The comic legend talks candidly about death, living with MS, and taking to the stage again

The thin, frail man sits where he spends most of his time these days, propped up in bed, as smoke from his cigarette rises in the darkened room and his voice, fragile as an eggshell, scratches against the silence. It is a familiar voice, profane, urgent, its cadences as recognizable as the profile of Richard Pryor’s head that bobs forward briefly into light and drops back onto the pillows. A loaded Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum rests on the nightstand next to the bed. His fingers are barely strong enough to pull the trigger anymore, but Pryor, a longtime gun freak and part-time paranoid, likes to keep the pistol within reach.

It’s like this, he says, in his weak, often faltering voice: ”Since the earthquakes last year didn’t kill me, the drugs didn’t kill me, the fire didn’t kill me (although it hurt like a bitch), and my ex-wives (God bless them all) didn’t kill me, there is no way I’m going to let the MS kill me. But, yes, I think about dying. I just don’t want to die alone, that’s all. That’s not too much to ask for, is it? It would be nice to have someone care about me, for who I am, not about my wallet.”

These are not the best of times for Pryor or his wallet. Yes, he has survived the years of cocaine, the near-fatal burns from a 1980 suicide attempt, and the fallout from six broken marriages. But the onset of multiple sclerosis in 1986, and quadruple bypass surgery in 1991, have left him debilitated, and — because he’s too sick to make films — close to broke. Needing money, Pryor, 52, returned to the concert stage last October after a six-year absence, playing 3,000-seat halls at $55,000 a night. The effort, however, exhausted him. Now he’s trying less demanding venues at $30,000 a night, and hoping to start April 27 in Anchorage.

Although it’s leased, Pryor’s ranch-style, four-bedroom home in Beverly Hills still gives the impression of wealth. The living room is decorated with art by Miles Davis, an album cover signed by Charlie Parker, boxing gloves autographed by Evander Holyfield, and photos of Pryor with Quincy Jones, David Letterman, Al Pacino, and just about anyone else who ever made an impact on entertainment. It’s an impressive gallery, sketching the history of a man whose lewd and perceptive riffs, delivered in concert, albums, and films, revolutionized comedy.

Double doors at the end of a long hallway lead to the massive master bedroom. There are more photos here — of Pryor with his friends and children, Rich Jr., 31, Elizabeth, 26, Rain, 23, Steven, 8, Franklin, 6, Kelsey, 5, and his 4-month-old grandson, Randis. (He doesn’t acknowledge Renee, 35, as his daughter, though she has been photographed with him and referred to as his daughter in the past.) A 50-inch TV, part of his payment for his last movie, 1991’s Another You, dominates one end of the room.

Talking is difficult for Pryor. His voice is often reduced to a whisper and broken by fatigue. But he wants to talk. After years of virtual silence about his health, the time has come, he says, ”to tell the truth, to open the soul.” In this interview, conducted slowly over a three-week period, Pryor talks about his sickness, the prospect of death, and his great, tenacious hope — with no loss of his characteristically wicked humor.

I was sitting in my bed one morning last September, enjoying my breakfast, and the phone rang. ”Hello, Rich? I just heard you were dead.” I said, ”No, no I don’t think so.” After a few more calls from friends who were checking to see if I was alive, I thought, ”Damn, ain’t that a bitch, they have me dead already.” Imagine people calling you to find out if you’re dead. I’ve led a real crazy life at times, and I’ve had many strange things happen to me, but that was one of the strangest.

Someone called all the newspapers in New York and told them I’d died. I’ve been told by almost everyone it was an ex-wife — I’ve had a few so it’s hard to pinpoint which one — but who knows for sure? I just hope they got off on whatever they thought they were doing. What if I died a few days later? I can see the headlines: ”Pryor’s denial that he’s dead is a lie.”

And the other rumors: He can’t work. He’s gone nuts. AIDS! It’s crazy. A few heart attacks can take their toll on ya, too, but I’ve got multiple sclerosis — period. It’s the stuff God hits your ass with when he doesn’t want to kill ya — just slow ya down.

No, I’m not dying, and I sure the f— ain’t dead. I’m slower and some days are better than others, but I’m a fighter. I’ll kick this motherf—er’s ass if I have to, ‘cuz I’m not giving up.

Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in August 1986. MS is a degenerative disease that strikes the protective sheath surrounding nerves, affecting motor ability and balance, among other things. The first sign that he was sick came on location in Los Angeles about three months earlier, while he was filming the ironically titled Critical Condition with director Michael Apted.

MS is a very strange disease. I didn’t know anything was wrong at first, the s— just crept up on me. Then one very strange day Apted said, ”Richard, come here.” And I did. Well, I thought I did. My brain told my body, ”Go see what the fella wants.” But my body said, ”I’m gonna f— with you a bit, Rich.” Apted thought I was joking around. He said, ”Come on, Richard, stop goofing around.” I told him, ”Well, I’m not! I’m f—in’ trying real f—in’ hard to get there!”

They sent me to this wonderful place called the Mayo Clinic for a checkup. They did all these tests on me. This doctor bent me over and snaked this massive thing up my ass. I turned around and I saw all these f—in’ doctors in the doorway watching. I guess when they went home that night and their wives asked them if anything exciting happened at the office, they could’ve said they looked up Richard Pryor’s ass.

After a week, I was told I had MS, not an extreme case, not enough to kill me, but just enough so that I can’t masturbate. I must admit I was depressed, it was the lowest point of my life. But I struggled with hope because I was told the s— can come and go.

The MS really started going downhill in 1990. In March I had a minor heart attack while I was vacationing in Australia. It scared me, but it was nothing compared to what someone had in store for me down the road. It was in the fall of 1990 — I was getting ready to shoot Another You with Gene (Wilder), and I suddenly realized I couldn’t get out of bed. Usually I have no problem getting out of bed, but that day something wasn’t working right, and I freaked out. I called the doctors, I called everyone looking for answers, and all I was told was that sometimes when MS gets worse this is what could happen. I thought, ”Listen, motherf—er, what do you mean could? What if I have a real bad day? Do I die?” But I wasn’t giving in to this s—.

I was given two weeks to walk again, so I hooked up with a trainer, and he busted my ass and had me walking. I’ll never forget that, it was grueling. Other than those f—in’ medicinal baths they gave after the fire, the most painful experience I’ve had, this walking thing was tough. We take so much for granted, but man, lose the movement of your legs and you begin to take a closer look at life.