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RICHARD PRYOR | 1940-2005

Richard Pryor; a Groundbreaking, Anguished Comedian

December 11, 2005|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

Richard Pryor, whose blunt, blue and brilliant comedic confrontations confidently tackled what many stand-up comics before him deemed too shocking to broach, died early Saturday. He was 65.

Pryor suffered a heart attack at his home in the San Fernando Valley. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The comedian's body of work, a political movement in itself, was steeped in race, class and social commentary, and encompassed the stage, screen, records and television. He won five Grammys and an Emmy.

At one point the highest-paid black performer in the entertainment industry, the lauded but misfortune-dogged comedian inadvertently became a de facto role model: a lone wolf figure to whom many an up-and-coming comic from Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock to Robin Williams and Richard Belzer have paid homage. Pryor kicked stand-up humor into a brand new realm.

"I've been trying to figure out the analogies to what Richard Pryor meant, and the closest I can come to is Miles Davis," said Reginald Hudlin, the film and TV director and president of entertainment for Black Entertainment Television. "There's music before Miles Davis, and there's music after Miles Davis. And Richard Pryor is that same kind of person.

"Every new piece kind of transformed the game," Hudlin said. "He was a culturally transcendent hero. His influence is bigger than black comedy; it's bigger than comedy. He was a cultural giant."

Comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans once said: "Richard Pryor is the groundbreaker." He "showed us that you can be black and have a black voice and be successful."

Pryor had a history both bizarre and grim: self-inflicted burns (1980), a heart attack (1990) and marathon drug and alcohol use (that he finally kicked in the 1990s). Yet he somehow -- often miraculously, it seemed -- continued on, even after being diagnosed in 1986 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that robbed him of his trademark physical presence.

Pryor worked as an actor and writer as well as a stand-up comic throughout the 1970s and into the '80s. He won Grammys for his groundbreaking, irreverent concert albums "Bicentennial Nigger" and "That Nigger's Crazy." And in 1974, he received a writing Emmy for a Lily Tomlin television special.

Pryor starred in major feature films -- from "Lady Sings the Blues" and the semiautobiographical writing, starring and directing turn in "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling," to the less memorable "The Toy" and "Superman III." He also co-starred with comedian Gene Wilder in the highly popular buddy films "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy."

It was, however, his concert films, particularly "Richard Pryor -- Live in Concert" (1979), that many critics considered his best work.

"What he was able to do with his body, with his mentality, was incredible," said Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist who recalled getting to know Pryor in the late 1960s in New York. "He could just walk across that stage while he was getting ready to transition -- the movements of his body, people would just laugh."

Called genius by some, self-destructive madman by others, Pryor, throughout the tumult of a zigzagging career, remained an inclement force of nature.

"He was actually one of the rare people of that era who was a product of the chitlin circuit and the white, liberal, coffee shop thing," said journalist and cultural critic Nelson George. "Where Bill Cosby immediately made it into the crossover realm ... Pryor was a product of both. He was able to draw upon his kind of raw black experience through his storytelling skills, and that was accessible to a hipper white crowd. He mixed all of those things, but always had a singular vision."

In 1975, Pryor appeared on "Saturday Night Live," at the time considered among TV's most irreverent shows. But it wasn't until he went on the air that "SNL" instituted a five-second delay to ensure that Pryor did not ruffle the NBC censors.

He also had his own short-lived series, "The Richard Pryor Show," which was axed after only four episodes in 1977, the victim of head office scrutiny and low ratings -- he was pitted against the hugely popular "Laverne and Shirley" and "Happy Days."

"You look at 'The Richard Pryor Show,' " Hudlin said, "and without that show you don't have 'In Living Color,' and you don't have Dave Chappelle's show. And again, people forget the number of white comics that were influenced by him."

Among the young performers on the Pryor show were Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhard.

In later years, Pryor's life was a blur of bad choices and reckless acts. Scarred by drugs, violence, quadruple bypass surgery, broken marriages and estranged children, Pryor tried to take his own life.

The initial reports of June 9, 1980, were that the comedian accidentally set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor finally revealed the truth in his autobiography "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," co-written with Todd Gold:

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