From legendary stand-up comedy shows to classic movie roles, comedian Richard Pryor is seen by many as a comic genius and serves as an inspiration for many comics today. In 2004, Pryor was voted No. 1 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. In a 2005 British poll to find The Comedian’s Comedian, Pryor was voted the 10th greatest comedy act ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. In his later years starting in the early 1990s, Richard Pryor used a power operated vehicle/scooter due to multiple sclerosis (also known as MS, which he said stood for “More [email protected]#”).
Multiple sclerosis is the most common autoimmune disorder affecting the central nervous system. It disrupts the ability of parts of the nervous system to communicate, resulting in a wide range of signs and symptoms, including physical, mental, and sometimes psychiatric problems.
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During the last 11 years of Richard Pryor’s life, his wife, Jennifer Lee-Pryor, cared for him on a full-time basis. They were together for five years before getting married in 1981, which like many of Pryor’s other marriages, only lasted a year. But unlike any other marriage, Pryor remarried Jennifer in 2001 and remained together until his death in 2005 (she was the comic’s fourth and seventh wife). The cause of Pryor’s death was multiple sclerosis, which he had been battling for nearly 20 years.
In those last years, Jennifer shares in her own words what it was like being a caregiver for the comedic legend:
“I always made plans for Richard, like going to the movies every Friday or to a nearby Zen park to enjoy its beauty. I made sure friends and family came to the house to visit him, including his therapist.
Richard loved going to the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard to perform stand-up sitting down. His bodyguard would hoist him out of his wheelchair and onto a stool. He also loved going to restaurants, even when he wasn’t hungry. He would enjoy just being there watching people.
As celebrities get older they accumulate awards and accolades for their careers. And Richard was no exception. In 1995 he wrote an autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. He enjoyed doing the publicity and it became a best-seller. He won the first Mark Twain Award in 1999. I took him to Washington for the ceremony. Even though he wasn’t strong enough to go on stage and thank everyone, he sat in a box on the side of the Kennedy Center beaming.
His disease required visits to doctors three and four times a week. Rather than make them just medical visits, I’d turn them into fun outings that he’d look forward to. After seeing a doctor, we’d go to lunch or have ice cream, or go to the beach to watch the surfers.
I want to say something here. Yes, there was money to make Richard’s life easier. But caregiving is about some things that money can’t buy, namely respect and dignity.
Richard wasn’t self-conscious about being seen in his condition in public–which is what I really admired about him. He wasn’t ashamed of his situation. But Richard was always all about the truth, making people look at realities. He really wanted to be a part of life. There were other celebrities, and I won’t name names, who couldn’t face what he could. They told me they were too depressed by his situation to come visit. That infuriated me.
Initially, I thought I was going in with my eyes wide open. But nothing could have prepared me for the work and burdens I was taking on. I’m sure that’s true of anyone who wants to help someone who is ill or very old. Every day was a new surprise, a new travesty uncovered, a new lesson learned. My job was a three-prong effort: Get his business affairs straightened out, help him with his living situation and find him the very best doctors, nurses and caregivers.
I had to do my homework, which meant getting referrals from doctors and friends. I had a steep learning curve with lots of trials and errors. I finally learned to trust my instincts. That’s what you do with the people you love.”