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Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

Richard Pryor (right) with John Candy in "Brewster's Millions"

(Note from Roger Ebert: Cynthia, who now lives and works in Tucson, was a features writer at the Sun-Times in the 1970s, where our desks faced each other and we shared everything from coffee to the mysteries of the new computers. She sent me this after the death of Richard Pryor.)

By Cynthia Dagnal Myron

I wanted to share a truly moving story with you, in honor of Richard's passing. When I was still at the Sun-Times, Richard told me something that became my "philosophy" for the rest of my life. It was so unlike him to sit quietly and just spill his guts. But he liked me, and during that interview, he was a totally different man than the one most people knew (and he'd just been arrested for domestic violence or something, too, not long before, so I was really surprised!).

He was talking about his early career, when he worked Vegas as a comedian, telling, as I recalled myself, pretty innocuous little stories of his hard life as a kid. They were funny, and innovative even then, but nothing like the wild, angry, insightful things he'd do later. And he felt, he said, as if he were choking to death every time he walked through the kitchen, "Like a good little boy," to get to and from the stage. Black [erformers still had to do that, back then.

So one day, as he was doing that march through the kitchen, he decided to let the gangster guys who ran the place know that this was going to be his last performance. He was done with Vegas. And he said, pushing on his nose to make it look flat, that he was told, "You do that, and you'll never work anywhere, ever again. You got that, sonny boy?!" And he said he got it, he understood perfectly... and went onstage and did a show they'd never forget. A show more like the ones we would come to know, but one that they absolutely could not have approved of at the time.

And he said they closed the curtains on him, and rushed up to him, and he squared his shoulders, lifted his chin and told them, again, that he just could not be a man and work for them anymore. And he said that God must've intervened, because the guys looked into his eyes... and backed off. And he went through the kitchen and out into the world where it seemed to him that -- and THIS is the line I loved: "The trees were bowing to me..." He says he became very calm, but very sure that because he had stood up to them, because he had demanded his dignity...God would provide.

I never forgot that. And I left that interview with that image in my head (long before "Phenomenon," huh?). The trees bowing to Richard, as they might bow to me, whenever I made a really life changing and life affirming decision.

Richard Pryor, one of the best and most influential comedians of his time, is dead at 65. He died at 9:58 a.m. Saturday of heart failure, in a suburban Los Angeles hospital, according to his wife, Jennifer, who told Reuters: "He was my treasure."

He was a national treasure. Born in a brothel, accused of obscenity in his early stand-up days, nearly burned to death in an accident while free-basing cocaine, he went on to star in movies both good and bad, but as a live performer, he was brilliant and fearless and found truths his audiences instinctively identified with.

Although the obituaries will make much of his nearly fatal accident and his long battle with multiple sclerosis, the most significant entry may be this one: In 1998, he won the first Mark Twain Prize for humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He said in his acceptance speech he had been able to use humor as Mark Twain did, "to lessen people's hatred."

When you look again at his three great performance films, you realize that was exactly what he did: It was when he was live in front of an audience that the full range of his gifts was seen most clearly. Drugs muddled some of the early stages of his career, and his disease finally silenced him, but in the early 1980s, after he was clean and sober and before he fell ill, there was a flowering of genius. In 2004, Comedy Central placed him first on its list of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time.

Mr. Pryor was born Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, in a brothel his grandmother owned. He recalled his early years in "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling" (1986), an autobiographical film he wrote, directed and starred in. He said it was not entirely factual, but the broad outlines of his life are there, including the day in 1980 when he ran screaming into a Los Angeles street, his body in flames.

25 starring roles

He began as a stand-up comic and made a handful of films before his breakthrough in "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972), as Piano Man, the confidant of Billie Holiday (Diana Ross). Other important roles were in films including "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974), "Bingo" (1976), “Blue Collar (1978), "Stir Crazy" (1980), and "Brewster's Millions" (1985).

Although Whoopi Goldberg was the first black host of the Academy Awards (1994), Mr. Pryor was the Oscar co-host in 1976, after earlier black co-hosts Sammy Davis Jr. and Diana Ross. By then he was a major Hollywood star, teamed by the Oscars with Warren Beatty, Ellen Burstyn and Jane Fonda. Oscar invited him back in 1982.

He had about 25 starring roles, often opposite Gene Wilder, who would play the straight man when they did interviews together. This is from their visit to Chicago to promote their biggest hit, "Silver Streak" (1976):

Wilder: "What are you doing next?"

Mr. Pryor: "It's a movie called 'Which Way Is Up?' This Italian director, Lina Wertmuller ..."

Wilder: "No! Oh, my God! I'll kill myself!"

Mr. Pryor: "What you moaning about, man?"

Wilder: "You're going to work with Lina Wertmuller? She passed right by me and saw you and said 'I must have that young man'?"

Mr. Pryor: "You didn't let me finish. She made this movie called 'The Seduction of Mimi,' and this will be a remake, set among the grape pickers of California."

Wilder: "I would have killed myself out of envy."

Mr. Pryor: "And then I'm in a remake of 'Arsenic and Old Lace.'"

Wilder: "Oh, my God! My favorite play next to 'Hamlet.' All black cast, I suppose, nothing for me."

Mr. Pryor: "And then I'm doing 'Hamlet.'"

In "Silver Streak," they did their own stunts, including one where they hung out of a train at 50 mph, Mr. Pryor holding Wilder by the belt.

"I'm thinking, one slip of my foot, and goodbye, Gene!" Mr. Pryor said.

"What gave me a lot of confidence," Wilder said, "was that Richie promised me that if I went, he went, too. If I fell off the train and was killed, he would throw himself after me."

"Of course," said Mr. Pryor, "they had me wired to the train."

Some of his films after that were not as good, including the dreadful "Harlem Nights" (1989) with Eddie Murphy, and in the late 1980s, there was a visible slowing down, the result of multiple sclerosis. There was no slowing down, however, in the three concert films that will preserve his work at its peak. In "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert" (1979), "Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip" (1982) and "Richard Pryor Here and Now" (1983), he earned full comparison with Bill Cosby, the grandmaster of the autobiographical stand-up genre.

Wise social observer

In the 1982 film, he dealt frankly with his cocaine addiction and his accident. The movie was filmed live over two nights. We sense at the beginning that he is shaky, but he gains confidence and builds into "the most talented one-man stage show in existence right now," I wrote in my review, effortlessly bringing to life a series of impressions ranging from Mafioso to water buffalos.

The racial content of his humor wasobservational, not confrontational. In the 1982 concert, he mimes an impression of two whites passing each other on the street in Africa. In "Silver Streak," Mr. Pryor told me, there was concern about a scene where Wilder appears in blackface and fools a white man. Mr. Pryor suggested a simple change that turned a possibly embarrassing scene into one of the biggest laughs in the film:

"Instead of a white dude being fooled by the disguise, a black dude comes in and isn't fooled. Here's Gene snapping his fingers and holding his portable radio to his ear, and the black dude takes one look and says, 'I don't know what you think you're doing, man, but you got to get the beat.'"

In "Live on Sunset Strip," Mr. Pryor does a brilliant extended sequence involving his addiction to cocaine. He depicts himself alone in his room with his cocaine pipe, which speaks to him in reassuring, seductive tones. Only gradually do we realize that the pipe is speaking in the voice of Richard Nixon.

It is unclear whether all of Mr. Pryor's drug use was behind him when he made "Sunset Strip." But in "Richard Pryor Here and Now," (1983) he firmly states he is clean and sober, seems more relaxed than we've ever seen him before, and is growing from a comedian into a wise social observer. He does impressions of characters of many races, the humor based on empathy, and has fun with himself as an African American feeling like a foreigner in Africa. In Zimbabwe, he tells an African how surprised he is to be able to speak English everywhere.

"Everybody speaks English," the African tells him, "but what language do you speak at home?"

There is an extended sequence at the end of that film where he shows a street addict shooting heroin. It begins in comedy, ends in pain, moves from self-deception to honesty, and goes far beyond stand-up into what can only be described as inspired acting. That was the direction he was moving in, and we can only wonder what heights he would have achieved if MS had not taken its cruel toll.

Mr. Pryor had seven marriages to five wives, including two to Jennifer Lee (in 1981 and 2001) and two to Flynn Belaine (in 1986 and 1990). He had seven children: Renee, Richard Pryor Jr., Elizabeth Stordeur, Rain Kindlin (herself an actress), Kelsey Pryor, Steven Pryor and Franklin Mason, and three grandchildren. Funeral services will be private, by invitation.

Contributing: AP, Reuters

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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