Bitterly funny comic revolutionized stand-up

Comedian mined experiences in white-dominated society

Richard Pryor 1940-2005

December 11, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN REPORTER

Richard Pryor, who revolutionized American comedy by tapping into his experiences as a black man in a white-dominated society, died of heart failure early yesterday at his home in Encino, Calif., just nine days after his 65th birthday. He had been ill for years, having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, in 1986.

There were comedians who came of age in the 1970s. And there was Mr. Pryor.

Scathingly funny, bitterly angry, utterly fearless, Mr. Pryor, whom his friend Robin Williams once called "the Evel Knievel of comedy," answered to no comedic standard but his own. He became not only a trailblazer, expanding the boundaries of American humor by holding no cow sacred, but also - in a twist that amazed him endlessly - one of the best-loved comics of his time.

"Richard was such a fighter," his wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, told CNN yesterday. "He's had beyond nine lives. He enjoyed life right up until the end."

There might have been plenty of joy in Mr. Pryor's life, but it was hard won. After starting his career as a comedian in the early 1960s following in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and resorting to similar material, Mr. Pryor decided that playing it safe onstage was ill-suited to a black man in America. After famously walking offstage during a 1967 performance in Las Vegas, Mr. Pryor reinvented himself.

No longer content to tell jokes with recognized mainstream appeal, he started mining his own experience, as a black man coming of age in a white-dominated world, for material. Employing a street vernacular that must have sounded revolutionary at the time, he made no effort to dull the sharp edges of his material. His words cut like a knife.

His language was blunt, often profane. He made fun of police harassment, contrasted black and white attitudes toward sex, found humor in four-letter words and lampooned racial stereotypes.

Audiences, both black and white, loved him for it. His second record album, That Nigger's Crazy (1974), sold more than a half-million copies and won the Grammy for Best Comedy Album. He was, for a time, the biggest star in Hollywood. As the famed director Billy Wilder joked in 1982, studio executives had finally figured out a surefire path to box-office success. "They approach it very scientifically - computer projections, marketing research, audience profiles - and they always come up with the same answer: Get Richard Pryor."

For more than three decades, black comics have been following the trails Mr. Pryor blazed.

"Pryor started it all," Keenan Ivory Wayans once said. "If he had not come along, there would not be an Eddie Murphy or a Keenan Ivory Wayans or an Arsenio Hall. He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocking that irreverent style."

Mr. Murphy said simply that Mr. Pryor was "better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone."

Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor was born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Ill. By his own account, he grew up in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother was a prostitute. "I lived," Mr. Pryor once wrote, "among an assortment of relatives, neighbors, whores and winos - the people who inspired a lifetime of comedic material."

When Mr. Pryor was 11, a teacher noted his manic energy and decided to try channeling it by casting him in a community theater production. (In 1974, when Mr. Pryor won an Emmy for co-writing a Lily Tomlin TV special, he presented it to that teacher, Juliette Whitaker.)

Expelled from high school and a father at 17, Mr. Pryor found work as a meat packer, truck driver and laborer before joining the Army in 1958; he was discharged two years later, after stabbing a fellow soldier during a fight. Returning to Peoria, he married and - inspired by the success of black comics such as Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory - began working in nightclubs. By 1963, he decided he was ready to give New York a try. He found steady work in nightclubs and, the next year, made his TV debut on Rudy Vallee's On Broadway Tonight.

Success followed, including appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, but Pryor wasn't satisfied with his reputation as a lesser Bill Cosby. Things came to a head during that Vegas show in 1967. "There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard," he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions. "The longer I kept them bottled up, the harder they tried to escape. The pressure built till I went nuts."

In the early '70s, Mr. Pryor returned to the stage with his new, utterly original comic persona. Success was quick to follow. In 1972, he was critically lauded for his performance in the Billie Holiday biopic, Lady Sings the Blues, playing the drug-addicted Piano Man. Two years later, he won an American Writers Guild Award for co-writing Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.

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