The late comedian set himself on fire at his Los Angeles home, resulting in severe burns covering more than 50 percent of his body

By Dana Rose Falcone
March 15, 2019 05:00 PM

Richard Pryor remains known for channeling his misfortune into groundbreaking comedy. But he was lucky to be alive after setting himself on fire in June 1980.

In Paramount Network’s new documentary I Am Richard Pryor, his widow Jennifer Lee Pryor classifies the life-threating incident a suicide attempt.

“He warned me,” she claims to PEOPLE. “He said to me, ‘I’ve decided what to do. I have to do this otherwise I don’t know how I’m going to get out. There’s no way out of this so you need to leave so you don’t get hurt too.’ I knew he was planning something, I didn’t know what. I called the house. Somebody answered and then the next thing I know they drop the phone and I heard someone screaming, and Richard at that time running through the house on fire.”

Bob Riha Jr/WireImage

Richard’s bodyguard and aunt were present and attempted to put out the flames that resulted from Richard pouring 151-proof rum on his shirt and setting it ablaze with a lighter. But Richard, then 30, thought they were trying to smother him, so he ran out onto the sidewalk, shouting: “Lord, give me another chance … Haven’t I brought happiness to anyone in this world?”

The police were called and an officer implored the comedian to stop moving, but he wouldn’t. Eventually, once Richard made it about a mile from his Los Angeles home, the fire department medics arrived and put him in an ambulance to Sherman Oaks Community Hospital, where was treated for severe burns on more than 50 percent of his body.

Before what Jennifer, 79, calls Richard’s “self-immolation,” she remembers he set his bed on fire while doing freebase cocaine (the purest form of the drug, created by heating it to produce vapors for inhalation), an instance she believes was “a precursor of things to come.”

Richar and Jennifer in 1979.
Bob V. Noble/Fotos International/Getty

“I came home one afternoon and I could smell the fire,” Jennifer says. “I went into the bedroom and the bed was on fire. I moved out not long after that. I got an apartment in Beverly Hills and would see him intermittently”

During one of those visits, Jennifer — who got sober after seeing how substances affected her then-boyfriend — alleges that Richard tried to kill her.

“One of the times I visited him, he was high on the drug and he almost killed me,” the Tarnished Angel author says. “He was in a drug psychosis. Whatever was going on in the drug-addled brain, he thought it was a good idea to kill me. If I had had a line of coke or a glass of wine, I might have said, ‘F— you, Richard.’ And that might have done the job. Instead, I calmed him down and I got out of there.”

It also hurt Jennifer that Richard seemed to love his pipe more than he loved her.

“The addiction was very quick,” she says. “I thought that this was controllable. I’d seen him when he had to do a concert film or do a job, he was very disciplined. But that all went out the window when that pipe was introduced.”

The two married for the first time in Hawaii shortly after Richard got out of the hospital in 1981. But they divorced after the seven-time Grammy winner supposedly hit her on their honeymoon.

The couple at the Hawaiian wedding in August 1981.
Courtesy of Jennifer Lee Pryor

At that time, Richard proclaimed the 1980 blaze was an accident, the result of an exploding bottle of rum setting on fire. “He lied,” Jennifer asserts. “And people still say, ‘No, it was an accident.’ No, it was a suicide attempt. It was self-immolation. He apparently had seen some Buddhists on television doing this thing too.”

Richard went on to joke about the event in his stand-up comedy and his 1986 self-autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. That same year, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — and continued to drink and use drugs.

“He was drinking again, taking too many pills,” Jennifer says of when she met up with him in the early ‘90s. “A couple years after See No Evil, he was in New York at the Apollo, it was a tribute to him. I went to his hotel room and there were big bottles, big glasses of vodka. Water glasses full of vodka he was drinking and pills. I said, ‘With MS Richard, this is a fast way to the grave.’ ”

Jennifer and Richard after their reunion.
Chris Whittle/Splash News

They remarried in 2001 (Richard had wed his fifth wife, Flynn Belaine, twice between his first and second marriages to Jennifer) and the couple spent his remaining years working on box sets together and laying the groundwork for his legacy.

The Superman III star suffered a heart attack four years later in December 2005 and died at age 65 at Encino Hospital in California.

“I never stopped loving him,” Jennifer says. “My job was to take care of him and protect him, which is what I continue to do to this day.”