Saturday, December 10, 2005

Rest in Peace, Richard Pryor

My comments on this death, and what it means to me, follow the article. Please take a moment to read both:

Actor-Comedian Dies at 65 of Heart Attack
'He Did Not Suffer, He Went Quickly,' Pryor's Wife Says

LOS ANGELES (Dec. 10) - Richard Pryor, the groundbreaking comedian whose profanely personal insights into race relations and modern life made him one of Hollywood's biggest stars, died of a heart attack Saturday. He was 65.

Pryor died shortly before 8 a.m. after being taken to a hospital from his home in the San Fernando Valley, said his business manager, Karen Finch. He had been ill for years with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

Music producer Quincy Jones described Pryor as a true pioneer of his art.

"He was the Charlie Parker of comedy, a master of telling the truth that influenced every comedian that came after him," Jones said in a statement. "The legacy that he leaves will forever be with us."

His audacious style influenced generations of stand-up artists, from Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock to Robin Williams and David Letterman, among others.

His films included "Stir Crazy," "Silver Streak," "Which Way Is Up?" and "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip."

Throughout his career, Pryor focused on racial inequality, once joking as the host of the Academy Awards in 1977 that Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were the only black members of the Academy.

Pryor once marveled "that I live in racist America and I'm uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can't do much better than that."

In one of his last movies, the 1991 bomb "Another You," Pryor's poor health due to multiple sclerosis was clearly evident. Pryor made a comeback attempt the following year, returning to standup comedy in clubs and on television while looking thin and frail, and with noticeable speech and movement difficulties.

In 1995, he played an embittered multiple sclerosis patient in an episode of the television series "Chicago Hope." The role earned him an Emmy nomination as best guest actor in a drama series.

"To be diagnosed was the hardest thing because I didn't know what they were talking about," he said. "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."

Despite his health troubles, he was happy and in good humor in his final days, said his wife Jennifer Lee Pryor.

"He will be missed, but will forever live in thousands and thousands of hearts and continue to impact and inspire people with his truth and his pain, which he turned into comedy brilliantly," she said.

While Pryor's material sounds modest when compared with some of today's raunchier comedians, it was startling material when first introduced. He never apologized for it.

Pryor was fired by one Las Vegas hotel for "obscenities" directed at the audience. In 1970, tired of compromising his act, he quit in the middle of another Vegas stage show with the words, "What the (blank) am I doing here?" The audience was left staring at an empty stage.

"I had some great things and I had some bad things. The best and the worst," he said in 1995. "In other words, I had a life."

Recognition came in 1998 from an unlikely source: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington gave Pryor the first Mark Twain Prize for humor. He said in a statement that he was proud that, "like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred."

Even in poor health, his comedy was vital. At a 1992 performance, he asked the room, "Is there a doctor in the audience?" All he got was nervous laughter. "No, I'm serious. I want to know if there's a doctor here."

A hand finally went up.

"Doctor," Pryor said, "I need to know one thing. What the (blank) is MS?"


It is with tears in my eyes that I write about Richard Pryor.

As a child, I loved him. "Brewster's Millions" and "The Toy" were the funniest movies ever made to my young way of thinking. As I got older, I began to appreciate his stand-up comedy, the very vital and political overtones of his humor. He always made a point, and he always made you laugh while he was doing it. Would there be a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle today, had there never been a Richard Pryor?

And so for years, I looked upon him with the eyes of a fan. And in the 90's, when we were both diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I looked upon him with the eyes of a compatriot. We were brothers-in-arms, Richard and I, fighting the same battle and trying to keep our good humor with us in the trenches.

I related so much more to Richard Pryor, than to Montell Williams. Richard never hid the truth of his condition, any more than he hid the truth about racism. And he somehow managed to give an ugly truth a funny, optimistic edge. I have tried to follow his lead, to fight pain with humor, to fight indignities with a smile. To never feel ashamed or hide from what I am or what I have, but to face it square in the eye and happily tell it to fuck off.

What bothers me today is not only his great loss...but the reactions it has produced. On one message board today, a poster referred to Richard's last decade of life as "fragile, invisible." Another thought he was suffering from dementia. Even Bill Cosby used this passing as yet another chance to strike at Pryor's bad language, an argument between the two that should have died with Richard
("I wish that every new and young comedian would understand what Richard was about and not confuse his genius with his language usage," comedian Bill Cosby said through a spokesman Saturday.)

To those who thought him fragile and invisible: Richard Pryor was never that. Nor was there anything wrong with his mind. Inside his body that was fighting so hard against this MonSter, his mind remained sharp, vital...and as able to twist an ordeal into a joke as he ever was. And I've no doubt that Richard would have answered Cosby's posthumous recrimination along the lines of: "Bill? Have a Coke and pudding pop and shut the fuck up."

Tonight, I'll be watching "Harlem Nights" and drinking a toast to my comrade. May I face the years of battle to come as bravely and as poignantly as he did.

"When I was a kid, I always said I would be in the movies one day, and damned if I didn't make it. Sometimes I just sit at home and look at the window and say, 'Daaaaaammmmmmmnnnnnn!'"

Richard Pryor



At 8:00 PM, Anonymous libbie said...

Thank you for a beautiful post and message.
I am still reeling from this news and it is comforting to read messages like yours.
Good luck - I hope they find a cure soon!

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Pixie LaRouge said...

Wonderful, eloquent tribute to a wonderful, eloquent mind.

At 9:45 AM, Blogger mouse said...

Nicely said. Thank you!

At 1:12 PM, Blogger amanda said...

Yes I third that. He was a great man and the way you write and wrote about him is a great tribute. I will be thinking of him and his family. Thank you.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger mdmhvonpa said...

Yep ... I miss him already.

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Great post on a great man. Pryor was a complex man with demons that few understood; comedy was a self exorcism.


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