As tragic as Richard Pryor's life story may seem, it also helped create the comedy in his act. He escaped childhood hardships by watching movies and loved to laugh at Bill Cosby, the comedian he would model himself after. But it wasn't until he played himself on stage that Pryor's rise to the top began. Without the pain and heartbreak he experienced to fuel his honest observations about life, he might not have gotten there.
Richard Pryor began his career in the 1960s, a time of change for civil rights as well as comedy, which was previously all about jokes. When Pryor got on stage and shared his observations, especially about the black experience, he did something no one else was doing. His use of profanity was controversial, but not enough to stop his career from rising throughout the '70s. Several Richard Pryor movies, including Blazing Saddles and Stir Crazy, are considered comedy classics. Pryor is considered one of the greatest stand up comedians for turning the sad facts about his life into material for his act. Even Bill Cosby once said, "For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it."
He Set Himself On Fire In 1980 As A Suicide Attempt
On June 9, 1980, Richard Pryor was at home with a few friends when his entire body caught on fire. He jumped out the window and ran down the street while his clothes melted and skin blistered. He wouldn't let anyone help him until several policemen finally got him into an ambulance. For a while, no one though Pryor survived and obituaries were written. Covered in third degree burns, he was bathed in antiseptics several times a day and spent hours in a hyperbaric chamber to speed healing.
For many years, it was believed the fire was an accident, started when Pryor was freebasing cocaine. He even joked about it in his act saying, "One thing I learned was that you can run really fast when you're on fire." It wasn't until a 1986 interview with Barbara Walters that the truth finally came out and Pryor admitted he had doused himself in rum and lit himself on fire in a suicide attempt.
Pryor Shared Drugs With Inmates During A Film Shoot
As a co-writer of Blazing Saddles, Pryor was also supposed to star in the lead role. The studio refused to give him the part though, claiming his behavior was too unpredictable. Gene Wilder remembered Pryor missing a writing work day after finding himself in Cleveland with no memory of how he got there, so the studio was probably right to pass. Wilder and Pryor got together again for 1976's Silver Streak, but by the time they teamed up once more for 1980's Stir Crazy, Pryor's drug use was out of control. He was often late to the set, upsetting director Sidney Poitier, and sometimes he didn't show up at all.
Pryor had decided not to stay in the hotel with the other crew members, isolating himself in order to freebase cocaine alone. A local motorcycle gang supplied him with his drugs, which he in turn shared with some of the prisoners of the jail in which they were filming. Pryor also gave a memorable interview as an attempted promotion for the film, but he was so high that he continually went off on tangents, said the movie is terrible, and asked the interviewer if he could get fresh with him.
He Was Kicked Out Of Catholic School And Was Violated By A Priest
Although his quick wit helped Pryor survive the rough situation in which he grew up, it didn't help him in school. He was kicked out of a Catholic school when he was nine, after the staff learned of his family's trade. Sent to another school, he hit his science teacher in the face and was expelled at the age of 15. Never receiving more than an eighth grade education, Pryor was forced to take low paying jobs in factories or driving trucks. Sometimes he resorted the thievery. In addition to being rejected from education, Pryor suffered more emotional abuse after being sexually abused by a neighbor and later by a priest.
He Was A Violent Cocaine Addict
While in the Army, Pryor proved he may have picked up a few traits from his family after stabbing a white officer for laughing during an Imitation of Life screening. When he got into drugs later in his life, Pryor's erratic behavior when he was angered became even worse. He was accused of beating up a clerk at a hotel and using a fork to stab a landlord. Pryor's drug use eventually became so bad that he was living on a $100 a day cocaine habit.
In 1978, he again found himself in court for becoming angry at some house guests. Pryor asked them to leave, proceeded to follow them, rammed their car with his Mercedes, and riddled their vehicle with bullets after they fled. Although his near-death experience with fire cleaned him up for a bit, he later found himself re-addicted and had to once again kick the habit, claiming, "...Drugs may start out fun, but they never end in fun. The horror they brought me every night and the guilt they brought me every day is what drugs are about."