Pryor Found Success Amid Highs and Lows From humble beginnings in Peoria, Ill., Richard Pryor became the highest paid black star in Hollywood and influenced countless actors and comedians who followed him. Ed Gordon offers a remembrance of the provocative comedian, who died Saturday at the age of 65.

Pryor Found Success Amid Highs and Lows

Pryor Found Success Amid Highs and Lows

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From humble beginnings in Peoria, Ill., Richard Pryor became the highest paid black star in Hollywood and influenced countless actors and comedians who followed him. Ed Gordon offers a remembrance of the provocative comedian, who died Saturday at the age of 65.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The world has lost some laughter. Richard Pryor has died. From humble beginnings in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor became the highest-paid black star in Hollywood and influenced countless actors and comedians who followed him. He starred in nearly 50 movies, won five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. He was also a writer for hit television shows and won an Emmy for his television comedy writing, but with all the highs, there were as many lows. He overcame an addiction to drugs and alcohol only to battle the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. But through everything, his comedy remained at the core of his colorful and fearless life.

Unidentified Man #1: Ladies and gentlemen, the two most beautiful words in the world of comedy, `Richard Pryor.'

(Soundbite of cheering)

GORDON: He was the foulmouthed comic who wowed audiences with his profane routines and profound social insights.

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): Racism is a (censored). I mean, white people, you've got to know it (censored) you up, but what it does to black people is it (censored).

GORDON: Whether he was talking about race relations or the battle of the sexes, Richard Pryor brought the African-American experience into American homes and all the while he kept people laughing.

Mr. PRYOR: It's hard enough just to walk through life decent as a person, but there's another element added to it when you're black. You know (censored) got that little edge on us. It's enough to make you crazy.

GORDON: His material was the stuff of everyday life. Keen observations on race, class and society that praised and parodied what blacks went through in this country. Early in his career, he made appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin shows, but he quickly tired of having to sanitize his routine for white audiences. He was fired from one Las Vegas hotel for using obscenities during a show and walked off stage during another Vegas engagement when he refused to compromise his act. Pryor succeeded on his terms. His brand of humor was in the tradition of blue comics like Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, but Pryor's comedy had a new twist. His routines were forged in the civil rights struggle, the black power movement and postwar urban America.

Mr. PRYOR: Being black was being cool. I remember it wasn't black in those days, 'cause black wasn't beautiful yet. I remember you couldn't even say black. You call a dude black, `I don't play black.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: `Don't call me black. I'm a Negro.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: I remember when a black man comes through our neighborhood, man, dressed in, like, the clothes you have on...

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Mr. PRYOR: ...a black man. You know what I'm talking about? `Be black and be proud.' My parents were, `That is (censored) crazy.'

GORDON: Pryor parlayed his successful stand-up routine into movie roles including box office hits like "Lady Sings the Blues," "Stir Crazy" and "Silver Streak." He became the highest-paid African-American in Hollywood in 1983 when he earned $4 million for his role in "Superman III," but Pryor always remained true to his humble roots. His characters and experiences made his comedy familiar and authentic to millions of fans.

Richard Pryor was born December 1st, 1940 to a mother who abandoned him when he was 10 and a father who was a World War II veteran and a bartender. He was raised by his grandmother in one of her Peoria, Illinois, brothels. The comedian would later build his stand-up routines around the hookers, hustlers and winos he saw coming in and out of the establishment. Pryor turned to entertaining to help him escape his childhood traumas, but he also credits his family with honing his comedic sense.

Mr. PRYOR: I remember my father was funny, a funny man, and my uncles and my grandmother, funny people, had a great sense of humor about anything. Without trying to be funny, I mean, they just were funny.

GORDON: As an adult, Pryor would also turn to comedy to help him cope with difficult times. In 1980, he set himself on fire after free-basing cocaine for several days in a row. He later wrote that setting himself ablaze was, in fact, a suicide attempt. He suffered burns over 50 percent of his body, but in true Pryor fashion, he turned personal misfortune into laughter.

Mr. PRYOR: And you know something I found out? When you're on fire and running down the street, people will get out of your way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: ...except for one old drunk, right? He's going, `Hey, buddy, can we get a light?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Just six years later, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and once again comedy became his salvation.

Mr. PRYOR: It's a great gift to be able to laugh sometimes. It really comes in handy.

GORDON: He waded into topics where other comics were afraid to go and spoke the truth the way he saw it with no apologies. In the 1970s, his liberal use of the N-word shocked and even offended some audiences at the time, but it also paved the way for today's African-American comics to do their own brand of humor. His voice can be heard in many of today's top comedians from Chris Rock to Bernie Mac. His influence wasn't limited to the black community. Comedians like Robin Williams and David Letterman also credit Pryor for opening the door for them and their style of comedy.

Pryor died Saturday of a heart attack in a Los Angeles area hospital. He is survived by his wife Jennifer and seven children. The comic genius was 65 years.

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