“He was my treasure,” Jennifer Pryor said in a telephone interview with CNN. “His comedy is unparalleled. They say that you are not a comic unless you imitate Richard Pryor. … He was able to turn his pain into comedy.”
Pryor’s wife said he died on Saturday of a heart attack at 7.58am PST (1558 GMT) after her efforts to resuscitate him failed and after he was taken to a hospital in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino.
Pryor had also been suffering from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nervous system disease, for almost 20 years.
He appeared in many successful movies, but it was Pryor’s stand-up comedy act, in which nothing was off-limits, that made him a controversial star.
Racism was a major component of his routine and he even joked about a 1980 incident in which he nearly died after setting himself on fire while free-basing cocaine.
Pryor marked his 65th birthday on 1 December.
“He’s been so strong for so many years,” Jennifer Pryor told CNN. “He’s had this disease (multiple sclerosis) since 1986 … He’s had beyond nine lives. We used to joke he’s going to outlive everybody.
“He was an extraordinary man, as you know. He enjoyed life right up until the end. He did not suffer, he went quickly, at the end there was a smile on his face … he’s a very, very, very amazing man and he opened doors to so many people.”
“Bigoted rednecks came up to Richard and told him, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes,’ because he was so in touch with the truth and only spoke the truth … people respond to that”
Pryor was married seven times, including twice to Jennifer and twice to Flynn Belaine, and had seven children.
Pryor grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother in Peoria, Illinois. After a stint in the US army, he pursued a comedy career that landed him spots on television shows in the 1960s.
Pryor used hustlers, pimps and other characters he had encountered at his grandmother’s whorehouse as inspiration for his acts, the result was a routine that was both profound and profane.
Heart and spirit
“He had a courage and a heart and a spirit that was unmatchable and, of course, he was controversial,” Jennifer Pryor said. “That was wonderful Richard. He told the truth, didn’t he? … he told the truth and he was very proud.
“Bigoted rednecks came up to Richard and told him, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes,’ because he was so in touch with the truth and only spoke the truth … people respond to that.”
Pryor won Grammy Awards for his comedy albums and portrayed Billie Holiday’s piano player in the 1972 Oscar-nominated film “Lady Sings the Blues”.
His other movies included “Uptown Saturday Night”, “The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars and Motor Kings”, “Blue Collar”, “Stir Crazy”, “Superman III” and “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling”, which was based loosely on his life.
“He was an innovator, a trailblazer,” director Spike Lee told CNN. “It’s a great loss.”