The Improv.
The routines developed on those dates provided material for his next
That Nigger's Crazy (1974), which surprised
record-industry executives with its appeal to young whites as well as
blacks. Despite its X-rating because of explicit language and sexual
content, the record sold more than a half-million copies and won the
Grammy Award for best comedy album of the year. It was followed by
another X-rated album, ... Is It Something I Said (1975),
which also went gold and won another Grammy.
Appearances on television furthered Mr. Pryor's career. He was a
popular host on
Saturday Night Live in 1975, and two years
later he agreed to do a series of television specials for NBC.
Mr. Pryor's impact was not limited to comedy performance on
records and the stage. He wrote for Redd Foxx's popular television
Sanford and Son and for
The Flip Wilson Show; he
also collaborated with Lily Tomlin on her television specials,
receiving an Emmy Award for best comedy writing for
After returning from a trip to Africa in 1979, Mr. Pryor told
audiences he would never use the word
nigger again as a
performer. While abroad, he said, he saw black people running
governments and businesses. And in a moment of epiphany, he said, he
realized that he did not see anyone he could call by that name.
He appeared in 40 films during a career that began with
Bodies in 1969 and concluded with a role opposite his frequent
co-star Gene Wilder in
Another You in 1992.
His first starring role, in 1976, was as a race car driver in
Greased Lightning, and he costarred with Gene Wilder in
Silver Streak. Although he would dismiss
stupid film, audiences loved his performance and he became
one of Hollywood's hottest box-office draws.
Mr. Pryor probably reached the pinnacle of his career in 1979 with his
first concert film,
Richard Pryor, Live in Concert, a movie,
filmed during an appearance in Long Beach, Calif., that more than a
quarter of a century later remains the standard by which other movies
of live comedy performances are judged.
The film, which was to inspire others to make their own comic
performance movies, caught Mr. Pryor at peak form. He reflected often
about his own tumultuous life, with monologues about a domestic
quarrel in which he shot his wife's car, the death of his pet
monkeys and a near-fatal heart attack, which ended with:
I woke up
in the ambulance, right? And there was nothin' but white people
starin' at me. I say... I done died and wound up in the wrong
heaven. Now I gotta listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Pryor is survived by six children: Richard Jr., Rain, Elizabeth, Steven, Kelsey and Franklin. He was married six times and divorced five times.
If he used his misadventures to earn fame and fortune, Mr. Pryor also frequently undercut his career and his life with his self-destructive behavior. In 1974, for example, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, fined and put on probation after pleading guilty to a charge of willful failure to file an income tax return.
In 1978, a court fined him $500, placed him on probation again and ordered him to seek psychiatric care and make restitution after a New Year's Day incident in which he rammed his Mercedes into a car containing friends of his wife and then shot at it with a pistol.
In 1980, after a marathon drug binge, Mr. Pryor was critically burned in an explosion that the police said was caused by the ignition of ether being used in conjunction with cocaine. Fire Department paramedics found him walking in a daze more than a mile from his home outside Los Angeles with third-degree burns over the upper half of his body. He was hospitalized for almost two months while undergoing a series of skin grafts.
Recovering, Mr. Pryor remained a top-box office attraction during most of the 1980's. He appeared in numerous movies and released two more films of live comedy performances, but he continued to be bedeviled by drug and health problems.
In 1986, he was found to be suffering from multiple sclerosis, a disease that strikes at the central nervous system, and as the years passed he experienced its cruelest symptoms: vertigo, tremors, muscle weakness and chronic fatigue.
His performances in
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and
Another You (1992) with Gene Wilder revealed a frail, hesitant
actor who struggled to deliver his lines. Still, in 1992, he was back
at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles polishing material for a concert
tour. He was no longer able to stand on stage and he delivered his
monologue from an easy chair. But he was forced to cancel his tour
early the next year.
I realized that I had more heart than energy, more courage than
strength, he said.
My mind was willing, but my feets
couldn't carry me to the end zone.