Groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor passed away on December 10, 2005 when he was 65 years old. He was a stand-up comedian, actor and writer known for his storytelling style and personal observations. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time.
Pryor began his career as a professional comic in 1963. After moving to New York City, he spent years performing in clubs alongside Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. In just a few years, he began appearing on TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He went on to being a successful comic in Las Vegas.
During his active years, Pryor won one Emmy Award, in 1973, and five Grammy Awards, in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1982. He also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award. Pryor was the first-ever honoree of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which was presented to him in 1988. In 2017, Rolling Stone ranked Pryor as first on their list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. He Died of a Heart Attack
Pryor passed away on Saturday, December 10, 2005, shortly before 8 a.m. He was taken to Encino Hospital from his home in the San Fernando Valley. Attempts to resuscitate him failed.
His widow, Jennifer, was quoted as saying “At the end, there was a smile on his face.” She spread his ashes in Hana, Hawaii. The two were married in Hawaii, so the state had sentimental value for them.
Forensic pathologist Michael Hunter later said the heart attack was most likely caused by coronary artery disease that was at least partially brought about by years of tobacco smoking.
2. Pryor Was Previously Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that attacks the central nervous system. Pryor was diagnosed with the disease in 1986 when he was still only experiencing slight symptoms. Later, he would experience drifting eyes, vertigo, tremors, muscle weakness, prickling sensation in his skin, an inability to detect vibrations and chronic fatigue.
“I never thought life would get boiled down to this,” Pryor told the New York Times in 1993. “But you know, the worst part of being sick, the worst part of being in the hospital is you can’t go fishing. I love to go fishing, but when you’re sick, you can’t do none of that.”
Pryor managed to laugh throughout the interview, delivering “biting lines.” He was in the grips of MS, but he was still the same comedian he’d always been. Prior to his death, his daughter Rain would often speak for him since he could hardly talk because of the disease.
3. Other Comedians Recalled His Influence
After Pryor passed away, many comedians spoke out about how influential he was in their lives and careers. Director Spike Lee called Pryor an innovator and trailblazer, saying that the loss of Pryor was a great loss.
Lenny Henry, a fellow comedian, said Pryor was one of the “greatest comedians who ever drew breath” and said he was on par with Charlie Chaplin. Damon Wayans, actor in the Scary Movie films also spoke up.
“There are many different kinds of comedians – the observational humorist, the impressionist, the character creator, the physical comedian, the self-deprecator, and the dirty-joke teller. What made Richard Pryor so brilliant is he was able to incorporate all these styles at once,” the actor said after Pryor passed away.
4. He Struggled With Addiction
Pryor struggled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout his life. His widow Jennifer, told ABC News that he had a hard time living a life that wasn’t a party every day, and he was facing an increasingly dangerous battle with drug abuse. She said the man she fell in love with disappeared when he began “freebasing cocaine.” They divorced in 1982 due to his addiction.
Pryor’s early life was spent living in a brothel with his mother, who worked as a prostitute, and his father, who was a pimp. His grandmother made her money as the brothel’s madam. He used this childhood as fodder for his stand-up routines as an adult, leaning on his experiences to tell jokes.
Patricia VonHeitman, a long-time girlfriend of Pryor’s said that after he filmed the movie “The Mack” about a pimp, he tried immersing himself in that lifestyle.
“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 told ABC News. “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.”
Jennifer remarried Richard in 2001 and stayed by his side until he died in 2005.
5. Pryor Left Behind a Wife and Children
Pryor was married seven times to five women. His fourth wife, Jennifer, was also his wife at the time of death. He was also married, at different times, to Patricia Price, Shelley Bonus, Deboragh McGuire, and Flynn Belaine. He was married to Flynn and Jennifer two times each.
Pryor had seven children with six different women, the first when he was just 16 years old. Renee was born in 1957; Richard Pryor Junior was born in 1962; Elizabeth Ann was born in 1967; Rain Pryor was born in 1969; Steven was born in 1984; Franklin was born in 1987; and Kelsey was born in 1987.
Pryor’s family and friends held a private funeral service on December 17, 2005 to celebrate Pryor’s life, contributions, and even his flaws. He did not want a funeral led by a minister.