Wife Fondly Recalls Richard Pryor

ByABC News via logo

Dec. 11, 2005 — -- Richard Pryor changed not just the way we look at comedy, but the way we look at each other -- and the way we look at ourselves, according to ABC News entertainment editor Joel Siegel.

"I see all colors of people doing everything," Pryor said during one of his "Live on the Sunset Strip" shows.

Brutally honest about race, after a trip to Africa Pryor vowed never again to use the N-word.

"I haven't even said it, I haven't even thought it, and it made me say, 'Oh my god, I've been wrong,' " Pryor said.

Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Prior was born in a brothel and named after pimps. His grandmother was the madam and his mother was a prostitute.

A high school dropout, he was discharged from the army for slashing a fellow soldier with a switchblade. He was married six times and had seven children.

"He was a real piece of work," said his widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor. "He was a handful, and a wonderful handful, and a heartbreaker and the love of my life."

Jennifer Lee Pryor called her late husband "an angel and a demon."

"He had a very dark side that could strike out and be very volatile at any moment," she said. "He was incredibly loving and vulnerable. When I met him, the thing that struck me most about him was his vulnerability. And I can tell you many women say this about him, that there was something so open and raw and refreshing about him.

"He was a bit of a rescue," she added. "Women want to cuddle that, and of course when you saw the other side, that was a different story. But you would forgive that other side because the angel would pop up again. [It was] very easy to love this man."

In the 1960s, Richard Pryor started doing Bill Cosby-style, family-oriented stand-up. Then, he invented the Richard Pryor we think of today. By the 1970s, he was the scourge of television censors.

"He was working in white America and doing the jokes," said Jennifer Lee Pryor, "and when he decided to part from that, it took incredible courage to find his own voice."

"It speaks to all of us to be true to yourself and to be brave and to honor your authenticity," she added. "And that's what Richard really represents."

Pryor is beloved by fans of comedy and comedians alike. Comedian George Wallace said Pryor had a "major impact on everybody."

"I'm just smiling," said Wallace, who performs at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. "I can't help it because when I mention Richard's name, I just have to smile."

"Every comedian in America, we learned from him," he added.

A series of buddy movies with Gene Wilder helped make Pryor one of Hollywood's biggest box office stars. In "Superman 3," he was paid $1 million, which was more than Superman, Christopher Reeve, received. He was also one of the writers of "Blazing Saddles."

In 1980, Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Third degree burns covered 50 percent of his body. He joked about it and he made us laugh about it just one year later at "Live on the Sunset Strip."

But in 1986, he told Barbara Walters the truth.

"I went crazy one night, went mad and tried to kill myself," Pryor said to Walters.

"You really did deliberately do it, didn't you?" Walters asked him.

"Yes," he replied.

The genius of Richard Pryor was being able to turn tragedy into comedy. But he wasn't able to stop the tragedy. In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Ten years ago, ABC News' Siegel asked a fragile and frail Pryor if he had any regrets.

"No. … Why?," he asked. "There's nothing you can do about it. You know what I mean? This is it. Get what you can, while you are here. Enjoy it, man. It's fun. It's a great thing to have this life."

Pryor's widow said he found peace before he died.

"I came back into his life in '94, never really having left, and there was a lot of struggle," Jennifer Lee Pryor said. "Eventually, I saw him have an acceptance and a peace."

"No one ever knows what going on in his very interior soul between him and his god about his life," she added. "I know he did have a peace, and I know he passed peacefully, too, with a smile on his face."

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