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Richard Pryor

By RD Heldenfels Published: December 10, 2005

Richard Pryor probably won't be thought of as a TV guy. He was a brilliant standup, and the big-screen releases of his standup routines could set movie theaters rolling. He was a very good actor, also mainly in the movies. But let's not forget his TV legacy, which was sporadic but important.


I have to think that the first place I saw Pryor was on ''The Ed Sullivan Show'' or one of the other variety series of the day. It was not the best place to see him, of course. At least one biographer has noted that in his early years he was a second-tier Bill Cosby, and an uncomfortable one at that. Cosby was at ease with mainstream rules, where Pryor was not. Pryor's beauty was in his rawness, in his embrace of painful emotion, risky content and harsh language, and broadcast television was no place for that.


He would later find a more congenial place in ''Saturday Night Live'' but that, too, wasn't going to allow the sort of talk Pryor was by then offering onstage. (The closest he probably got was the Chevy Chase/job interview sketch, still one of the greatest moments in ''SNL'' history, but one where the harshest word comes from Chase -- although the magnificent, utterly convincing reply is Pryor's.)


His prime-time ''Richard Pryor Show'' tried to take risks, but that just led to misery for Pryor as he fought with network censors. While his children's show, ''Pryor's Place,'' was thoroughly charming, no network was going to be comfortable for long with the idea of Pryor talking to kids.


So why should we think of him as a TV guy? Three letters: HBO.


In the days when HBO was making its mark as a place for uncensored content and unfettered comedians, Pryor and Robin Williams were two of the guys who made HBO appointment viewing. Sure, Pryor's contribution was mainly his concert films, but who wouldn't want to watch those again and again? Whether Pryor was talking about sex, his changing racial attitudes or his nightmarish addiction (and brush with death), you had to stop and listen, and laugh, and know you were hearing something that regular TV just wasn't able to try.


That ends the thoughtful, serious-critic portion of this post. Because I also have to say simply that I loved this guy. The closest I ever got to him was seeing his image on a movie screen or a TV set. But I loved the guy.


Pryor lines still pop into my head at odd moments. I smile just thinking about him and Gene Wilder in the bathroom scene in ''Silver Streak,'' or walking into the jail cell in ''Stir Crazy.'' I remember how good he was in ''Lady Sings the Blues,'' and how great and terrifying he was in ''Blue Collar'' (another piece of Pryor that I discovered through pay-cable). And how funny and sad simultaneously he could be in ''The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.'' I remember sitting in a theater for one of his concert films, and watching him talking about the pipe and Jim Brown, and feeling sheer awe.


Pryor bridged generations. My 16-year-old, too young to have seen Pryor in his prime, still knew enough of Pryor's work to be thunderstruck by his death. And as long as video and audio preserve his work, people will continue to find him. Hearing he died, knowing he had been sick, I still felt the urge to use one of his choicer epithets to express my dismay. But there are rules about language here. So let me just say, with huge regret, Richard Pryor is dead. Damn. Damn. Damnit.


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