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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 December 2005, 22:04 GMT
Obituary: Richard Pryor

With Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy, 1980
Comic convicts: With Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy
At the height of his celebrity, Richard Pryor was a controversial, talented but self-destructive giant of stand-up comedy.

One of Pryor's arsenal of comic weapons was his impoverished childhood in Peoria, Illinois. His family was a broken one, but his home was "affluent ... we had the biggest whorehouse in the neighbourhood".

Thrown out of school and expelled from the Army, Pryor had a series of menial jobs, but started to develop his "comedy on the corner".

His journey on the stand-up club circuit led him to Las Vegas, where he made $3,000 a show, until he was sacked for hurling insults at the almost all-white audience.


Nevertheless, Pryor's mobile face, wide-zapping eyes and arched eyebrows continued to bring him success both on stage and in a series of "blaxploitation" films in the late 1960s.

With Christopher Reeve in Superman III, 1983
Flying high with Christopher Reeve
And as the civil rights movement gathered momentum, Pryor's material became more political. He spoke "for the black voices that could not be heard" and his first live comedy album, That Nigger's Crazy, sold more than a million copies.

Pryor's huge success went straight to his nose, as he developed a cocaine habit that would fuel his performances. He said: "God made me funny, but the drugs kept me up in my imagination."

His personal life, littered with drugs, divorces and court convictions, all provided fresh fodder for the comic. Audiences were shocked but enthralled by the rage and vulnerability of Pryor's characters.

Record fee

Pryor's anti-establishment credentials were weakened by his foray into more mainstream films in the mid-1970s. After appearing with Diana Ross in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, he appeared in the lively Car Wash (1976), California Suite and The Wiz (both 1978). He also helped Mel Brooks write Blazing Saddles (1974).

Richard Pryor
Pryor was the comic voice of black America
In 1976, he began an on-screen partnership with Gene Wilder in the box-office hit Silver Streak, following this up with Stir Crazy in 1980, and See no Evil, Hear no Evil.

He made more than 30 films in all, and his $4m fee for Superman III in 1983 was then a record for a black actor. The 1985 film Brewster's Millions was another hit.


Despite his success, Pryor's own recklessness always threatened to get the better of him. In 1980, in what he later admitted was a suicide attempt, he set his own house on fire, engulfing himself in flames and suffering 30% burns.

In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and, in typical fashion, described aspects of his condition to comic effect.

Richard Pryor in a wheelchair
Pryor received the first Mark Twain prize in 1998
In 1998, the Kennedy Center in Washington presented him with the first Mark Twain prize for American humour, allying him with the writer who said, "Profanity is better than flattery."

Richard Pryor used profanity to break through cultural barriers and promote understanding. And this most celebrated victim of racism, drugs, fame and finally illness, ultimately recognised the authority provided by his own suffering.

To be authentic, he said, "you have to have lived some life. You've got to have paid some dues."


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