Richard Pryor had made a career of turning pain into comedy. Since the late ’60s, his searing, profane stand-up act had mined humor from the black ghetto-familiar turf to Pryor, who was raised in a brothel and dropped out of high school. Few comedians before him had drawn from street life with such familiarity and candor, though many (Eddie Murphy and the Wayans brothers among them) would follow. His appeal was phenomenal — he radiated laughter — and soon he was cracking up audiences in such hit movies as Silver Streak (1976) and Car Wash (1976) and on 23 albums, including That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) and Insane (1980).
But some of the demons at the core of Pryor’s comic brilliance nearly did him in on June 9, 1980, when, at home in suburban L.A., he suffered third-degree burns over roughly half his body. Rumors raged that Pryor, an open and unrepentant drug and alcohol user, had been burned in a cocaine-freebasing mishap. Once out of the hospital, though, he blamed an exploding rum bottle that he and a “buddy” had accidentally set off with a match. Even his own manager doubted this excuse, and Pryor himself was soon coyly perpetuating the freebasing story in the 1982 concert film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip: “All the people you ever heard of freebasing, have you ever heard of anybody blowing up? Why me?”
But the “accident,” he finally admitted to Barbara Walters in 1986, had really been a grisly suicide attempt — a self-immolation. “I was crazy,” he said, and his drug addiction was so strong he “couldn’t stop for five minutes.” The admission lent a morbid chill to Pryor’s film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986): In it, Pryor’s Jo Jo, after freebasing, douses himself with rum and lights himself on fire.
Later that year, Pryor, then 45, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a nervous-system disease whose symptoms some thought were apparent in his latest film, 1991’s badly received Another You. His 1992 return to stand-up, motivated in part by financial woes (divorced six times, he has seven children), got mixed reviews. But whatever his professional future, Pryor’s legacy is set in stone: His star was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993; Pantheon Books plans to publish his autobiography next year. And his unbridled, uncensored voice still calls out in our memory — along with the shocking event that nearly silenced it.
June 9, 1980
There was no mistaking Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity atop the best-seller chart; Lipps Inc. took listeners to “Funkytown”; The Empire Strikes Back struck big-screen gold; and 60 Minutes was TV’s top hour.