Richard Pryor, one of the most famous and influencial comedians of them all, died today of a heart attack. He was 65. Pryor suffered from MS for years now. Considering the kind of hard living and abuse he put his body through over the course of time, the news of his passing doesn't exactly come as a shock. Still, it is a sad moment because Pryor took the art of stand-up comedy and elevated it to a level of social commentary and personal vulnerability that few, if any, performers have ever reached. I think he the natural heir to Lenny Bruce, but he remains in a category of his own. In his prime, during the late 1970s, he was arguably the greatest comedian of all-time. All the black comedians who have come after him--Eddie Murphy, the Wayans brothers, Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle, are in a sense, his children. He is to stand-up what Bob Dylan was to rock and roll.
After the crossover hit "Silver Streak," and then his rousing concert film "Live in Concert," Pryor became the first black actor to be the number one box office draw ever. It was capped off by his second feature with Gene Wilder, "Stir Crazy," in 1980. But Pryor's moment on top would be fleeting, as his struggles with cocaine overwhelmed him. In a free-basing accident not long after "Stir Crazy" had been released, Pryor set fire to himself, and in some ways, his career never recovered.
During his early days, in the mid 1960s, Pryor had made a name for himself on the talk show circut, essentially doing the kind of clean act that had made Bill Cosby a star. But by the end of the sixites, Pryor, like many other African Americans at the time, became increasingly politicized. He stopped doing his Cosby routine and went back to the drawing board. Over the next several years he developed a routine that was far more personal, and far more political. Pryor stopped doing jokes in the traditional sense and began acting out scenes and characters.
"Live and Smoking" is a concert film of these transitional years, and the material is often unfunny, with Pryor and the audience not quite sure what to make of his new approach. They are still feeling each other out. Yet is a fascinating recording when you consider the heights he would soon achive with his best work: "That Nigger's Crazy,""Is it Something I Said?" and "Wanted: Live in Concert."
The film critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1982:
When Chaplin began to talk onscreen, he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his lowlife, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor, who's all of a piece--a master of lyrical obscenity. Pryor is the only great poet satirist among our comics. His lyricism seems to come out of his thin-skinned nature; he's so empathic he's all wired up. His 1979 film "Richard Pryor Live in Concert" was a cosummation of his years as an entertainer, and then some. He had a lifetime of matieral at his fingertips, and he seemed to go beyond himself. He personified objects, animals, people, the warring parts of his own body, even thougts in the heads of men and women--black, white, Oriental--and he seeemed possessed by the spirits he pulled out of himself. To those of us who thougt it was one of the greatest performances we'd ever seen or ever would see, his new one-man show "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" may be disappointing yet emotionally stirring.
Pryor was raw but what distinguished him was his vulnerability. It was this quality that helped make him a terrific actor. He was mostly in crappy movies, but he had a great turn in "Lady Sings the Blues" and later in Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar." Pryor was too unhinged to sustain a steady career in movies. He also did a great turn for a Lily Tomlin TV special in the late 70s and his short-lived NBC variety show has its moments and is now available on DVD.
I highly reccommend "Live in Concert" and the three albums I mentnioned above. (Rhino has an excellent compilation "And it's Deep Too," which features all of his classic routines--Black Ben the Blacksmith, Wino and the Junkie, as well as his incomperable storyteller, Mudbone.) I know them all by heart and think they display a kind of brilliance--both moving and threatening, compassionate and hiliarous--that is unique.
Considering all the pain that Pryor experienced in his life, I hope he is in a calmer, more peaceful place now. He was one of the true legends of our time.