Richard Pryor is widely recognized as one of the greatest comedy icons the world has had to offer, but that in no way means it was smooth sailing when it came to Pryor’s career and personal life. For decades, the comedian and actor struggled with drugs and alcohol, and those close to him have gone on to share stories about Pryor’s substance abuse problems since his passing in 2005.
Read on to learn more about Pryor’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, and what his friends and family have had to say about it.
1. Wife Jennifer Lee Moved out After Discovering Pryor Was Freebasing Cocaine
In a 2013 interview with BBC, Pryor’s wife at the time of his death, Jennifer Lee, shared that she moved out of his home once she discovered he was freebasing cocaine.
“After two weeks of watching him getting addicted to this stuff I moved out. It was clear the drug had moved in and it had become his lover and everything. I did not exist.”
Despite Pryor’s drug addiction, the pair later married, although the relationship was tumultuous.
In an interview with ABC after Pryor’s death, Lee said, “He was a real piece of work. He was a handful, and a wonderful handful, and a heartbreaker and the love of my life.” She continued, “He had a very dark side that could strike out and be very volatile at any moment. He was incredibly loving and vulnerable. When I met him, the thing that struck me most about him was his vulnerability. And I can tell you many women say this about him, that there was something so open and raw and refreshing about him.”
2. Prior Opened up About Being Sexually Abused as a Child
Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, and grew up in a brothel that was run by his grandmother. There, his mother was a prostitute, according to the New York Post.
When he was seven, according to USA Today, Pryor was sexually abused in an alleyway.
At age 14, he was kicked out of school. He was 16 when he had his first child with a girl who was also sleeping with his father.
Unbound reports that Pryor “seems to have seen more as a child than most do in their lifetime.” The outlet goes on to write, “After being raped by a teenage neighbour, sexually abused by a priest and losing his cherry to a hooker called Penny, Pryor found he had a flair for comedy.”
3. He Was Arrested for Drunk Driving in 1978
In 1978, Pryor was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to five months in jail.
That wasn’t his only stint in jail.
Pryor was also arrested after a physical confrontation with a woman who he was friends with, who would sing in local clubs. Pittsburgh Magazine writes, “Pittsburgh police quietly arrested him on Jan. 1, 1963, at the Wylie Avenue boarding house where he was staying. He was sentenced to 90 days for attacking the woman and undoubtedly had to walk across the famed ‘Bridge of Sighs’ from the Allegheny County Courthouse to the jail. He was supposed to be there for three months but played numbers games while incarcerated and won $70 — enough to pay his fine. He was released after 35 days.”
After being released, Pryor moved to New York. Within two years, his career had taken off. Still, Pryor struggled with substance abuse.
A 1978 People article by Sue Reilly reads, “He was snorting $100 of cocaine a day, had been arrested for assault and battery, sued for wife-beating, and accused of stabbing a landlord with a fork and of beating a hotel clerk.”
4. He Set Himself on Fire While Freebasing Cocaine in 1978
Not long after being arrested for drunk driving, Pryor’s famous ‘fire incident’ occurred.
It was June 9, 1980, and Pryor poured rum over himself and proceeded to light himself on fire. At the time, according to The Washington Examiner, he was freebasing cocaine.
The outlet writes, “His daughter said her father was in a drug-induced psychosis and poured rum over his body and set himself on fire.”
The comedian was given a 1-in-3 chance of living and was lucky to survive. He suffered severe burns that covered more than 50% of his body, according to People.
Last year, while being interviewed by the documentary I Am Richard Pryor, Lee stated that the incident was a suicide attempt. She told People, “He warned me…He said to me, ‘I’ve decided what to do. I have to do this otherwise I don’t know how I’m going to get out. There’s no way out of this so you need to leave so you don’t get hurt too.’ I knew he was planning something, I didn’t know what. I called the house. Somebody answered and then the next thing I know they drop the phone and I heard someone screaming, and Richard at that time running through the house on fire.”
5. He Was Diagnosed With MS in 1986
Pryor was diagnosed with MS in 1986 while filming the movie “Critical Condition in LA.”
Unbound reports him as saying of his illness, “It was as if God had all this shit left over from the other afflictions he created and decided to throw it all into one disease called MS. Kinda like a Saturday Night Special. It’s a motherfucker.”
On December 10, 2005, Richard Pryor suffered a heart attack and died. His wife at the time, Lee, told news outlets, “He did not suffer, he went quickly and at the end there was a smile on his face.”
She added, “I’m honoured now that I have an opportunity to protect and continue his legacy because he’s a very, very, very amazing man and he opened doors to so many people.”