Richard Pryor's blunt, blue and brilliant comedic confrontations confidently tackled what many stand-up comics before him deemed too shocking to broach.
The comedian's body of work, a political movement in itself, was steeped in race, class and social commentary, and encompassed the stage, screen, records and television. He won five Grammys and an Emmy.
Pryor had a history both bizarre and grim: self-inflicted burns (1980), a heart attack (1990) and marathon drug and alcohol use (that he finally kicked in the 1990s). Yet he somehow — often miraculously, it seemed — continued on, even after being diagnosed in 1986 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that robbed him of his trademark physical presence.
At one point the highest-paid black performer in the entertainment industry, the lauded but misfortune-dogged comedian inadvertently became a de facto role model: a lone wolf figure to whom many an up-and-coming comic, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Robin Williams and Richard Belzer, have paid homage. Pryor kicked stand-up humor into a brand new realm.
Pryor worked as an actor and writer as well as a stand-up comic throughout the 1970s and into the '80s. He won Grammys for his groundbreaking, irreverent concert albums "Bicentennial Nigger" and "That Nigger's Crazy." And in 1974, he received a writing Emmy for a Lily Tomlin television special.
Pryor starred in major feature films — from "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and the semiautobiographical writing, starring and directing turn in "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling" (1986), to the less memorable "The Toy" (1982) and "Superman III" (1983). He also costarred with comedian Gene Wilder in the highly popular buddy films "Silver Streak" (1976) and "Stir Crazy" (1980).
But Pryor was best known for his searing analysis of race relations. "Richard basically blazed a trail for black comedy. He defined what it is. As a young black man he was saying what he felt — and was shocking," comedian Damon Wayans once said.
Called genius by some, self-destructive madman by others, Pryor, throughout the tumult of a zigzagging career, remained an inclement force of nature.