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With Biting Humor, Pryor Explored Race in America


Comedian Richard Pryor died yesterday of a heart attack in San Fernando Valley, California. He was 65 and had been battling multiple sclerosis for almost two decades. Pryor modeled his early career on Bill Cosby, but soon decided to stop playing it safe. He developed a foul-mouthed persona, drawing on black life to give his comedy a realistic and gritty edge. It worked. Pryor's 1974 album, "That Nigger's Crazy," went gold. Richard Pryor produced 20 albums winning Grammys for five of them.

At heart, Pryor was an acerbic social critic, delving into the divisions of race and class with humor that was filled with profanity, anger and broadly drawn characters. He often wrote about his own troubles and hardships: drug abuse, failed marriages and arrests. In 1980, he almost died when he set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine. That, too, became fodder for his humor.

(Soundbite from Richard Pryor performance)

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): I mean, I was standing there on fire and something said, `Why, that's a pretty blue. You know what? That looks like fire!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: I'm talking about fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics because I did the 100-yard dash in 4:3.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: And you know something I found out. When you 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, old buddy, can I get a light?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: `How about it? Just a little off the sleeve, OK?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Richard Pryor, live at the Sunset Strip, from 1982 was a landmark performance that distilled the essence of his comedy. He presented black life in a straightforward, unapologetic way that broke down barriers and opened doors for such present-day comics as Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.

During the 1970s, Pryor used the racial epithet `nigger' regularly. He said he wanted to take the sting out of it, and hoped that saying it over and over again would numb him and everybody else to it. But a 1979 trip to Africa changed his views. That visit opened his eyes in other ways as well.

(Soundbite from Richard Pryor performance)

Mr. PRYOR: I went home to the motherland and everybody should go home to Africa, everybody--especially black people.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. PRYOR: Really, man, there was so much to see there for the eye and the heart of the black people. 'Cause white people, you'll go there and you'll get ideas, `Well, that's where the black people in America should be, walking around with sticks.'

HANSEN: Pryor also made over 30 films, including "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy." He became a big box office draw, but his films never matched the cutting edge of his stand-up routines. He attempted a comeback in 1992, but his health had become too fragile. In 1998, Pryor was the first person to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was married six times and is survived by five children: two sons and three daughters.

Comedian Richard Pryor died yesterday in California. He was 65.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.