Comedian Richard Pryor died this morning at age 65 from a heart attack. He had been suffering for many years from mutiple sclerosis.
Richard Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. He claimed to have grown up in a brothel run by his grandmother. He dropped out of school early and served for two years in the United States Army. Following his military stint, Pryor started doing stand up comedy in comedy clubs. He made his first appearance on television in 1964 on On Broadway Tonight. This was followed by several apperances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Pryor also made guest appearances on such series as The Wild Wild West and The Mod Squad.
Although most of Pryor's material seems tame by today's standards, Pryor's routines were sometimes considered shocking in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He sometimes used obscenitites and even made free use of the "N" word. Much of his material focused on racial inequality.
It was in the Seventies that Pryor came into his own. He was a regular on The Kraft Music Hall in 1966 and in the Seventies appeared many times on The Tonight Show. Beginning with The Phynx in 1970, Pryor started appearing in movies as well. By the mid-Seventies he was one of the most successful comedians in the United States and made a series of hit films, from Silver Streak to Brewster's Millions. In 1977 Pryor had his own short lived variety show on NBC, killed because his material often offended the network's Broadcast Standards department.
In addition to acting and appearing on various variety shows, Pryor was also a screenwriter. He wrote for both The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son. He collaborated with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for Blazing Saddles and wrote the story for Bustin' Loose.
Pryor's life was often complicated to say the least. He was married six times and had three children. By his own admission he was a "junkie." In 1980 he caught himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Not surprisingly, he incorporated the incident into his routine. In 1978 he was sentenced for failing to file income taxes. In 1978 he allegedly fired at a car in which there were two of his wife of the time's friends. Eventualy he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
For all his personal failings, I always did like Richard Pryor. He pushed the envelope in his early performances and refused to tone down his act even when he became famous. In 1977 he preferred for his show to go off the air rather than be cut to pieces by NBC's censors. He also focused on racial injustice at a time when the Civil Rights movement was well underway. Most of all, however, Richard Pryor was funny. As offensive as his language could be at times (I have never liked the "N" word), he could also be absolutely hilarious. He definietely had an influence on many comics who followed him, from Robin Williams to Chris Rock. I don't think he'll soon be forgotten.