On this day in 1982, Live on the Sunset Strip, the latest concert film recorded by the provocative comedian Richard Pryor, arrives in movie theaters.
Born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor broke into the New York comedy scene in the early 1960s; he made his national television debut in 1964 in On Broadway Tonight. The successful black comedian Bill Cosby was a strong influence in Pryor’s early stage persona, but the younger comic soon broke out with his own unique brand of edgy, irreverent comedy, mostly focusing on portrayals of a variety of black “street” characters and observations about the black experience in America. In the mid-1970s, Pryor recorded two gold-selling comedy albums, both of which earned an X-rating for explicit language and sexual content, and both of which were hits with black and white audiences.
The late 1970s was the heyday of Pryor’s career, highlighted by the release of his concert films, beginning with Richard Pryor, Live in Concert in 1979. Three years later, Live on the Sunset Strip was recorded at the Hollywood Palladium. According to a review of the film in the New York Times, Pryor dressed for the performance in “a scarlet suit, a black shirt and what appear to be gold shoes. He is slightly built, sort of snub-nosed and all restless energy.” In one of the film’s most memorable bits, Pryor jokes about the notorious incident that occurred on June 9, 1980, in which he critically injured himself in an explosion while freebasing cocaine. Police found him wandering in a daze a mile away from his home, with third-degree burns on the upper half of his body, and he was forced to stay in the hospital for two months while undergoing a series of skin grafts. Pryor later wrote, directed and starred in a film, JoJo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) that closely paralleled these events in his own life.
Pryor appeared in some 40 films over the course of his career, and was famous for his pairing with fellow comedian Gene Wilder in hits like Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He continued working despite his debilitating illness, filming movies and returning to stand-up (with mixed results). His last film was Lost Highway (1997). In 1998, Pryor won the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for humor. He died of a heart attack at the age of 65 on December 10, 2005.