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Comedian Richard Pryor dies at 65


Will you remember Richard Pryor more as a stand-up comedian or as an actor?
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Richard Pryor

(CNN) -- Just days after his 65th birthday, groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor died Saturday of a heart attack, his wife told CNN.

Pryor, who had been ill with multiple sclerosis, died at Encino Hospital near Los Angeles at 7:58 a.m. PT. Jennifer Lee Pryor tried to revive him at their home before paramedics arrived and took him to the hospital, she said.

"He enjoyed life right up until the end," she said, adding that Pryor had been laughing a lot and was in good spirits in the two weeks preceding his death. "At the end, there was a smile on his face."

Jennifer Lee and Richard remarried in June 2001, 19 years after they divorced. (Watch an interview with his wife -- 6:07)

Born Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor in Peoria, Illinois, on December 1, 1940, the funnyman had long suffered from health problems at the time of his death. In addition to his multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 1986, he suffered a massive heart attack and underwent triple-bypass surgery in 1990. (Watch Larry King interview Pryor -- 3:36)

Pryor was known for his raunchy stand-up comedy and a variety of acting roles, including in "Superman III," "The Toy" and "Harlem Nights," in which he starred with his comedic predecessor, Redd Foxx, and his heir apparent, Eddie Murphy. (Pryor's filmography)

Though Pryor was known as a comic, Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee said he also was capable of serious roles, such as in 1972's "Lady Sings the Blues," a movie that earned five Academy Award nominations. (Watch the serious side of Pryor -- 2:25)

Lee also noted that it was Pryor who gave several entertainers license to inject social commentary into their comedy, acting or art. Lee, best known for his socially charged "Do the Right Thing," said he was "definitely" one of those entertainers.

"For me, Richard was a great. He was an innovator. He was a trailblazer, and the way he showed social commentary in his humor opened up a universe for other comics to follow in his footsteps," Lee said. (Watch those inspired by Pryor pay homage -- 1:48)

Pryor was arguably the biggest name in stand-up comedy during the 1970s, earning Grammy Awards for his comedy albums.

In addition to appearances in almost 40 films, Pryor also was part of the team that created the script for the Mel Brooks comedy, "Blazing Saddles."

He also directed himself in a semi-autobiographical film, "Jo Jo Dancer Your Life is Calling," in the mid-1980s, a film he says refused to be written as a comedy.

But despite his achievements on the screen and on stage, Pryor is often remembered for seriously burning over half his body while freebasing cocaine -- an incident he later dubbed a suicide attempt.

Even that made its way into his comedy, which his wife said was a common theme in his life -- being able to turn crisis into comedy -- and one that scored big with audiences at his stand-up shows.

As his disease became more and more debilitating, Pryor refused to abandon his career. He continued to do stand-up -- sitting down. Many have called it remarkable that he was so determined to keep performing despite his illness.

One is director Martin Scorsese, who said Pryor's resilience was inspiring.

"It's a very savage kind of humor, it comes out of a great deal of pain," Scorsese said.

Jennifer Lee Pryor said her husband inspired many people by being candid about his own strife.

"He was able to turn pain into comedy," she said. "He let the world see it, and that was his inspiration, too.

"People said, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' "

Pryor was married seven times to five different women and has seven children, Renee, Richard Jr., Elizabeth, Stephen Michael, Kelsey, Franklin and Rain.

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