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December 10, 2005
An American Original Leaves Us Laughing

Richard Pryor died today at 65, after suffering from long bouts of multiple sclerosis, heart disease, drug abuse, and what appeared to be a decades-long death wish. Pryor overcame the pain and illness of his life to change an entire entertainment form -- stand-up comedy -- from a series of jokes and witty third-party observations to a review of his life and his pain that seemed almost Freudian at times, even while making us cry with laughter.

Pryor started off trying to be the next Bill Cosby -- another American original -- but Pryor soon discovered that he could not spend his life ignoring his own viewpoint. While I would hardly claim to agree with much of what Pryor said and did in his life, he never quailed at talking about his failures and making them part of his always-hilarious act. His brutal honesty towards his own shortcomings made his pointed barbs at others around him easier to take and to get a laugh. He inspired two generations of comedians and helped pioneer stand-up into an art form.

Pryor also made a number of films, with varying success. He played serious roles such as the piano player in "Lady Sings The Blues", but mostly stuck with comedies. The one he should have had but wound up losing was Sheriff Black Bart in "Blazing Saddles", a role that the late Cleavon Little made into a classic. Pryor wrote the script along with Mel Brooks, but apparently the studio felt that Pryor brought too much controversy to the screen for the movie. Instead, Pryor made classic comedies with Gene Wilder such as "Silver Streak" and with Eddie Murphy and Redd Foxx in "Harlem Nights". He even appeared with Jackie Gleason in the extremely disappointing "The Toy", a shame given the talent the two comedic titans shared between them.

Later, as Pryor left the pain and the abuse behind him, life dealt him one last blow in the form of multiple sclerosis. Typically, he made it part of his act, refusing to allow the disease to keep him off the stage. Eventually, however, Pryor had to retire from the work he loved and transformed, and we were the poorer for it. Today, the world is poorer for his leaving it -- but we will have the work he left behind.

Rest in peace, Mr. Pryor, and thank you.

UPDATE: I should have known that Roger Simon would have had an anecdote or two to add.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 10, 2005 9:32 PM

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