Monday, December 10, 2007

The Two-Year Anniv. of Richard Pryor's Death

Saturday December 1st would have been Richard Pryor's 67th birthday (thanks to Pjazzy for reminding me). Due to time constraints, I wasn't able to write a post at that time. After doing some research, I found that Richard's death occurred on December 10th, 2005 (9 days after his 65th birthday). Because I missed his birthday, I still wanted to take the time to write about the man that many (including me) call the greatest stand up comedian of all-time.

To me, the highlight of Richard Pryor's career was the 1979 concert film "Richard Pryor: Live In Concert". I saw it for the first time back when we first got cable (circa 1980) and it was a revelation. It was the first time that I ever heard a comedian tell jokes that were relevant to me. When Richard talked about being told to go get a switch from a tree so that his grandma could beat his ass with it and the long walk to the tree that ensued, I know I wasn't the only one who said, "Damn, that's me!" I had also never seen a comedian turn something that isn't normally funny (heart attacks) into comic gold. As I type this post, I am watching "Richard Pryor: Live In Concert" and it still holds up... even references to politican/civil rights activist Andrew Young and former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. It's ironic that a man who could be totally out of control in his personal life was just the opposite when he was onstage.

When people talk about Richard Pryor's film career, they often focus solely on some of the poor choices he made in the 1980s ("Superman III", "The Toy", "Moving", etc.). It's not that these movies were all bad, they just didn't make good use of Richard's comic abilities. Sure, he made his share of duds (most movie stars have), but he also did some quality work on the big screen as well. If you doubt me, check out films such as "Which Way Is Up", "Lady Sings the Blues", "Blue Collar", and "Greased Lightning" (the latter three movies are proof that Richard could be serious as well). Although it got dogged by critics and moviegoers, I still think that "Harlem Nights" was a funny ass movie.

As many of you know, Richard Pryor was stricken with multiple sclerosis in 1986. Although we didn't know it at the time, in retrospect you can tell that something wasn't quite right when you watch his latter-day films like "Harlem Nights", "See No Evil, Hear No Evil", and "Another You". Even though MS ravaged Richard's body (eventually depriving him of his ability to speak), he still managed to work on occasion. One of his final appearances was a 1995 guest shot (with his daughter Rain) on the CBS medical drama "Chicago Hope". The performance earned Richard an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series.

I remember where I was when I heard that Richard Pryor had died of a heart attack at the age of 65. I was doing my Saturday afternoon radio show when my sister called the station to break the news to me. Because he had been ill for so long, it wasn't a shock to me. However, it still affected me deeply.

Below is a clip from his 1982 concert film "Richard Pryor: Live On the Sunset Strip". Here he talks about the time he spent filming "Stir Crazy" at the Arizona State Penitentiary.


The Mistress of the Dark said...

65 is much to young to go to your maker. It's such a shame. He was a funny funny man.

pjazzypar said...

Great tribute to a great comedian. He was hilarious, but painfully truthful at times. He lived a tortured life as it seems that the most talented among us often do. His life was short, but he packed a lot of living into the time he was here.

Malcolm: said...

Mistress of the D: One of the sad things about Richard's illness is that we watched him steadily decline over time. It was sometimes hard to reconcile that this was the same man who was so vibrant and full of life.

Pjazzy: Thank you! I am glad that you brought that up about talented people living tortured lives. I know that most comedians do. As funny as they are, we probably wouldn't want to spend time with them on a regular basis because they are so fucked up.

X. Dell said...

I particularly enjoyed Harlem Nights, in particular Pryor in a patriarchal role.

Prior's true strength was storytelling. He was arguably one of the most profound (if not the most profound) person doing standup.

I once had a taped performance that he made sometime in 1969, before his wild personna caught on, and some of his commentary on commercial culture, high culture, religion and pseudo-intellectualism was still pretty good.

Malcolm: said...

X. Dell: The fact that he won the first recipient of the Mark Twain prize for humor is a testament to Richard's skill at storytelling. Good call on your part for pointing that out. I have his boxed set of comedy material (And It's Deep Too). The CDs that I listen to most are from the late seventies and early eighties. I need to give some of his earlier stuff another listen.

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