When the news came that Richard Pryor had passed away, I was quiet for a moment and then, because I knew he would have wanted it that way, I thought of one of his funnier bits of comedy and laughed. Jamie Masada, owner of Los Angeles’s “Laugh Factory” confirmed that in a live interview on the evening of Richard’s death, saying that “Richard would want no sadness, only laughter.”
With so much focus on his incredibly successful comedy career, not nearly enough attention is being paid to his acting as well as the fact that he lived a very full life… a life of excess and addictions. Married seven different times to five different women (he married both Jennifer Lee and Flynn Belaine twice), he also fathered seven children, including actress Rain Pryor. He shared a Writer’s Guild award for co-authoring the script for Blazing Saddles, although his co-authorship may well have been nothing more than a consolation prize for the fact that he wasn’t able to take the role that Mel Brooks wanted to give him (it ultimately went to Cleavon Little) because in those days Pryor was just too controversial. However, he earned his Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series in 1996 for his work on Chicago Hope all on his own, and to those who saw his film work, his ability to do drama came as no surprise.
In Lady Sings the Blues and Some Kind of Hero he demonstrated that he was not limited to comedy. Even in comedies like Brewster’s Millions, there were dramatic and poignant moments that he handled with great grace. He did four films with Gene Wilder, all of which were very funny, although not all of them were box office smashes, and even Richard Pryor couldn’t save the awful script inSuperman III.
Richard Pryor’s film career spanned 30 years, beginning with 1967’s The Busy Body and ending with 1997’s Lost Highway and included such gems as Car Wash,California Suite and Uptown Saturday Night. Yes, he was an incredible comedian, worthy of the #1 ranking in Comedy Central’s 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Standup Comedians of All Time. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he was also a very talented actor who found time to generate laughter on the big screen as well as from the comedy stage.