updated 12/26/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 12/26/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
In a life of breaking taboos, Pryor never feared that word. Instead he spun it into jokes as he did with all the chapters of his life, including a childhood in a brothel, drug and alcohol abuse, seven marriages to five women and a 1980 incident in which he set himself on fire. One of the most popular comics of the 1970s, Pryor slayed both black and white audiences with his edgy, topical gags. But when he died, the man who changed comedy for performers of all races hadn't been onstage since the mid-'90s. In 1986 he learned that he had multiple sclerosis, which eventually robbed him of his ability to walk and to speak in full sentences. But "Richard was still a student of comedy," says his seventh wife, Jennifer Lee, who helped care for him at his Northridge, Calif., mansion. "He watched Blazing Saddles once a week. He'd roar at it."
Pryor had been weakened recently by kidney dialysis, but "the last two weeks he'd been communicating and happy," says Lee. On the night that he stopped breathing, Lee performed CPR, but Pryor died at AMI Encino Hospital soon after. "His last communication to me," says Lee, 56, who is planning a private memorial service, "was to smile sweetly."
Sweet was not a word often associated with Pryor's life. Born on Dec. 1, 1940, in Peoria, Ill., Pryor was raised by his grandmother, who ran the brothel where his mother, Gertrude, worked; his father, Buck, was an occasional pimp and bartender. "His comedy was born of pain and poverty," says close friend George Schlatter, producer of the variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, "and he reveled in it."
By the age of 23 Pryor was a successful stand-up comedian in New York City. But it was during a stay in Berkeley, Calif., the era's counterculture capital, that he honed his trademark mix of expletive-laced, socially and politically conscious monologues. "He was just more dangerous than anyone else," recalls Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who tapped Pryor to host the show's seventh episode in 1975. His movie pairings with Gene Wilder (see box) turned Pryor into Hollywood gold. He got $4 million for 1983's Superman III—a then record for a black actor and $1 million more than costar Christopher Reeve.
Yet Pryor could never fully escape his demons. In 1980, after several days spent freebasing cocaine, he accidentally set himself on fire in what he later called a suicide attempt. He ran down the street in flames and suffered third-degree burns—but two years later was joking about the experience (see box).
Even as his MS worsened, Pryor looked for laughs. The day before he died, "we were cracking jokes," Lee says. No matter what he endured, Pryor wasn't one to feel sorry for himself. "As a comedian," he once said, "I couldn't have asked for better material."
Galina Espinoza. Champ Clark, Johnny Dodd and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles and Kelly Carter in New York City