Sat Dec 10, 2005 8:25 PM ET
By Kevin Krolicki
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Richard Pryor, who helped transform comedy with biting commentary on race and often profane reflections on his own shortcomings, died on Saturday at age 65 after a long illness, his wife told CNN.
Pryor died of heart failure on Saturday morning after efforts to resuscitate him failed and after he was taken to a hospital in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino, his wife, Jennifer Pryor, said.
Pryor had been suffering from multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nervous system disease, for almost 20 years.
"He was my treasure," Jennifer Pryor said in a telephone interview. "His comedy is unparalleled. ...He was able to turn his pain into comedy."
Credited for paving the way for a generation of comic performers, including the likes of Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, Pryor began performing in New York in the 1960s but found his voice with an edgier kind of comedy after moving to California in about 1970.
While he appeared in successful mainstream movies, it was Pryor's confessional style of stand-up, in which nothing was off-limits, that made him a controversial star.
Racism was a major theme of his routine and he co-opted a racial epithet in punch lines, although he said after a 1979 trip to Africa he regretted having brought the word into the entertainment mainstream with Grammy-winning comedy albums like "That Nigger's Crazy" and 1976's "Bicentennial Nigger."
"I decided to make it my own," Pryor wrote in his autobiography "Pryor Convictions." "Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness."
Pryor, who battled drug and alcohol abuse for years, also famously joked about a 1980 incident in which he nearly died after dousing himself with cognac and lighting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.
In the incident, which Pryor later called a suicide attempt, he jumped out a window and ran down a Los Angeles street, burning. ("You know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire people will move out of your way," he joked in 1982's "Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip.")
Pryor, who marked his 65th birthday on December 1, had survived two heart attacks, triple bypass surgery and several run-ins with the law, including a 1978 incident in which he shot up the car of his then-wife when she tried to leave him.
Pryor was married seven times, including twice to Jennifer and twice to Flynn Belaine, and had seven children.
RAISED IN A BROTHEL
Pryor grew up in a Peoria, Illinois, brothel run by his grandmother. After a stint in the Army, he pursued a comedy career that landed him spots on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin shows in the 1960s.
He eventually grew unhappy with the "white bread" humor those shows sought and revamped his act with inspiration from the hustlers, pimps and other characters he had encountered at his grandmother's brothel. The result was a routine he later called "profane and profound."
"People can't always handle it, but I knew that if you tell the truth it's going to be funny," Pryor said in his memoir.
Pryor was a co-writer of the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles," but lost out on the starring role to Cleavon Little because of controversy over his stand-up routine.
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."
Other film roles paired him with comic Gene Wilder in "Silver Streak" of 1976 and "Stir Crazy" four years later.
The 1986 movie "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling," was based loosely on Pryor's life and recalled his battle with drug addiction and his own near-death experience.
"He was an innovator, a trailblazer," director Spike Lee told CNN. "It's a great loss."