As tragic as Richard Pryor's life story may appear at a glance, his struggles and misfortune helped create and fuel the comedy in his act. Not until Pryor played himself on stage did his rise to the top truly begin. Without the pain and heartbreak he experienced, he may 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 experiences of Black Americans, he was forging a revolutionary path in comedy. 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, and Pryor is considered one of comedy's greatest stand-ups for turning the sad facts of his life into material for his act.
On June 9, 1980, Richard Pryor was at home with some friends when his entire body caught on fire. He jumped out of the window and ran down the street while his clothes melted and skin blistered. He refused help until several policemen finally got him into an ambulance.
For a while, no one thought Pryor survived, leading some publications to write obituaries for him. 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 years, many believed the fire to be an accident, started when Pryor was freebasing. 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." Not until a 1986 interview with Barbara Walters did Pryor finally admit he had doused himself in rum and lit himself on fire in an attempt to end his own life.
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, who played the role of Jim, remembered Pryor missing a writing work day after finding himself in Cleveland with no memory of how he got there.
Wilder and Pryor reunited 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, which frequently upset director Sidney Poitier, and on occasion, Pryor wouldn'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 alone. A local motorcycle gang supplied him with his illicit substances, which he in turn shared with some of the inmates of the priosn in which they were filming.
Pryor also gave a memorable interview as an attempted promotion for the film, but as he was under the influence, he went off on frequent tangents, claimed the movie is terrible, and asked the interviewer if he could "get fresh with him."
Although his quick wit helped Pryor survive the rough circumstances of his childhood, it didn't help him in school. He was expelled from 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 for a second time 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, occasionally even resorting to thievery. In addition to continued rejection at the hands of his educators, Pryor suffered further emotional abuse after being sexually abused by a teenaged neighbor and later by a priest.
While in the Army, Pryor stabbed a white officer for laughing during an Imitation of Life screening. When he became involved in drugs later in life, Pryor's erratic behavior worsened. He was accused of assaulting a clerk at a hotel and using a fork to stab a landlord. Pryor's drug use eventually became so bad that he was spending upwards of $100 per day on crack.
In 1978, he again found himself in court for becoming attacking some house guests. Pryor had asked them to leave, followed them, rammed their car with his Mercedes, and riddled their vehicle with bullets after they fled.
Although his nearly fatal experience with fire momentarily quelled his habit, 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."