On this day in comedy on June 9, 1980, Comedian, Writer, Actor, Richard Pryor set himself on fire.
In an incident fraught in mystery and conflicting versions, the end result was that one of the greatest comedians of all time was in critical condition with second and third-degree burns over 50% of his body. It was the culmination of days of uninterrupted freebase cocaine use during a break while filming Bustin’ Loose. In the pre-crack era of hitting the pipe, Pryor had been ingesting virtually pure coke into his system and at one point made an almost fatal decision. He poured 151 proof rum all over his body and lit himself on fire. The immediate result was Richard Pryor running down Parthenia Street from his Los Angeles residence in plain sight, being rescued by police and taken to the hospital. The aftermath was a circus.
While Pryor laid prone in hospital wear fighting for his life the spin doctors went to work. His friend and business partner at the time, Jim Brown, insisted it was an accident. His daughter, Rain, claimed it was drug-induced psychosis. Of course, there were other theories – there was an explosion, a faulty lighter, a mistake. Then came the truth from the horse’s own mouth. Pryor had tried to commit suicide.
Following 6 weeks of recovery at the Herpolscheimer Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital, Pryor went back to work and made the incident the gift that kept on giving. Two years later he joked about it in his concert special, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. That was supposed to have been his final performance. Instead, the seemingly recovered artist shot Richard Pryor: Here & Now one year later. Three years after that he released his directorial debut, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling and centered the film on the 1980 freebasing episode and his bio.
Almost ending his life did not slow Pryor down that much. After the attempt, he made over a dozen more films and released several new records. However, multiple sclerosis did put a crimp in his style. Once he was diagnosed with the crippling disease the downward slide was steady. He still appeared on stage, but in a wheelchair usually pushed by longtime friend and writer, Paul Mooney. Pryor’s speech was impaired, and some days were better than others as far as hearing him talk. The decline stopped on December 10, 2005 when Richard Pryor passed away at the age of 65 years old.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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