Richard Pryor: Death? #@%! that

He's been married seven times, spent $1m freebasing cocaine and once set himself on fire. Now crippled by MS, Richard Pryor is sober. But as Chris Sullivan discovers, he hasn't cleaned up his act
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The Independent Online

"Rumours of my death spread as far as New York newspapers," says Richard Pryor. "It's a bitch to be watching the nightly news and see the mother fuckers talking 'bout you in the past tense."

"Rumours of my death spread as far as New York newspapers," says Richard Pryor. "It's a bitch to be watching the nightly news and see the mother fuckers talking 'bout you in the past tense."

But it's not surprising that many people readily believed that Pryor had indeed finally managed to kill himself. For years, he was one of the fastest-living stars in Hollywood. He married seven times, freebased cocaine and once set himself on fire after a drug binge . "It's amazing I didn't OD on heroin, get stuffed with coke, or die from Aids," says Pryor. "I think it's remarkable that I'm still here." He's also survived a quadruple bypass and is now battling multiple sclerosis

"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," jokes Pryor. "Kinda like a Saturday Night Surprise. It's a motherfucker." He was first diagnosed with the disease in 1986 while shooting the film, Critical Condition in LA. Feeling unusually exhausted, Pryor was resting between takes when the director, Michael Apted, called for him to take his place. "My brain told my legs to get up," recounts Pryor, "but the job order got lost around my waist. Nothing moved. My legs were on vacation."

While the rest of the world thought Pryor had become a victim of his freebasing cocaine habit, he kept his ailment under raps. It wasn't until he teamed up with old cohort Gene Wilder to film Another You in 1991 that he realised it was time to tell the world. "We were doing a scene in which I was supposed to have a run in with a real live bear," remembers Pryor. "He was a trained bear, but he was a big motherfucker with claws and teeth. He scared the shit out of me, but when the director shouted: 'Run Rich! Run!' I couldn't move. That was the beginning of me not being able to do shit anymore."

One thing he is unable to do now is to give interviews either in person or on the phone, so he's agreed to conduct our interview via email, with his seventh wife Jennifer typing for him. "It's as if God was thinking, 'Shit why did I have to go give this Pryor fellow more funny muscles than me! Think I'll slow him down a tad'." But it's failed. Pryor, now 64, is badly scarred, suffering spasms and paralysis, but hasn't lost his edge.

"When I discovered I had MS, I didn't think 'why me?' Why bother? It's the hand that was dealt me... and I've had a great life. Fuck yeah!" And despite the obvious setbacks he's right.

Back in 1979, Richard Pryor: Live In Concert launched him as the voice of black America and became the most watched video of the Eighties. Since then he has been lauded and applauded by every comedian on earth. "He's the greatest of all time," says Chris Rock. He's starred in some 20 movies and was paid $4 million for Superman III, becoming the highest paid black actor in the world at that time.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was born on December 1, 1940, in Peoria, Illinois, the son of an unmarried prostitute and a former Golden Gloves boxing champion- turned pimp. "Once I saw my mother in bed with a man. A white dude. She didn't seem to mind. But it fucked me up," says Pryor. "Tricks used to come through our neighbourhood. That's where I first met white people. They said, 'Hello, boy. Is your mother home? I'd like a blow job'."

Pryor's mother abandoned him aged ten leaving him in the hands of his father's mother, Marie, a madam who ruled her brothel with belt, buckle and brimstone. After being sexually abused by a local man called Hoss, losing his virginity to a prostitute called Penny, Pryor found himself resorting to comedy. "I first noticed I could make people laugh when I slipped in dog shit and made my grandmother laugh. Then I spent all day making up stuff. Some kids sang on the street corner. I talked."

After his expulsion from school, aged 14, for hitting a teacher, he drifted. He was at first a cleaner in a strip club, a shoeshine boy, a meat packer and finally ended up in the army where he was dishonourably discharged for stabbing a white soldier. Soon after, he turned up back in Illinois at a club claiming to be a singer and a pianist, and used the only four chords he knew, augmented by whatever lyrics came into his head. He wowed audiences and in 1963 moved to New York, with just $10 in his pocket.

"I became a regular act at the Bitter End and the Living Room and introduced myself to Woody Allen at the Cafe Go Go," recalls Pryor. "Woody said: 'Stick around, watch me and you'll learn something.' But oddly I learned more from a hooker in Baltimore." That particular lady took Pryor to her house and played him an album by Lenny Bruce. "That destroyed me," says Pryor. "I went fucking crazy." Crazy or not, it didn't stop Pryor emulating Bill Cosby - the most famous black comedian on the planet - until he became known as just another pale imitator: "I went for the money," he explains. "Even though there was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming in my brain to get out."

It wasn't until after a breakdown in 1967 when Pryor, now seriously addicted to cocaine, began to perform the provocative material he become famous for. "The fog rolled in," Pryor says. "I finally asked the sold-out crowd: 'What the fuck am I doing here?' Then I walked off stage. "I shed my phoney image and started building my self- respect. I read a copy of Malcolm X's collected speeches and listened to Marvin Gayes What's Going On ? And I searched for the truth."

Pryor uprooted and moved to Berkeley - the centre of black radicalism - where he befriended Black Panthers Angela Davis and Huey Newton, while on stage his act began to border on lunacy.

"Each outing was like jazz. I was searching for the perfect note. Then one day I said 'Hello, I'm Richard Pryor, I'm a nigger.' I wanted to take the sting out of it. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. It was the truth and it made me feel free to say it."

He honed his act to reflect his life. He spoke about problems that the black man could understand - "Hey, let's organise and help them white motherfuckers get to the moon, so they leave us alone!"

With his first concert film, the seminal Live and Smokin' in 1971 Pryor single-handedly set the tone for black comedy. He was offered a role in Lady Sings The Blues and then wrote Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks.

After the release of the million selling album, That Nigger's Crazy, Pryor was rolling - culminating in his legendary Saturday Night Live performance with Belushi and Chevy Chase in 1975. By the time he released the Paul Schrader's Blue Collar in 1978 he had notched up some 18 film appearances. "But you know what?" Pryor says. "One if the scariest things in life is to get what you wish for."

Over the next few years Pryor's cocaine abuse escalated. When I ask about his addiction, I get an animated email back: "Uh! I can't remember how much I did. But sheeeeeeet ! It was a lot. A lot."

Pryor estimates that he spent the equivalent of $1m a year. "It started out innocently enough. Every now and then," bemoans Pryor casually. "Then I fell in love with the pipe. It controlled everything I did. It would say: 'Don't answer the phone Rich - we got smokin' to do.'"

In 1978 Pryor was arrested again after he had shot his third wife's car in an attempt to prevent her well-advised departure. "I thought it was fair myself," Pryor says. " She was going to leave me so I shot the car. I shot the tyre and the motor. But the motor fell out. It said 'Fuck it!' "

Looking back, Pryor explains his freebasing habit had fuelled his paranoia to unparalleled heights. "I left all my guns right out in the open so when the boogey man bust in my house... he could see 'em. I thought everyone was stealing from me. I continued to smoke until I ran out of coke. I was suffering serious dementia. I was miserable. Alone. Frightened. Then I thought. 'Okay, I'll set myself on fire." Dousing himself in cognac Pryor set himself alight dived through the bedroom window and ran down the street. "You know what I noticed. When you run down the street on fire people get out of your way."

With third-degree burns covering 50 per cent of his body, Pryor's rehabilitation was long and painful but when he was finally discharged from hospital, he was on top of the world having kicked his cocaine addiction.

His next movie Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder took $100 million at the box office, he presented an Oscar at the 1981 Awards and Bustin' Loose - became the most watched film in the States. Eeverything was looking good.

"Then one day I returned from Hawaii," sighs Pryor. "And even though the house had been cleaned of all the drugs and paraphernalia eight months earlier, I could sniff it like a bloodhound. I looked in my super, super secret stash and there it was: one perfect little rock. I found my glass pipe and climbed on board the old self-destruct roller coaster without anybody knowing."

It wasn't until 1983, that, out of the blue, he had his road to Damascus moment and saw the light. "I took my kids to Hawaii for Christmas," he remembers, "And Rain - my daughter - was standing in the doorway. 'Daddy' she said 'Come with us.' I really wanted the kids to go out so I could smoke my shit. Then the strangest thing happened: left alone, I had a moment of clarity. I asked myself what was I doing. I saw the pitifulness of my situation. So I tossed all the shit into the garbage for real.

"No hiding the pipe in one drawer, a rock in another. I chucked it. I shuffled to the sand. My kids looking at me as if I was an alien. But then it was great. Rain taught me how to float. The water slapped the shore and I was in the middle of it. And I was grateful to be there."

A few years later in the summer of 1986 he was diagnosed with MS. "I found that my life, instead of ending because of MS, has only changed. Perhaps it was God's way of telling me to chill, look at the trees, sniff the flowers rather than the coke and see what it's like to be a human being."

Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor (£16.99, Revolver Books) and Richard Pryor Live and Smokin' (£15.99, Revolver Entertainment) are out on 2 May. Pryor Convictions can be ordered at the special price of £14.99 including p&p by calling 08700 798 897, or order online at The DVD Live & Smokin' is also available at £15.99 including p&p.