Wife, exes remember Richard Pryor: 'Like gills on a fish, being on that stage was what mattered to' him

Pryor drew in fans with stand-up comedy that was raw, honest and hilarious.

Richard Pryor drew in fans with stand-up comedy that was raw, honest and hilarious, but the women close to him said things were far from rosy and even, at times, downright frightening throughout his life.

"It takes a lot of courage to be a comic," said comedian and actor Tim Reid, who appeared on several TV shows, including "Sister, Sister." "You have to expose your soul in ways that are dangerous to you -- and not everyone survives."

Jennifer Pryor, Richard's widow and an ABC News consultant, was married to him twice, in 1981 and in 2001 as he battled multiple sclerosis. She said his "talk therapy" was on stage.

His childhood and adulthood -- from the wins to the losses -- were all fodder for his comedy sets. Offstage, she said, he struggled with living a life that "wasn't a party every day" and faced an increasingly dangerous battle with drug abuse.

Richard Pryor was born on Dec. 1, 1940, and raised in Peoria, Illinois. By his own accounts, his early years were spent living in a brothel with a mother who worked as a prostitute and a father who was a pimp. His grandmother, the matriarch of the family, made her money as the brothel's madam.

Watch the ABC News special "The Last Days of Richard Pryor" on Thursday, Jan. 16, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

His childhood was filled with violence – a point he frequently made in his stand-up routines later as an adult.

"That was a brothel where he watched white men come and knock on the door. 'Hello, is your mother home?'" Jennifer Pryor said. "It's such a double-edged sword because ... a lot of his humor came from that family too."

His mother left him when he was 5 or 6 years old because she wanted to stop prostituting, said Scott Saul, who wrote the 2015 biography "Becoming Richard Pryor."

When she filed for divorce from his father, the judge asked Richard Pryor whether he wanted to be with his mother or stay with his father and grandmother, Saul said.

He opted to stay with his grandmother.

Over 44 years, Richard Pryor got married seven times to five women -- Patricia Price, Shelley Bonus, Deborah McGuire, Jennifer and Flynn Belanie. He married two of them -- Belanie and Jennifer -- twice.

"In terms of his relationship with the women ... I think that the closer they came to him, were with him, the more ugliness they often experienced," Saul said. "Just as he had lived in fear when he was growing up. He learned from his childhood that love was tangled up in violence, and he never could quite separate those in terms of his relationships with women."

Kathy McKee, who was dating entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. at the time she met Richard Pryor, said he kept women at a distance.

"You couldn’t fill the hole, you couldn’t, there’s nothing you could do. And he wouldn’t let you, he wouldn’t even let you try. You’re not coming in here, and you’re not going to save me, and you’re not going to rescue me, forget that," McKee said. "He was not happy with his life, no matter how much money he had earned, or what kind of success he had attained."

Jennifer Pryor said that she fell "madly in love" with the comedian the first time the two met. She said that she was attracted to his vulnerability and that she felt like he was her "soul mate, love of my life."

In the 1960s, when Richard Pryor came onto the comedy scene, friends said he first modeled himself after popular black comedian Bill Cosby. He struggled internally, however, with doing standard comedic material while appearing on TV shows, and eventually embarked on his own path with his "Live & Smokin'" comedy concert film in 1971.

"Richard felt he had to pander to the white audience, and he hated himself for it," said Patricia VonHeitman, a longtime girlfriend of Pryor’s. "He would fester and fester about what he had to do to be recognized. ... Richard wasn't interested in being safe ever in his life. Never."

On stage, he talked about himself and his truths, where he'd come from and where he wanted to go, Jennifer Pryor said. He discussed who he was as a human being and what America was, in his eyes, at the time.

"Getting on stage is hard for anybody," she said. "But doing what Richard did, was really hard, I think. ... There was such pressure on him at that time to be the new black voice because you know Martin Luther King was dead. Malcolm X was dead. So, they wanted Richard to be it [and] he didn’t want the job."

She said he became increasingly embroiled in drug addiction as this pressure he felt mounted.

He released 1979's "Live in Concert" film and albums like "That ----'s Crazy." He appeared on the first season of "Saturday Night Live" and was behind the short-lived 1977 TV variety show called "The Richard Pryor Show," which aired on NBC. His groundbreaking brand of comedy was not embraced by mainstream audiences or the network.

"What makes me angry is the fact that, across the board in my mind, there's nobody I've ever met in ... the business of like comedy, who is any more brilliant than me. And I will never get the recognition for what I do," he told ABC News' Barbara Walters during an interview in 1979.

After Richard Pryor filmed the 1973 movie "The Mack," about a pimp, VonHeitman said, he tried immersing himself in that life.

"When he came back to L.A., we had no money, so he decided that he wanted me to go to The Beverly Hills Hotel and find a trick, and bring home the money. I tried, I mean I got in the car, and I drove to The Beverly Hills Hotel, and finally I decided I couldn't do it," VonHeitman said. "When I drove home, Richard was enraged that his attempt at pimping me did not work. He had been drinking Courvoisier, he already had plenty of drugs in his system, and he started beating me with the Courvoisier bottle. He fell to the floor, and started begging me, 'Mama, help me. Mama, I’m sick. Help me.' And he passed out."

Jennifer Pryor said his abusive behavior was learned from his father, who had been violent not only toward women, but also Richard.

"It was very easy for him to strike out without thinking," she said, "then he was always contrite and always sorry. ... But I understood that anger ... when he could channel it ... was when he was brilliant."

But Jennifer Pryor said the brilliant man she loved disappeared when he began freebasing cocaine.

"That's basically when all hell broke loose," she said. "The pipe had a hold of him. Couldn't let go."

On June 9, 1980, as he and his family were riding the high of the cross-over success of "Live in Concert," Richard Pryor was on coke and freebase when he burned himself over more than 50% of his body. The incident nearly killed him.

McKee, who'd dated him previously, said she'd seen him a few hours before that blaze and he was "completely out of his mind."

Jennifer Pryor, who later married Richard in 1981 and divorced him after a year, said she was there that day too, but left after she'd warned his family that he was a danger to himself.

"I think Richard was a depressed person. I think probably in this day and age, in this context, he'd be on antidepressants instead of vodka, because the party was over," Jennifer Pryor said.

Saul, the biographer, said that Richard Pryor initially made it seem as if the fire had been an accident -- and that was the public perception -- but he later admitted that the incident was a suicide attempt.

In a 1980 interview with Walters, Richard Pryor said the fire had saved his life.

"I'm grateful for the fire. ... I believe in about three months I would be dead. I was just going down, inside, you know, depression, and I just think I would have been dead or in an institution," he told Walters.

After he'd healed from his wounds, Richard Pryor returned to the big screen in movies and also did stand-up comedy at the Comedy Store, turning his brush with death into jokes. His comedy sets eventually became the live-concert film "Live on the Sunset Strip."

But by the late 1980s, however, Pryor’s movie career wasn’t getting traction and his finances were in disarray.

"The big checks were not coming in anymore. The piles of cocaine were gone," Jennifer Pryor said. “I think that for Richard, his talk therapy was on stage. … After the fire, I think it became more of a scary place for him. He couldn't find himself.”

In 1986, Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Despite his failing health, he made one of his last returns to the Comedy Store in the mid-1990s.

"When Richard wanted to do something, he did it, even when he was sick. That's who he was. Like gills on a fish, being on that stage was what mattered to Richard," Jennifer Pryor said, who remarried Richard in 2001.

She remained by his side until his death on Dec. 10, 2005, in Los Angeles. He was 65.

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