Richard Pryor dies

Heart attack at 65

Richard Pryor has died of a heart attack, after battling multiple sclerosis for the past 20 years.

The pioneering comic, who was born to a prostitute in a brothel in Peoria Illinois, died in California yesterday at the age of 65.

He died just before 8am local time of a heart attack, his long-time business manager Karen Finch announced late last night.

It was not his first brush with heart problems. In 1991, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.

His widow Jennifer said: 'He was my treasure. His comedy is unparalleled. They say you are not a comic unless you imitate Richard Pryor. He was able to turn his pain into comedy.’

'He handled his illness is a very dignified way right to the end. I found him in bed shortly before 8am and tried to revive him but it was too late. The paramedics tried to revive him on the way to the hospital but he was pronounced dead in the emergency room.

'He enjoyed life right up until the end. At the end there was a smile on his face.

'He was an inspiration to millions and a role model to African-Americans everywhere. He was full of courage and heart and love. He was my darling and it brought such joy to so many millions of people around the world.'

Pryor was raised by his grandmother, who owned the whorehouses, and grew up surrounded by performers and showmen. His first professional performance came at the age of seven, when he played drums at a nightclub. His last live appearance was in 1992, after the disease made him too weak to continue.

He announced that he had been sticken by MS in 1986, and last year his sister announced he had lost his voice - although he denied it on his official website, repeating what had becomed his favourite mantra: 'I ain't dead yet, motherfucker'.

Pryor started as a mainstream storytelling comedian, inspired by the 'colourless' comedy of Bill Cosby. 'I made a lot of money being Bill Cosby,' he once 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 1969. he had a crisis of confidence and abandoned a Las Vegas stage mid-set, saying: 'What the fuck am I doing here?".

He moved to California, immersed himself in the counter-culture, and emerged as a brutally honest stand-up, confronting social and personal issues and paving the way for generations of comics, especially his natural successors, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

But although Pryor spoke frankly about his experiences as a black man in a racially divided America, he was not defined purely by his colour. Almost every stand-up of any skill of the past 30 years has been directly or indirectly influenced by the honesty he brought to the art.

His routines, which offended conservative America with therir subject matter and their uncompromising language, were inspired by his colourful life. He married seven times - twice to his widow Jennifer who nursed him through his last years. And in 1980, he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine at home, suffering 50 per cent burns to his body.

In 1974, Pryor was sentenced to three years' probation for tax offences, and in 1978, he fired shots into his wife\s car, an incident which he turned into one of his finest stand-up routines.

His 1979 recording Live In Concert is one of the seminal stand-up performances of all-time, and he was infamous for reclaiming the word 'nigger' in his shows, although he later stopped using it following a trip to Zimbabwe. 'There are no niggers here,' he wrote in his autobiography. 'The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.'

But against all the social rhetoric, he could also talk of more mundane matters, such as his love of animals. In his later years, he became a spokesman for animal rights group Petra.

He appeared in several films including Stir Crazy, Superman III, Brewster's Millions and See No Evil, Hear No Evil - but he was always at his most electrifying live. Of his sometimes dubious film roles he said: 'I'm sorry, but they offered us the money. I was a pig, I got greedy."

Pryor had been lined up to play the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks, but the film's backers shied away from his controversial reputation and he lost the role to Cleavon Little. He is similarly said to have lost the starring role in Trading Places to Eddie Murphy.

In 1998, he was awarded America's first Mark Twain award for humour. And in 2004, he was voted No 1 in the Greatest Standup Comedians of All Time poll by US cable network Comedy Central.

Of his MS, he said: '"To be diagnosed was the hardest thing because I didn't know what they were talking about. And the doctor said 'Don't worry, in three months you'll know.'

'So I went about my business and then, one day, it jumped me. I couldn't get up. Your muscles trick you; they did me.'

And of the career that defined an art form, he once said: 'Comedy rules! Don't let anybody tell you otherwise, and there are no rules in stand-up comedy, which I really like. You can do anything you want and you can say anything that comes to mind - just so long as it's funny. If you ain't funny then get the fuck off the stage, it's that simple.'

Comics pay tribute to Richard Pryor >>


Published: 10 Dec 2005

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