Requiem for Richard Pryor

UT Managing Editor
Niner Online
University of North Caroli

Last month, the world lost an unforgettable comedian, actor and writer — Richard Pryor — died of a heart attack at his Encino, Calif. home. The performer, most notably recognized for his uncensored and often profane take on the world around him, was arguably one of the most influential entertainers of his time.

To his audience, it may have seemed that, for Pryor, all the world was a stage. But things were much different for him. And although off-stage, his life, at times, was no laughing matter; the negative experiences he endured were often the source of his comedic material – and his ability to find something to laugh about in them is part of what won him his popularity.

At the beginning of his career, Pryor's comedy routines were much more tame, and often included impersonations of fellow comedian Bill Cosby. Yet after a brief hiatus, he returned to the stage with a bold new outlook. He is credited as being one of the first black comedians to cover racial issues in his act, to a predominantly mixed-race crowd.

Pryor was born in Peoria, Ill. in December 1940, and was raised in his grandmother's brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. He dropped out of high school before even his sophomore year and enlisted in the U.S. Army for a two-year stint. He suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years and battled his own drug addictions as well. Pryor's parents died a year apart from each other when he was in his late twenties.

Throughout his life, Pryor was married seven times, mostly briefly, and fathered seven children. Yet several of his wives had even reported spousal abuse.

Jennifer Lee, his wife at the time of his death, was also married to him once before in the early '80s. During their first marriage, she accused him of beating and attempting to strangle her. Another wife, Deborah McGuire, charged him with shooting her car.

In 1980, Pryor attempted suicide by pouring high-proof rum on himself and setting himself on fire, which he didn't admit to until much later. At the time, his management told the press that the accident was caused while Pryor was freebasing cocaine.

But Pryor's life was not entirely marked by drugs and violence. As an actor, Pryor's films include "The Toy," "Brewster's Millions," "Car Wash" and "Moving." He is also well known for the four films he co-starred in with actor Gene Wilder, including "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" and "Stir Crazy."

In 1973, he won an Emmy award for his work with the "Lily Tomlin Special." He also went on to win five Grammy awards in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981 and 1982 for various projects, as well as two American Academy of Humor Awards and a Writer's Guild of America Award.

In 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. In 2004, he was voted No. 1 out of Comedy Central's "100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time." A British poll of comedians and comedy insiders listed him as the 10th greatest comedy act ever last year.

For the last several decades, Pryor has been a pioneer in the field of entertainment and has accomplished major personal and professional milestones in his time. To this day, dozens of modern entertainers, including Eddie Murphy, Denis Leary and Wanda Sykes, have credited Pryor with having an influence in their careers. He may be physically gone, but his work will live on for many years to come.