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Richard Pryor's Latest Wife: Ultimate Survivor

Mon May 31, 2004
Paul Majendie

The current Mrs. Richard Pryor sure is a survivor. The iconic black American comedian pulled a gun on Jennifer Lee, beat her up and was wired to the moon on cocaine most of the time. They divorced in 1982 but later remarried.

Now she lovingly tends him through multiple sclerosis and the bullets from the gun have been framed on a bulletin board as a macabre memento of tempestuous times.

They share a bizarre sense of humor that echoes his profane stand-up routines.

"He can't pick up a gun and he can't punch me any more so we have made some headway," she told Reuters in an interview to mark the UK release of a "Richard Pryor: Live In Concert" DVD.

"I certainly hung in," she said with feeling. "The worst thing was being hit. That is a pretty ugly thing. It taught me a lot about where I came from."

Comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock hail the 63-year-old Pryor as the godfather of modern comedy, His one-time idol Bill Cosby said of Pryor: "For Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it."

Self-destructive genes abound in Pryor, the son of a prostitute who was raised in his grandmother's brothel. He was raped by a neighbor at six, was kicked out of the army for stabbing a white GI and set light to himself when high on cocaine.

In the 1970s he suddenly decided to abandon the toothless comedy routines he performed in Las Vegas clubs in favor of raunch and race.

Result: By the end of that decade, he was ranked as America's highest paid comedian and one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars. His appearance on "Saturday Night Live" drew record ratings.

He battled with cocaine and loved and lied on a monstrous scale. He has been married seven times, has eight grown children from assorted unions and has suffered three heart attacks.

A wheelchair-bound Pryor made his last film appearance in David Lynch's "Lost Highway" in 1997.

So how is he coping with the multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system?
"He wishes he is still taking everybody on," Jennifer Lee said in the phone interview from Los Angeles.

"There are good days and bad days. Some days he accepts everything and is grateful he is still here and his humor is intact. Other days he is depressed."

"We are all older and wiser. All that stuff from the past falls by the wayside," she said.

Reflecting on Pryor's comedic legacy, she said: "He certainly came at a wonderful time to break down barriers. He spoke about black people and white people in a way that nobody had before. He took the covers off.

"He taught blacks to laugh at themselves. He can absolutely be credited with giving them a sense of empowerment."

But she said his rage is far from extinguished.

"He growls and is unhappy and wishes the hell we were not in Iraq and that the world was not hating us the way it does today. He says America is getting what it deserves."

Copyright © 2004, Reuters