Richard Pryor died today from a heart attack. He had suffered for years from multiple schlerosis, and had been out of filmmaking since 1991, aside from a brief stint on the television show, 'Chicago Hope,' which highlighted the difficulties of living with MS, and for which he was nominated for an emmy. But he left a big footprint on the world.
I remember as a kid really enjoying watching his movies. But it wasn't until later that I got to know more about this complex comedian, someone who inspired a generation of other successful comedians.
He was vulgar. He was funny. He lived life on the edge and sometimes fell over it. He succeeded in making movies that could poke fun at segregation in an age when it was still very much a part of America. He could see that there was still racism in America, but also see the progress that was being made.
It's hard to categorize Richard Pryor. His early movies were truly on the edge. The first Pryor film I saw was, 'Greased Lightning,' and it was raucus, in your face and not afraid to confront social issues (in the film, Pryor and a white friend are kicked out of a segregated restaurant, taking their food with them; Later, the plates are returned-- through the front window.) In 1977, he had a television series on NBC in which he threated to cancel the contract because of censors' objections to a skit he was doing in which he appeared in a loin cloth.
His later work became much more bland (like the eighties generally). It turned out that during this time, Pryor was battling drug and alcohol addiction-- an addiction that suddenly became very public when he was severely burned over fifty percent of his body in a flash fire that started while he was freebasing cocaine.
His daughter Rain, also an actress, summed up a lot about Richard Pryor: She said her father "put his life right out there for you to look at. I took that approach because I saw how well audiences respond to it. I try to make you laugh at life."
No question that Richard Pryor was a free spirit. Unlike a lot of celebrities, he didn't mind being the butt of jokes (in fact he even was able to tell jokes about himself that might have been considered over the line if others had told them, for example about the cocaine burning incident). He laughed at himself, he laughed at the world, and he made us laugh.